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Dianne Benson: Gardening Stylista Turned Website Entrepreneur

Originally Posted: June 29, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

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A partial view of the elegantly understated Benson garden. Photos by Douglas Harrington

East Hampton - Dianne Benson did not always like digging in the dirt, but now it is her passion. Funny how the Hamptons can do that to you.

Dianne Benson, fashion designer, author, artist and gardener in the library of her East Hampton home.

Benson began her career in high fashion and design, opening her first avant-garde Dianne B. store on the then stodgy Madison Avenue. According to Benson the fashion business was different in the mid-1970s, "It was when fashion was fabulous. It was before fashion became corporate, before power suits, before everything became about money." Incorporating striking architectural design and innovation into her retail spaces, Benson went on to open another Dianne B. and her Comme des Garcons USA store in SoHo, eventually establishing four stores in all. Benson was the first to import and introduce America to designers Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier, while at the same time designing her own collection. Her marketing approach was equally artistic and included collaborations with Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michaels, Cindy Sherman and Peter Hujar.

Her retail fashion business took a significant and devastating hit when Miyake, a designer she had been nurturing for a decade, decided to open his own store, no longer making his label available to Benson. "That is when things began falling like a house of cards, as his designs represented half of my sales." It was during this difficult time that she made her initial move to the Hamptons.

Her foray into landscape design and gardening was purely accidental, when she and her ex-husband bought their first East End home in 1984 in East Hampton on Baiting Hollow Lane. "At first I said, 'Why do I want a house in East Hampton, when am I going to go there?' But my husband at the time wanted it, so I agreed." The first few years in the house were devoted to structural renovation and interior decorating. Then she took a look at the corner acre and decided something had to be done with the grounds. "It was an old, sulky tangled acre, there wasn't even a daffodil in the springtime, not a day lily. It was covered with vines and bittersweet and old cedar trees that had never been cared for. So I decided I'd get some tulips and daffodils, only to find out I had to plant them the autumn before. I knew nothing at the time, absolutely nothing."

Benson with her rare Acer Monumentale.

As is perhaps her nature for passionately immersing herself in her interests, Benson threw herself into transforming her dark acre into an actual garden. "I got really into it, I really got into learning everything I could. I tried to find gardening books that were meaningful, but either they were about these fabulous gardens in England or they were too horticultural or too mechanical. Anyway, I would read anything I could find and I would get up early Saturday mornings, which was unusual for me, and I would haunt the nurseries with books in hand. I started grouping white plants together and then blue plants together, I started pushing the woods back. I got so into it, I started not wanting to go back to Manhattan."

At this time various changes were happening in the fashion industry and as Benson put it, "It became less and less about art." So she closed her stores and found herself spending more and more time in East Hampton. "I had become obsessed with this garden. I kept scrapbooks and journals and continued to learn all I could, teaching myself. I would, of course, go on all the gardening tours and I was introduced to Howard Purcell, who was the guru of the Art Garden Tours. He came to see my garden and said, 'You know this is a very interesting garden, it is very artistic, very different.' At the time I had no help, I had done everything myself. He told me that he was going to include my garden on the tour the next year. So I just threw my whole being into making it ready for this garden tour."

The tour came and they loved Benson's garden, finding it very unique and artistically special. It was at this time that she decided to write her enormously popular book, "Dirt, The Lowdown On Growing A Garden With Style" (1994). "It was then that I totally extricated myself from the world of fashion." The book is a basic how-to guide to start a garden from scratch, written by someone who did, but also had a lifetime of artistic expression and style.

With her advance she hired her first garden helper. "Since then, I have been committed to a different way of life. I have been trying to finish another book, but I am just so caught up in my life in the Hamptons, my life in the garden." Caught up indeed, as Benson is a Founding Board Member and Trustee of Robert Wilson's Water Mill Center and Co-President of the LongHouse Reserve sculpture garden, learning center and arboretum, among her other cultural and charitable activities. Although she has a pied-a- terre in Beekman Place, "My life is now in East Hampton. I am active in the church, St. Luke's, I love living in a town where I know so many good people, people I run into everyday. It is fantastic."

