The Plush Life

Garden designer Victoria Fensterer teaches us the ins and outs of how she designs unique, lushly layered landscapes.

HC&G: Do you consider yourself more of a plantswoman or a designer?
Victoria Fensterer: Both! I’m not technically versed in everything, but I know the feeling I want, and I know what is out there. I’m self-educated when it comes to horticulture.

Do you prefer working with established gardens or starting off with a blank slate?
VF: I love it if I can come on to a job that already has great trees. But I’ve done the basic rectangular property with a fence and privet hedge, and I can always change it if need be. If the starting point that nature gives me is limited, then I just enhance it.

What’s crucial in a garden?
VF: Scale is very important. While I love big, old trees, everything has to be in scale. Garden design is a balance between nature, art, wildness, and control. I like to use a lot of evergreens in a landscape, but it never looks like there’s too much because so many other plants are there to balance them.

What formal training did you have?
VF: I trained as a sculptor in college. At one point I had a portrait studio in Amagansett Square, where I did very detailed, oversize graphite drawings—I even have a work in the collection of Guild Hall. My parents were artistic and made a beautiful garden with familiar yet elegant plants like Paul’s lemon pillar rose, mock orange, and standard French lilacs. When it comes to garden design, my training came from just doing it.

What relationship do you have with your clients?
VF: Designing a garden is an artistic process, but it’s important to have communication with your clients, especially on a conceptual level. I start with a basic drawing, sometimes even a model, to create a mood. And if the clients like the direction, then they give me a fair amount of rope.

How did you get the commission to work on Grey Gardens?
VF: Nora Ephron, who was my first client, invited Sally and Ben Bradlee over to see her garden when we were finished with it. They liked my work and were embarking on rebuilding their own gardens at the time. The stucco walls were bare, and there was virtually no trace of the original gardens that Anna Gilman Hill had designed in 1914. So I had to re-envision it for a new family with new requirements. Oddly, I later got another Bouvier job that was the garden at Jackie’s grandmother’s house, which had wonderful arborvitae that had come down in the 1938 hurricane and started growing again.

What inspires you most?
VF: My clients. I am always thinking of
how they will react to flower shapes, colors, textures, leaf sizes—it can all be really overwhelming sometimes. You want a feeling of lushness, but not so much that it leads to chaos. I just want to create beauty and make people happy.