Luxe vegetable gardens gain popularity in the Hamptons

Television journalist Katie Couric (left) in her vegetable garden, where she grows tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, lettuces and herbs, at her home in East Hampton, New York. Vegetables, flowers and herbs at Meadowlark Lane in Bridgehampton, New York.
Vegetables, flowers and herbs at Meadowlark Lane in Bridgehampton, New York.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Television journalist Katie Couric (left) in her vegetable garden, where she grows tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, lettuces and herbs, at her home in East Hampton, New York. Vegetables, flowers and herbs at Meadowlark Lane in Bridgehampton, New York.
Television journalist Katie Couric (above) in her vegetable garden, where she grows tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis, lettuces and herbs, at her home in East Hampton, New York. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The rigours of vegetable gardening, for most people, are humble and gritty: planting, weeding, dirtying knees, working up a sweat and maybe straining a back muscle or two.

But here on the gilded hectares of Long Island's East End in New York, a different skill set often applies: hiring a landscape architect to design the garden, a gardener and crew to pamper the beds, and sometimes a chef to figure out what to do with the bushels of fresh produce.

All that is left is to pick the vegetables - although employees frequently do that too.

The hardest-worked muscles may be in handwriting the cheques: These lavish, made-to-order gardens can cost as much as US$100,000 (S$135,000), said Mr Alec Gunn, a Manhattan landscape architect whose firm designs high-end residential, commercial and public-works projects.

One 2015 project of his in Southampton with a six-figure price tag includes an underground irrigation system, a potting shed, an orchard and a meadow for a cutting garden.

The bespoke vegetable garden, these days almost always organic, has become a particular object of desire in the Hamptons. More clients have commissioned elaborate gardens this summer than ever before, say members of the support staff who toil on them.

But today, growing your own produce is a much different enterprise on what has become some of the world's most expensive real estate.

Two landscape architects said clients this summer had asked that their vegetables be picked, packaged and put on the Hampton Jitney for use in city kitchens. (The cost, US$25 to US$50 a parcel, is often more than for a passenger.)

One gardener, Ms Charlene Babinski, had installed a "juicing garden" for her client's favourite liquid diets.

Then there are the hostess gifts and holiday honey for guests. "One client asked me to make 27 baskets of vegetables to give to her friends," said Mr Paul Hamilton, a Montauk farmer who plants and maintains seven luxe gardens.

Mr Christopher LaGuardia, a landscape architect based in Water Mill who designs raised beds with black locust wood for vegetables and herbs, said his clients were interested in reducing their carbon footprint by producing vegetables that do not need to be trucked in.

"Plus, they are contributing to biodiversity, pollinators," he said. "We discourage the big lawn."

But others liken the professionally tended garden to a vintage car or a Hinckley yacht - yet another means of flaunting wealth.

"I think people have just run out of status symbols," said Steven Gaines, whose 1998 book, Philistines At The Hedgerow: Passion And Property In The Hamptons, tracked the peregrinations of its richest and most colourful residents.

In the years since the book was published, said Gaines, who lives in Wainscott in East Hampton, "it's all gotten more intense - the competition has taken over in all sorts of peculiar ways".

For Ms Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, the roughly 5,000 sq ft vegetable garden - she calls it the Farm - just outside the 1928 neo- Palladian home she shares with her husband, Mr Robert Rosenkranz, is "the centre of the meal".

"We feast here," Ms Munroe said, gesturing towards the flower- fringed vegetable garden nestled on a rise overlooking Georgica Jetty on West End Road in East Hampton. In addition to a pool and tennis court, the property includes a billiard terrace and croquet green. A hedge of Rosa rugosa protects the garden from winds.

Mr Hamilton plants, weeds, hand- waters and harvests the vegetable garden, while four other gardeners work on the remainder of the 2ha property, which has perennial beds, a meadow and woodland gardens designed by Ms Munroe, who hosts self-guided tours.

But at least one vegetable garden of a high-profile Hampton resident is modest. Television journalist Katie Couric grows a few plants each of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes in a 3m by 6m area facing the tennis court at her East Hampton home. She plants and harvests the patch herself, with the help of her landscaper.

Cooking the vegetables for her daughters and sharing the bounty with friends, she said, is "a real treat for me".

Teaching the next generation to appreciate growing one's own food is important for Ms Babinski, a professional gardener whose family began operating a farm stand in Water Mill in the early 1970s.

"When a child pulls up a carrot from under the ground for the first time, you can't beat that smile," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Luxe vegetable gardens gain popularity in the Hamptons'. Print Edition | Subscribe