Benson with her favorite Japanese clippers in hand, pruning her beautiful Sargent's Weeping Hemlock.


After her marriage ended Benson moved from the Baiting Hollow Lane house to her present, pardon the pun, digs on David's Lane in East Hampton, which she shares with her partner, her teenage daughter and her Cavalier spaniel, Flora Pandora. With the exception of a few specimens that came with her, she had to essentially, yet again, start a garden from scratch.

Upon arriving for our interview I took the tour and can only describe Benson's garden as simultaneously breathtaking and artistic, yet beautifully, elegantly understated. It is lush and layered in a way which this horticultural novice can only describe as gardens beneath gardens. Two of the hundreds of specimens that particularly stood out for me were an Italian native Acer Monumentale and a Sargent's Weeping Hemlock, which was one of the few specimens that came over from her original garden. Unfortunately, the night before our interview the deers found their way in and ate many of the blooms, which Benson was attempting to salvage, using her favorite Japanese clippers.

Upon first meeting her that afternoon it was immediately obvious that Benson was a walking advertisement for her latest endeavor and a firm believer in "practice what you preach." Recently launched, Benson's website, www.diannebbest.com, offers her picks for the 10 essentials for gardening with style. She had her Japanese clippers in hand, and her Felco holstered in her self-designed gardening belt. At her side was her Benson designed yard bag and on her feet were the unique French gardening boots offered on her website. The other half of her tried and true gardening choices are a trowel, little black gloves, plant markers, a pure steel shovel and a unique roll of British made plant tyeing material.

The website is beautifully designed and user friendly. The descriptions are written with Benson's usual wit and style and her choices are, indeed, 10 essentials that should get any novice started and become the coveted tools and accessories of even the most seasoned gardener. Beyond all that, the items are priced right, obviously with the present economy in consideration. "I wanted to zero in on 10 things I truly believed in, they are honest and timeless, not things that are 'in fashion' and you need or want to replace in three months." These are not just gardening essentials, they are old friends that Benson herself truly believes in and that she and her fellow gardeners cannot be without.

In a time of challenging economic and political conditions, many of us are considering what we have, as opposed to what we want. Perhaps reveling in the simpler pleasures of home, hearth and garden. If the latter is the case, dig in! However, before you do you may want to find Dianne Benson's book "Dirt" and go to www.diannebbest.com to equip yourself before you get started.


Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor and Director of Business Development at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline




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Guest (Sonia Niki) from Brooklyn, NY says::
Hi Dianne,love your garden, mine is much smaller but it brings me and who ever comes in so much pleasure it is like my island in a middle of the ocean.I grow grapes in Brooklyn Heights and make jam with it. I miss working with you.I hope one day I see you again.
Apr 18, 2012 11:32 pm

Guest (Anne Enke) from New York City says::
Hi Dianne. Love your story and WSJ video, too. Good luck! Anne http://www.aocshop.com/journal/dianne-benson-true-grit-gardener-woman.html
Apr 29, 2010 6:56 am

Guest (donna reale) from hillsboro beach,florida says::
Once again, your wonderland has captured my heart and my head is in a let's get the old books and tools out and start your garden mood. After all I was taught by the best,
Jul 5, 2009 11:44 am

Guest (Dianne B) from East Hampton says::
The tall (you can't see it all in the photo, about 35 feet) fastigiate (skinny) maple is 'Acer monumentale'. And it was the ARF Garden Tour that Howard Purcell deemed my garden worthy of... I love this article...am so glad that Doug was not turned off by my depression over the deer devastation. Can you imagine that they are right here on Davids Lane?
Jun 30, 2009 11:54 am

 

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