Hamptons-Bashing in the New York Times


South Fork splendor

I HAVEN’T ALLOWED MYSELF A PROPER TIRADE in a long while, but last Sunday’s New York Times Real Estate section drives me to it. Did you see the top story, “The Fork Less Taken”? I read it six days late, yesterday afternoon, while lolling on the nothing-short-of-spectacular, nearly-deserted Gardiner’s Bay beach a seashell’s throw from the house I bought in March on Long Island’s “more taken” fork. While extolling the virtues of the North Fork, the article manages to bash the South Fork in every paragraph, either in reporter Robin Finn’s own words or the hackneyed quotes (“we’re the un-Hamptons,” “…the anti-Hamptons”) she has chosen.

I love the North Fork myself for its farmland and vineyards, which are in short supply here on the more developed South Fork, where I’ve lived part-time for 4+ years and now own two properties. Hey, the photo of the farmhouse in my blog header, top, that I’ve been using for ages now is quintessential North Fork. And I admit to choking on the words “the Hamptons” when I first moved out here, aware of the pretentious privilege they implied.

But really. Let’s not overstate the case, as this piece does. It starts out mildly enough, saying that the South Fork is “starting to flirt with being overbuilt, overhyped and overcrowded” — to which my immediate reaction was, “starting to flirt with”?! It’s been overbuilt since the 1980s; the region is littered with bad houses from that era. But then the cliches and misinformation begin.

“…from the perspective of the average homeowner’s portfolio, owning a home there is an inarguably lovely wish-list item.” Has Robin Finn checked sales prices for the whole South Fork lately, or just the tonier precincts? Here in Springs, where real people live, there are listings galore under 400K, and certainly under 500K.

“..the star wattage of its denizens” “a celebrity magnet” “a mash-up of movers and shakers..”

I move in different circles. I did see Alec Baldwin once at the Amagansett Farmer’s Market, wearing white socks under orthopedic sandals, and I know where Steven Spielberg lives (he probably comes once every two years), and I heard Paul McCartney has a place in Amagansett. But what about the rest of us? The piece makes it sound like every last person on the South Fork “bask(s) in conspicuous consumption.” All the artists and teachers and landscapers and builders and plumbers who send their kids to local schools and shop at the IGA go unmentioned in the piece, which seems to regard “multi-million dollar ocean frontage” as the sum and substance of the South Fork.

The North Fork is a place where “the locals are concerned and sensitive that it not turn into the next Hamptons,” says one recent home buyer. This follows the same woman’s saying that “it makes you feel good that when you buy property, there’s a 2 percent tax that goes to land preservation.” That’s the same Peconic Land Trust tax we pay on the South Fork, for the same purpose, but neither the home buyer nor the reporter seem to know that.

You can get a bay view on the North Fork for less money than here on the South Fork, which is a good thing, but the bay beaches themselves — at least the ones I’ve been to on the North Fork — don’t compare. The Town beaches in Jamesport and Greenport are lousy; the ones around Laurel/Mattituck, on the Peconic Bay, are nicer, but not nearly as nice as Maidstone, Gerard Drive, and Louse Point here in Springs. The Sound is gorgeous but rocky and not swimmer-friendly. The ocean at Orient State Park is a long drive from anywhere but Orient. (Someone please enlighten me about good North Fork beaches — I’d like to know.)

Who are the new “low-profile” citizens of the bucolic North Fork? Those interviewed for the article include a couple from Tribeca, another from DUMBO, and a Wall Street retiree. Where they go, artisanal microgreens and Icelandic sheep are sure to follow — no, they’re already there.

Of course, some of the commenters set things straight. GC of Brooklyn said it best, IMO:

I think this story came out of the archives… Back in the early 1980s, we used to rent several vacation houses for a few days each summer in the Jamesport/Laurel area so all of our cousins and extended family could get out of our sweaty Brooklyn neighborhood. At that time, I recall the area was simple, inexpensive, and as “unspoiled” as something could be on Long Island. Going out to that same spot a few years ago, I saw the exact opposite: what in 1982 were open fields and farms were now housing developments, what were gravel roads were now paved, and what were simple vacation bungalows and cottages were now outfitted as year-round homes. It was completely cluttered, expensive, and ultimately rather depressing. And, calling it the “un-Hamptons” speaks volumes to the Real Estate/NY Times need to place everything in a little box loaded up with definitions. If it’s not thoroughly ruined (read: overpriced and exclusive) by now, it will be soon.

The whole thing is just so annoying Times-ish, but even more specious than usual, like comparing the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side and finding it wanting. OK. Tirade over. What do you think? North vs. South? Game on!

Garden Inspiration: Upstate Flower Meadow

photoOH, THE THINGS THAT CAN BE DONE — or that happen naturally — in “full sun”! Full sun has always proved elusive where I’ve gardened, certainly in Brooklyn backyards but even on woodsy Long Island.

