Each conifer lining the road outside Ira Rennert's Sagaponack mega-mansion Fairfield wears a winter coat.CreditDavid La Spina for The New York Times
By Guy TrebayDec. 27, 2017
SAGAPONACK, N.Y. — There’s a cozy covering the Hamptons. Where once winter here meant broad, moody skies over expanses of bare potato fields, the terrain on Long Island’s moneyed East End suddenly looks as domesticated as tea at the Ritz. Drive anywhere in Southampton, East Hampton, Sagaponack and Water Mill and you find lanes filled with oddly humped shapes of trees, shrubs and hedges bundled in burlap against the cold.
Since late November, landscaping crews throughout the Hamptons have been scrambling to swathe precious greenery against the elements, never mind that the weather a week before Christmas was a balmy 55 degrees. While horticultural experts differ in their views of a practice they consider either essential or largely frivolous, “burlapping” has become ubiquitous, a seasonal display of wealth roughly on par with driving a $200,000 Lamborghini in August through villages where speed limits top out at 35 miles an hour.
“It’s gilding a toothpick,” said the artist April Gornik, who with her husband, the painter Eric Fischl, lives just outside the village of Sag Harbor, where in tidy yards gracing multimillion-dollar houses along Main or Madison or Henry Streets, magnolia trees, topiary boxwoods and sentinel rows of arborvitae have been stitched up in dun overcoats they’ll wear until spring.
“Of course it’s social,” said Mac Griswold, a cultural landscape historian and part-time East End resident. “One person does it, and then everybody does it. It’s another thing to spend money on.”
Gilded toothpicks don’t come cheap. Ask Antonio Sanches, a landscape contractor some consider as much artist as gardener. For the last month, Mr. Sanches and his crew have leapfrogged from modest backyards to multi-million-dollar estates throughout the Hamptons, unspooling and cutting $200 rolls of burlap and stitching them into slipcovers for virtually anything green.
“At first, a lot of people didn’t want to pay,” said Mr. Sanches, who arrived here more than 30 years ago from Mexico and who, as he recalled, performed every imaginable kind of manual labor before starting his own company. “But then the springtime came and the branches were broken or the ends of the plants got burned by frost. So now everyone wants the burlap because plants are expensive, and you never know anymore what the weather will be.’’
Mr. Sanches earns $27 an hour for his services and estimates that the cost of winter-proofing an average manicured backyard is roughly $1,000 a season. This is the Hamptons, though, where most things are exponentially above average.
Consider the potential cost of burlapping, say, the 42-acre Southampton estate that came on the market last summer with a listing price of $175 million, or of turning the immense estates lining the most coveted addresses — Gin Lane, Further Lane, Lily Pond Lane or Hedges Lane — into vistas resembling a land art installation.
“It’s gotten a little bit over the top,’’ said Charles Marder, founder of Marders nursery in Bridgehampton. As a specialist in transplanting mature specimen trees whose price tags sometimes soar above $60,000, Mr. Marder is no stranger to Hamptons excess. Burlapping, he explained, has long been used as protection against frost, heavy snowfall, windburn and the deer that have proliferated on the East End in recent years.
“It’s not the owners that are saying, ‘Let’s burlap everything,’” Mr. Marder said. “It’s the landscapers building up the maintenance budget. When it gets to the point where everything is burlapped, you also lose appreciation of the winter colors in things like azaleas, which people think of as a Memorial Day color event but that turn beautiful purple and reddish colors in wintertime.”
Burlapping extends the season for landscapers who are otherwise forced into unwelcome hibernation at the first sign of frost. “A lot of guys that do landscaping shut down for the winter and go into snow removal,’’ said Kate Spirgen, managing editor of Lawn & Landscape, an Ohio-based magazine that covers the $75 billion industry.
Yet for Deborah Nevins, an internationally recognized landscape designer whom The New York Times once called the “sage of luxury landscapes,” burlapping is not only a horticultural necessity but an aesthetic delight. Ms. Nevins makes frequent forays by car from her house in Springs to drive the gilded lanes of the Hamptons, documenting on Instagram the wild and improvisatory shapes she finds.
There are the pointy witch hats dotting the roads and fields outside the Sagaponack estate of the junk bond billionaire Ira Rennert.
There is the 400-foot banquette protecting a yew hedge not far from Grey Gardens, the fabled East Hampton estate that once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s wacky cousins Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale. (It was sold this month by its most recent owner, the journalist Sally Quinn Bradlee, for a deeply discounted price of $15.5 million.)
There are the statuesque arborvitae flanking a portico in Sag Harbor like two upended sugar loafs. And there is the 25-foot tall specimen of magnolia grandiflora in Sag Harbor so delicately boxed up by landscape contractors that it now resembles a 19th-century lady modestly dressing behind a screen.
“Not only is it a very skilled practice and highly crafted, it’s totally needful, not ostentatious at all,” Ms. Nevins said.
Even Ms. Griswold, the landscape historian, concedes that there are far more egregious examples of Hamptons ostentation than wrapping your garden as a gift to yourself to unwrap come spring. “Look at someone like Antonio Sanches, with the shapes he makes and these tiny, meticulous knots, and it’s really quite beautiful,’’ she said. “If you think about it, he’s sort of the Christo of the Hamptons.”
An earlier version of this article misstated Deborah Nevins's occupation. She is a landscape designer, not a landscape architect.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mink. Ermine. Burlap?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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