Craig James Socia celebrates two decades of designing lush Hamptons landscapes. Currently, Socia is working with more than 50 clients which he considers all to be dream jobs.
HC&G: You started out in graphic design. How did you become a landscape designer in the Hamptons?
Craig James Socia: I was living in the city and rented a house in the Hamptons from [garden designer] Victoria Fensterer’s sister. I then met Victoria and started working a few days here and there at Grey Gardens in East Hampton. I worked a full season for Victoria and then decided to launch my own business.
What elements make up an ideal project for you?
My dream job is designing a project, installing it, and maintaining it over the years. Having a good relationship with the client is so important to that formula. I’ve worked on landscapes with wildly over-the-top budgets, but those aren’t necessarily the ones I remember fondly. I don’t see the attraction of dumping a million dollars’ worth of plants into a garden and then just leaving it there—though my accountant might not agree with that! But most of my projects—we’re working with more than 50 clients right now—are dream jobs. The most rewarding thing for me is when clients sell their house and then ask me to create a garden for their new house. That means they trust me.
Are there certain plants you always include or exclude?
There’s a place for every plant. I have worked with virtually everything, but I do love boxwood and use it in almost every design.
Don’t you worry about boxwood blight?
I haven’t seen it on my properties yet. I often work with Deborah Green at Bartlett’s Tree Experts, who warned me about it a year ago. The fungus started in Europe and has become a big problem there and been reported here too.
How do you approach designing a Hamptons garden?
Outdoor entertaining is a big deal, so you need to incorporate spaces for people to hang out in and for those who like to be in the shade. It could range from an arbor to a length of sailcloth stretched over two metal poles to a pergola—and it doesn’t necessarily have to be by the pool. Fireplaces make a nice feature too, and extend the season longer.
How did you get into making your twig-work garden pieces, like benches and fences?
I’ve always liked the hand-crafted, 1800s feel of them—they’re very organic and fun. And because we make them specifically for our clients, you won’t see pieces like these at your everyday garden shops.
What other twig-work pieces do you like to create?
Arbors, pergolas, a 100-foot-long bridge, follies, birdhouses, and other furniture as well. I used to build these structures myself, but now I sketch them out and two full-time carpenters make them.
Most American garden designers are influenced in some way by European gardens. What do you appreciate about them most?
How they moved land and water so long ago is incredible to me, whether at Versailles, the Villa d’Este, or Chantilly.
Do you have a favorite natural landscape?
I did a project near the cattle ranch in Montauk with the beach just beyond. It’s an absolutely spectacular area. The house is on the bluff, and the clients weren’t allowed to touch anything from there back to the ranch. The dunes make you feel like you’re on the moon!