Gardeners in New York City are a little different. They have to be. There are not many apple trees in the Big Apple, and the “concrete jungle” is pure heat-radiating irony. Cities need plants, and just because would-be gardeners live stacked on top of each other in the city of 8.3 million does not mean that they have given up on green. Here are 11 ideas that anyone living with a challengingly small outdoor space can adopt to bring botanical beauty into their lives.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
See the Magic
Above: Sometimes a garden is not what you see, but how you see. In this uncompromising Brooklyn Heights courtyard the sun barely shines–eastern light in the morning, and western light in the late afternoon. But it is enough for an apricot tree to lean gracefully over the concrete. Add Adirondack chairs and a table? There is your garden. Possibility is yours to command.
Wear Rose-Colored Glasses
Above: Vivid color breathes life into tight quarters in Cobble Hill (in this writer’s first, 66 Square Feet garden). And it makes every moment Instagrammable. The paint is Benjamin Moore’s Roseate, a perfect foil for every green. Also consider shades of shocking turquoise, midnight blue, and orange. And dress your dinner table with pretty crockery, fresh-cut flowers, and candlelight. Beauty is at your fingertips. Exercise them.
Green Is a Color
Above: Celebrate chlorophyll. Green is an underrated color in cityscapes, but is the most restful and calming. This low-floor, north-facing Soho terrace sends climbing hydrangeas and Virginia creeper up the walls and along the rails, and uses dogwoods– understory trees at home on forest edges– to create a sense of scale in a space far beyond the reach of direct sunlight. Instant oasis.
Above: Go tall when you have small. Use height to create vertical drama in a confined space. Annual climbers such as Malabar spinach (or pole beans) perform double duty as architectural interest and dinner ingredient in Harlem. Use economical bamboo teepees to support their twining height.
Above: No budget? No problem. Buy seed, plant, water, and wait. Nicotiana sylvestris (a packet of seeds is $1.89 from Botanical Interests) reaches five feet and more by mid-summer and is topped with tubes of perfumed white, heavily scented at night. Try Nicotiana mutabilis ($8.95 per plant from Annie’s Annuals) for varied pinks.
Above: On a South Slope street, urban decay becomes botanical performance art. Bounce yellow sunflowers off a tagged wall and suddenly you have a Thing that stops passersby in their tracks. Boring wall? Arm yourself with a can of spray paint and a packet of seeds and become a garden guerilla. Hate the paint? Tame it with flowers.
Grow Your Own
Above: These are real tomatoes, worth a party. It has been said, many times: But when you grow your own you really get it. The big picture. Just do it. If they can do it here, you can do it. Anywhere.
Vines and Climbers
Above: If you can’t go sideways, you can go up. If you are lucky enough to have real soil, in terra firma, plant a vigorous vine like this East Village wisteria (choose Wisteria frutescens: it is native to North America, unlike the invasive Wisteria sinensis) and watch it go. Bonus–you can eat the flowers (but don’t nibble the poisonous pods). If you have containers, try subtropical annuals like cardinal vine, Thunbergia, and pole beans.
Above: A cottage garden blossoms on an industrial strip in Gowanus. Larkspurs and Gaillardia clash and resonate against the cracked concrete. The curb is the new frontier in gardening. Take to it, with no preconceptions.
Above: Lysimachia, Stachys, and Coreopsis share a summer sidewalk bed. The wonderful thing about perennials is that, after an initial investment of patience on your part, they come back, year after year. Planted from seed they will bloom in their second year, for a window of between one and three weeks (and sometimes longer), depending on species. Choose them for staggered seasons of bloom so that there is always something floral going on.
Take the Long View
Above: So maybe you have a view. Make the most of it by obstructing and teasing it, just a little. Here Clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ rockets up a Flatiron penthouse wall, giving the heart a flutter as the eye is drawn from its up-close amethyst petals to the unmistakable landmark planted uptown.
For more New York City gardens (and a tour of Marie’s city garden, see:
- Garden Visit: 66 Square Feet (Plus) on a Harlem Terrace
- Before & After: A Brooklyn Townhouse with a Double-Wide Garden
- Roof Garden: At Home with Vanity Fair Editor Julie Weiss in Manhattan
N.B.: This post has been updated with new links; it was first published August 2016.