The Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens is the jigsaw piece that fits between Cobble Hill to the north, the great, green, greasy Gowanus Canal to the east, and the roaring eight-lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the south (elevated) and west (sunk into a deep trench). It is served by the fickle F train which packs frazzled commuters into worm-farm proximity at rush hour. But as they emerge from the Carroll Street station to a neighborhood of leafy streets with unusually long front gardens, they decompress. Here’s what they see on the walk home: 11 of Brooklyn’s best ideas to steal for any front garden.
Photograph by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.
Above: Carroll Gardens really does have gardens. And there is a real person to thank for them: Richard Butt was a surveyor, a civil servant, who in the mid-nineteenth century planned setbacks on what are now the oldest streets in the neighborhood. I am lucky to live on one of them, and the difference this makes to my New York life is a big one.
To run local errands is to glance at a filigree of clematis on the wrought iron railing down the street, a distraction that makes you forget the nagging thought and smile at the neighbor who planted this vine, and learn her name (Suzanne).
Above: The intention of the humane nineteenth century surveyor has been honored in many of the deep setbacks on the streets of the neighborhood. Behind the old and low iron fences, gardens flourish. In late May irises are in bloom as roses begin to peak in their first flush.
Above: A casually rusting iron sphere in a drift of daisies draws focus in a full-sun garden where design was not an afterthought.
Aboe: This neighborhood rose is prolific and hints towards black as it opens.
Above: For the gardener and plant lover a detour down a side street can be an education. Standing four feet tall in north-facing dappled, dry shade, these long-lasting yellow daisies are leopard’s bane, Doronicum orientale, a European introduction.
Above: A perennial-packed front garden on 3rd Place impressed me on a rainy day earlier in the spring.
Above: It came as little surprise to learn that the gardener, Cinthia Birkhead, is trained in horticulture and garden design, courtesy of both the New York Botanical and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Cinthia planted the garden 15 years ago in a front yard that was then nothing but “patchy grass.”
Alliums In The Air
Above: Cinthia chose plants like these Allium “Mt. Everest’ based on site conditions (south facing, full sun with some part shade areas), seasonal interest (foliage and flowers), and hardiness. “I also think about form,” she said recently. “Small trees and evergreens form the bones. I layer in hardy perennials. Bulbs in spring, grasses and flowering plants in summer and fall. Sometimes I mix in herbs and edibles.” For six years Cinthia also worked at local Boerum Hill garden store and nursery GRDN, known for its thoughtful plant selections, and the source of “90 percent of my plants,” she says.
Above: Around the corner, more “Mt. Everest” floats above above a voluminous planting of electrically blue salvia and chartreuse euphorbia, with a sweet spire shrub at the entrance poised to bloom.
Further east, on President Street, the same striking alliums are offset against the yellows of coreopsis and more salvia.
Above: At Wilma Jean, a Southern restaurant on Smith Street, tall alliums guard a larger collection of planters stuffed with culinary herbs and greens.
A Mix Of Blue And Yellow…
Above: One block south, on Carroll Street, a front garden shines with pale yellow baptisia (possibly ‘Lemon Meringue’) in front of masses of intensely blue Siberian iris.
Above: An unfamiliar plant behind the railing here sent me scrambling to identify it. Over three feet tall, spangled with butterfly flowers on delicate red stems, it is Gillenia trifoliata, or bowman’s root, native to the eastern U.S. and happy in dappled shade or morning sun. Another evocative common name is fawn’s breath.
Edibles And Ornamentals
Above: On the opposite side of the street is a wide garden where roses flank the edges of its fenceless and verdant interior. Three adjoining condo gardens share this space amicably. Polina Siterman has gardened in the central plot for twenty years. The recently retired civil engineer remembers gardening as a girl at the family dacha in Russia, and says, “strawberries was my responsibility. There was a lot of work.” In Brooklyn she grows red currants, a gift from her 92-year-old father (who still gardens, in Oceanside, Long Island), and gooseberries, acquired from Mazzone Hardware, a local hardware store and seasonal nursery. Her son helps her dig and divide “too many hostas,” and she has put an excess of asters on the sidewalk for adoption. “Nobody takes them,” she says.
Above: In Polina’s garden under the high shade of a maple tree peonies and red clover share the space with hellebores, columbine, heuchera, and Montauk daisies.
Above: Phlox and variegated hostas illustrate a classic pairing for dappled shade. The daintiness of phlox flowers is emphasized by the strongly creased leaves.
Flower-Bed Tree Pits
Above: On the condos’ sidewalk a tree pit bristles with fragrant stocks—the work of Polina’s neighbor Valentin Lubarksi, a retired doctor who is also responsible for the healthy hedges of roses.
Above: And as early summer enters the neighborhood, the roses take over the sidewalk and front garden show.
Above: In defiance of their reputation for finickiness, most of these shrubs appear to thrive with very little human encouragement. It is rare to so see someone wielding pruners and rose food.
What would Richard Butt think today? Would he recognize the place he designed? And would he, like Cinthia Birkhead, enjoy waking up “to the sound of birdsong” because of the habitat the neighborhood gardens provide? His garden legacy is a hint of scent, a glimpse of petals, and a sense of enveloping green—proven antidotes to the unforgiving pace of life in this largest of North American cities, and a boon to this lucky, local community.
N.B.: Brooklyn’s in bloom. For more, see Design Sleuth: 7 Sources for Brooklyn’s Most Beautiful Roses and Taking Bread and Roses Literally in Brooklyn.