Upstate in northern Dutchess County last weekend, I visited a tucked-away farm where Ethel and Tom Barone grow vegetables for their produce business, and on which Ethel’s mother Licia Sebok, from whom Ethel evidently gets her green thumb, tends a meadow full of flowers in peak, no-holds-barred mid-June bloom. I only had my iPhone with me for photos, but you’ll get the idea.

I don’t mean to minimize human involvement here. There would be no farm or meadow at all if Tom hadn’t first cleared the acreage of trees and rocks. And there’s a lot of knowledge involved. Licia helps things along by knowing when, where and how to collect and scatter seeds, and how to control invasives, but in large part, and to hear her tell it, it seems to do by itself.


Among the flowers, wild and cultivated or perhaps a bit of both: poppies, daisies, black-eyed susan, gaillardia (blanketflower), potentilla, evening primrose, foxgloves, and something Licia calls ‘catch-fly,’ because it’s sticky. That’s the fuchsia-colored flower so dominant at the moment.

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My most astounding floriferous experience since Giverny last June!

Garden Inspiration: Hudson Valley Cottage


HERE’S WHERE I LEARNED WHAT I KNOW about country gardening: a hillside in northern Dutchess County, N.Y. My wasband and I bought the 20-acre property in 2002 and set about to create garden beds on a couple of those acres (the rest is virgin woods). Some of the existing plantings are as old as the house — late 1930s, according to newspaper insulation found in the mudroom wall: a 50’long row of peonies that does its exuberant thing every June, a stand of vigorous old lilacs, a long privet hedge that lines the driveway and glorious trees: flowering cherry, apple, and pear, dogwoods and Japanese maple.


Entrance to driveway, above, with spirea in bloom.


Close-up of the island bed in the middle of the lawn pictured at top. Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) in foreground, a shrub rose in middle, lamb’s ear and catmint and many other things beyond.

But most of what you see in this post is all us: designed from nothing and maintained with great effort, by both of us at first and now by Jeff, who continues to expand the gardens and with them, his never-ending labors (he has a John Deere tractor/mower/plow, which helps a lot).  I was there this past weekend, dividing a few perennials to take back to Long Island and doing what I could to help keep things in check. And taking pictures, of course.


A favorite combo in island bed, above: yellow-flowered euphorbia, spiky purple speedwell, good old nepeta (catmint).


Lady’s mantle, above, so successful here, such a flop in all my other gardens.

Around the back of the house is a mudroom, below, alongside which are a few concrete steps, now extended with slate steppingstones up the hill toward the vegetable garden.


There’s lamium, ferns, and hostas…



…more hakonechloa, lady’s mantle and spirea, to name a few.

This is called the $5 garden, because nothing in it cost more than $5, at farmstands and church sales.


Below, one of many rocky outcroppings on the property, on which Jeff has planted a variety of dwarf species, overlooked by a yard-sale Buddha.


Shade lovers along the front porch railing, below, include big-leaved ligularia and chocolate- colored cimicifuga. In the foreground: evening primrose in bloom.


Astilbe and ferns on the other side of the fence, below.


Totally out-of-control ‘square bed,’ below: the wild rose at left (multiflora rose, I believe, often found on lists of invasives), if not hacked radically back every year, grows like mad and has obscured one of four boxwoods in the corner of what’s meant to be a tidy little showpiece. It has agastache and flowering chives, and there’s a concrete birdbath with two or three different succulents set in gravel.

IMG_1950    IMG_1953

Above: Japanese maples in pots and in the ground, and a variegated miscanthus (ornamental grass) in the raised box that struggled for years in too little light but finally triumphed. The log bench, made by Jeff, was suggested by those at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton.


Above, a mysterious concrete rectangle — possibly a greenhouse or garage foundation from years past — which we filled with low-maintenance gravel (after trying a water feature that was a disaster) and rimmed with pieces of slate. Sometimes referred to as the Zen Litter Box.

Up on the hill, below, the homemade vegetable garden fence is of a mixed metaphor: Fort Apache with a Toro gate.


View from the top of the property, below. That’s the Taghanic range in the distance.


Breathtaking, isn’t it? To see more photos of the same property in other years and seasons, go here and here.

Hamptons Garden Reno: Blank Slate


WAS IT REALLY LESS THAN A MONTH AGO that I was miserable about the cold? You know how I said, whatever temperature it is outside, that’s what it is inside my unheated house?

I’ve got the opposite problem now, only worse. When I got back to East Hampton yesterday after a few days away, the temperature outside was in the 80s… but the thermometer in the living room, where all the windows had been closed, read 92. By opening the kitchen skylight and a few windows, and turning my trusty Vornado on full blast, I got it down to 88. But the misery of such heat provoked yet another crisis of confidence. What have I gotten myself into??

