It is probably impossible, if you are an English professor, to look at a garden without thinking of John Keats' "fast-fading violets covered up in leaves" or "the coming musk-rose full of dewy wine"—or without longing for your own fragrant masses of old roses and white hawthorn.
But when Sophie Gee, a specialist in Restoration literature at Princeton, bought a Brooklyn townhouse nearly four years ago with her husband, Lev Grossman, the best-selling author of The Magicians, the backyard was not a space you'd expect anyone to immortalize in an ode. How to put it poetically? "It was a total wreck," says Gee. No more:
Photographs by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.
Above: After renovating the interior of the house, in early 2012 Gee turned her attention to the yard: weeds were cleared, a gigantic forsythia was removed, and bluestone pavers that had been laid roughly along the perimeter of the property were repositioned to create a patio and a garden path that divides the shady side from the sun.
"Lev and I dug many, many bags of compost and peat moss into the bad Brooklyn soil in February while our 18-month-old toddled around in the dirt," says Gee. "We had to carry the bags through the house because it was the only way to get them to the garden."
Above: A year later, "watching it come together this spring was kind of amazing," says Gee, who strung wire across the fence to create a trellis to support the climbing roses.
Above: "This is the first garden I've gotten to do myself," says Gee, who grew up in Australia. "But I grew up with English gardens. Australians are very nostalgic for the European climate and English gardens, in particular, are sort of a gold standard for a certain group of Australian gardeners, including my mother."
Above: A "Before" shot (L), features the unloving bluestone path and a few bedraggled hosta. The bluestone pavers were moved and augmented with additional matching stone to create a patio and center path (R).
Above: On the sunny side of the garden is a Golden Celebration rose. It can be grown as a shrub or trained as a climber; $24.95 from David Austin.
"The sunny side is really only a 20-foot-square bit that gets true full sun. I had to cram all the 'full sun' in there," says Gee.
Above: The couple's three children, who are ages 9, 3, and nine months, "really love the garden," says Gee. They splash around in a little wading pool and are learning the names of plants.
Above: The Willow Cloches are from Williams-Sonoma Agrarian; a set of two is $49.95.
"There were certain plants I really, really wanted to have, partly from reading about them in literature: peonies, old roses, bulbs," says Gee. I'm really passionate about columbines and wanted to have a lot of those. And the sort of trees that blossom."
Above: A clematis grows against the fence.
Above: Hellebores thrive on the shady side of the garden.
Above: When Gee was designing the garden, "I spent a lot of time looking carefully at what the light was doing," she says. "It's quite a tricky garden for light. There’s a woodlands area towards the back where the native trees shade a great deal."
In the woodlands, lady's mantle, variegated Solomon's seal, heuchera, and lilies grow together.
"I had a lovely moment when I was buying plants. I wanted lots of Solomon’s seal, and I went to the nursery and learned the non-variegated ones were really expensive, and I was talking to my mother who happened to be visiting about it," says Gee. "Then the woman who was helping us in nursery said, 'My whole yard is overrun with Solomon's seal and I’m about to dig them out, do you want them?' It was so exciting. She turned out to be a neighbor who lived around the corner, and she gave me plastic bags full. It was really lovely of her."
Above: A shady corner overseen by columbine (L).
Above: "When we bought the house, the back wall on the parlor level where the kitchen is was filled in. Last year, we put beautiful windows there and a door and a deck, so now light just floods into the house," says Gee. "You have amazing views of the garden and it feels like being in the countryside a little bit."
Above: Wisteria on the front stoop welcomes visitors to the house in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood.
Above: "I go out into the garden every morning and every evening, and it’s completely, completely changed our lives having it," says Gee. "It's an amazing thing to have in an urban setting, the ability to watch things change and grow."
For another recently transformed Brooklyn backyard, see How to Crowd Source a Garden: Throw a Party, Serve Brunch, and Hand Out Shovels.