Passing the Torch: Charlie Whitmore & Sons

Charlie Whitmore, at center, with his wife Chini and sons Matias and Chico.
Charlie Whitmore, at center, with his wife Chini and sons Matias and Chico.
Charlie Whitmore, at center, with his wife Chini and sons Matias and Chico.

Charlie Whitmore has learned a few things since he began gardening and landscaping at the age of 15. This coming season, which will be his 50th year in business on the East End, Whitmore is passing the torch — more like sharing it, really — with his sons, Matias and Chico. Whitmore and his wife Chini operate their landscape business on Montauk Highway in Amagansett, which this year has changed names, appropriately, to Charlie & Sons.

Obviously your sons will be a big part of your business going forward. How do you see the future of the landscape business in general? How has it changed?

I think it’s changed dramatically. There is a greater level of sophistication. People are more discerning in how they spend their money and they want to get value for their dollar. My sons have come of age under my direction and continue to gain more experience in the business. They’re in their mid 20s, have expressed interest in the business and it’s time to acknowledge that.

What are the biggest challenges for garden and landscape in a seaside community? Is the soil unique from town to town, village to village?

I think you can find all the conditions right here in Amagansett or Southampton or Sag Harbor because of the waterfront nature of the communities. The micro climates are endless. We know the plant material to use and are familiar with the climates, and, in many cases, we’re able to steer the client to material that has the best chance for survival on that site. In addition to the atmospheric conditions, one of the biggest changes over the last 40 years has been the explosion of the deer population.

Coming off a mild winter, does your approach to spring planting change at all?

There was a better survivability this winter with less cold and less damage. We’ve gotten into the gardens earlier to do the correct pruning and clean ups, so we’re out in the field as we speak. It gives the client the advantage of an earlier start this year.

What are some of the most common plants you deal with that survive and thrive on the East End?

I’ve been a buyer for 40 years and I travel around the country and hand-select most of the material we have here. People compliment us on how wonderful the material is and how well priced it is. I think a perennial popular plant has been the hydrangea. People are really attracted to color and the summer flowering plants like cape myrtle, vitex, hibiscus — those plants have become extremely popular for summer and people really focus on the two months of summer.

People became so seasonal, but now the trend is swinging back to some of the more traditional spring bloomers, which has been refreshing. Rhododendron, azaleas and dogwoods are the old classics. What’s really become popular has been organic vegetable and flower gardens combined. They blend well together and we have done that quite successfully in recent years.

Conversely, what are some rare or unusual plants you’ve dealt with?

On a small property in the center of Sag Harbor I recently sold a dove tree, which is uncommon. There are some uncommonly large plants in East Hampton, one particular large magnolia, and several large ginkgo trees that are several hundred years old. And there are some beautiful tupelo trees. It’s just so wonderful to see plants that are hundreds of years old. It’s really dramatic. I try to bring in some very unusual specimens, and I travel all over the country to find them. And, of course, beauty is the eye of the beholder.

What advice will you give your sons about the landscape business?

I learn something new every day. I can’t even overestimate this. My advice to young people in this business, and to my sons in particular, is keep an open mind and continue to learn. And continue to study the business. To the homeowner, I don’t think they have a full understanding of how much is involved in this business. You’re dealing with live plants, there are so many genus and species of plants, it almost boggles the mind. To get a landscape looking really fabulous is really an art.