James Topping makes coastal gardening look easy. The 20-acre garden he tends in East Hampton, New York, has belonged to his family since the Toppings first arrived from England in the 1640s. Today, James makes a living off the land, just as generations of his ancestors did before him. His nursery and landscape business, Topping’s Greenhouse, is known locally as a source for bedding plants, succulents, and tropical varieties.
“The land has been a flax farm, a dairy farm, a potato farm, and a horse farm,” James says, but thanks to his hard work those utilitarian fields have been transformed into a lush oasis.
Annuals and perennials flourish in the gardens around James’ cottage. Down by the banks of Wainscott Pond, marsh grasses and purple loosestrife thrive. The effect is mesmerizing. “The sea air bathes them in moisture,” he says.
“Hollyhock is a standout for that sheltered part of the garden―always getting compliments,” James says. “This dependable plant reaches 8 feet high or more when in bloom, and there’s one to fit every color scheme.”
“Teasel is an architectural plant uncommon in American gardens, but well-known in Europe,” he says. “It stands upright through fall and winter, giving an extended period of interest in the garden.”
James, who calls himself a self-educated landscape designer, started training at a young age. “Every day after lunch, my grandmother weeded the perennial beds, and I was there beside her,” he says. These days he tends the colorful beds himself, cultivating cottage-garden favorites such as lavatera, malva, hollyhock, and a double-flowered daylily that has been growing here for 150 years.
Creeping hydrangea and Dutchman’s pipe cover the weathered shingles around his doorways, edging closer to the roof ridge each summer.
“This is a tough environment for gardening,” James says. The Atlantic Ocean lies just on the other side of a low dune, which means that wind, sand, and salt are never far away. Although each flower lasts only about one day, the double-flowered daylily blooms so profusely that it really doesn’t matter. Full sun, wind, salt spray―nothing stops these plants,” he says. “Some are the most intense shades of orange and red imaginable.”
“Purple loosestrife is outlawed in many places, especially along waterways, due to its aggressive nature,” says James. “If you’re not going to wage war on it, you might as well enjoy its magenta blooms in July. It hits 4 to 5 feet tall and spreads like wildfire.”
“Beautiful in pink or white, lavatera looks like malva with a little more refinement,” James says. “It blooms throughout the summer and is tough enough for the coast.”