Since this is the seventh older property I’ve owned, I console myself with the knowledge that in the past, I’ve had similar crises of confidence about at least four of them, and I’m pretty sure it will all work out in the end. Meanwhile, air conditioning and heating are a distant dream. My renovation funds, after plumbing, electrical, landscape cleanup, kitchen and bathroom reno, are down to zero. I can’t move forward right away. I’m forced to do nothing. Can we construe that to be a good thing? I’ll be forced to carefully contemplate my next move, forced to adopt the Zen mindset of Sylvia Boorstein, author of Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Forced to swim in the bay just to cool off (had my first swim of the season yesterday, and it was delicious).

And I think a little garden therapy is in order. See below for photos of how the property looked last week, after two days of three guys crawling over it with chainsaws, chainsaws on poles, weed whackers and leaf blowers. Essentially, it’s the same; I’ve still got a dappled, shady half-acre with plenty of tree cover. But now I have room to plant underneath the canopy of oaks, hickories, sassafras, red maples, and cedars. There are still some large piles of leaves about, which I would leave in place to compost but for fear they harbor Lone Star ticks, the season’s latest itchy scourge.

Compare these photos to how it looked last winter. There were no leaves on the tall trees then, so it seemed fairly sunny — but note how the saplings that were springing up everywhere are, for the most part, gone. I spared dogwoods, but I think I have enough in the way of everything else.

One new issue is that the enclosing stockade fence is more visible, and I now understand what the books say about hiding the perimeter of a property to make it look larger. With the fence so clearly in view, one sees exactly where the property ends, and it seems less impressively vast. I’ll be obscuring that fence with shrubs and conifers in months to come, and perhaps tweaking the fence itself. An architect friend suggested slicing a few inches off the tops of the pickets for a straight-across, more custom look, or even removing every other picket, or creating some other pattern, for greater openness. Intriguing concept, yes? (If anyone knows of photos of creative treatments of garden-variety stockade fence panels, please send them my way; I haven’t been able to find any. My email address is on my ‘About’ page.)


Immediate next step: improve soil in a couple of small areas, and start a small perennial bed with easy shade plants dug up and brought down from upstate this past weekend, above — hostas, ferns, epimedium, hakonechloa, and a few blue flag iris — all now reposing in pots and looking no worse for the travel, except for the Japanese anemones, which have sadly collapsed and which I fear may take a while to establish, if they survive at all.







A little garden blogging therapy is in order, too. I’ve got three “Garden Inspiration” posts ready to go, from my travels this past weekend. I’ll be laying them on you shortly, so stay tuned.

Hamptons Reno: Up from Camping

IMG_3638IT’S BEGINNING TO FEEL LIKE HOME around here, though I’ve been unhappy about the unseasonable cold. Memorial Day weekend, it was 48 degrees in my living room. That set me to questioning the wisdom of this whole endeavor — my recent purchase of an unheated house in the Northeast U.S. There’s nothing wrong with having a summer cottage. It’s just that I had naive hopes of stretching the season to five months a year, if not seven. Definitely more than three. Wearing multiple sweaters, a wool hat and scarf indoors, sleeping under two down comforters, and huddling by an electric space heater was not what I had in mind. And though a fireplace is  pleasant, it’s less so in June.



Whatever the temperature is outdoors, it’s the same indoors, especially with large openings along the back wall, above, that can’t be called windows. They have no glass in them, just wood shutters that shut out light but not cold air. What is to be done? Get estimates for new windows! Double-insulated ones, as a step on the road to eventual winterizing (single-paned windows are a special-order item at this point, so rarely are they requested). I’ve had two contractors here measuring. I await their estimates, so I’ll know what I’m in for, though I don’t expect to be able to act on it for a while.


I’m hunkered down in the longer leg of the L-shaped house. My kitchen, above, is cute and functional. I like my new Avanti stove; I’m cooking with gas!  The great room, below, in the shorter leg, remains uncharted territory.


Then there’s the landscape. A few evenings ago, a garden-designer friend walked the property with me and marked saplings and small trees for removal or limbing up. A large number were festooned with red ribbons. The landscape guys didn’t show up as promised on Saturday; they came Sunday morning, and set their chain saws buzzing for about four hours, until my next-door neighbor popped his head over the fence and asked us to desist. I had little choice. Less than half the job was done, but I like what I’m seeing. It’s still going to be a shaded woodland garden, but with room to plant an understory of shrubs and perennials.




Wood chips mark temporary paths

Speaking of popping over fences, I had two unwelcome visitors this past week: my gardening nemesis, the white-tailed, tick-carrying deer. I shrieked and waved my arms madly, and they bounded away, sailing over the 6-foot fence with no apparent effort. Another fond hope dashed.

I’ve had welcome visitors, too — friends who say kind things like, “Ah, you’ve been working your magic!” I feel a long way from magic, but considerably closer to home.


After the rains: sunset at Maidstone Park