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Garden Visit: Executive Chef Serena Bass at Home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

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Garden Visit: Executive Chef Serena Bass at Home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

July 8, 2022

Serena Bass may be well known as the executive chef of a trio of successful Harlem restaurants (Lido, Bixi, and The Fox), a caterer whose career was launched by a last-minute dinner for Andy Warhol and 60 guests, and the author of a James Beard Award-winning cookbook-slash-memoir (Serena, Food and Stories – Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day), but she is also a true plantswoman and gardener. “I think I know every leaf on every plant,” she says, referring to the botanical denizens of her garden in the Bed Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. And “garden” should read gardenssss, because Ms. Bass is also an inveterate plant collector, with a designer’s gimlet eye for color and texture. You know you’re approaching the right address when the sidewalk becomes voluptuous with flowers a full two house numbers before you reach her front door. Planted in a collection of containers, this front garden spills seamlessly across a wrought iron railing and up the townhouse’s stoop, while a thicket of shrubs guards the garden level entrance. Behind the house is the hidden and true (blue) oasis.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Author and Executive Chef Serena Bass on her front stoop in Brooklyn.

The warm, south-facing steps of Ms. Bass’s townhouse are flanked by pots filled with fiery hues tamed by cool shades of yellow: orange Calibrachao (tiny petunia lookalikes), daylilies, variegated Pelargoniums and Crocosmia, brick-red Petunias, and dark pink Echinacea, whose international origins neatly reflect the chef’s own culinary scope.

Above: Coleus planted in a tall pot snuggles up to a wrought iron finial at the front gate.
Above: A flame-colored daylily pops against the lime leaves of a trumpet vine.
Above: The tall burgundy stems of Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra bloom on the sidewalk from midsummer to early fall.
Above: “I do love an annual,” says the gardener, referring to her significant and revolving collection of Wave® petunias. These are ‘Cafe au Lait’.
Above: Mesmerizing ‘Black Velvet’ petunias grow with Sedum ‘Vera James’ in a sidewalk container. Petunias from Gowanus Nursery.
Above: A luscious riot of coleus with Sedum ‘Vera James’.

All those containers are thirsty.  “I water everything at night, at dusk,” says Ms. Bass. “The petunias really need it. Watering usually takes me an hour, front and back.” She recently added a 5oth pot to her outward-facing collection.

Above: In cool contrast to its southern sister, the rear garden, facing north, has a very different personality.

Until a year ago “this was solid shade,” says Ms. Bass. The deep shade, created by a towering neighboring tree, caused a succession of four lawns, to fail, “no matter what kind of grass” was planted. She solved that problem with tumbled travertine pavers. But then came some magical sunlight, whose sudden appearance was due to a windfall. Literally. Desperate for more light, Ms. Bass had offered to pay for a tree service to take down the offending branches. Arborists were in those branches when the neighbor changed their mind. Disappointment. Then, two months later, after a storm, “the entire tree came crashing down,” says Ms. Bass. “It was biblical.” Enter sunshine, enough to grow hitherto impossible Clematis.

Above: Before: the garden ten years ago, with new herringboned brick. Photo by Serena Bass.

It wasn’t always this lush. When she moved in, ten years ago, “it could never have been called a garden. It was a yard,” says the English Ms. Bass witheringly. The yard was full of empty beer bottles  (“no Ming”) and the soil was clogged with roots. Another neighbor, John Williams, helped clear it all out and new soil was brought it. Mr. Williams, a carpenter and mason, also laid down the herringboned brick that links the garden and porch (designed by Ms. Bass and built by Mr. Williams).

Above: Beds of shrubs and small trees are punctuated by tuteurs and containers.
Above: Lime-leafed cultivars of Cotinus coggyria and Spirea thunbergii established the palette for the rear garden.

The blues, purples, lilacs, and dark pinks of the garden are orchestrated around the chartreuse foliage of Cotinus and Spirea, two shrubs whose luminescence Ms. Bass found inspiring at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Above: lime-leafed Japanese forest grass and Streptocarpus saxorum.
Above: Mr. Williams, a carpenter and mason, is Ms. Bass’s neighbor.

The garden was transformed again in 2021, when the fence was painted blue (Benjamin Moore 840, Blue Heron, solid stain) and topped with a heavy hawser and finials. “It was one of the many COVID pluses,” says Ms. Bass, who tends toward unaffected optimism. “I had so much time to look at things.” Mr. Williams executed her sketches.

Above: Clematis grows in newly found sunlight. Honeysuckle and a climbing rose are also making their way up to the rope.
Above: Variegated golden hostas in a tall planter become dramatically saturated against the blue backdrop.
Above: In persistent shade near the porch are purple elderberry, boxwood, and Mahonia, with shade-loving Japanese forest grass, hostas, Heuchera, and Brunnera.
Above: Ms. Bass ascribes the success of her Mahonias to “not much wind, a little bit of sun, and bright light.”
Above: Tiger, with Alocasia, on a side-table in the screened-in porch. (The cats do not chew plants.)
Above: The bright porch offers refuge from Brooklyn’s ravening mosquitoes, and keeps Ms. Bass’s two cats, Suzie and Tiger, from outdoor mischief and harm.

The porch is the perfect dining room where friends often gather, to be fed exceptionally well. And it is the ideal vantage-point from which to appreciate the constant changes.

“The honeysuckle is getting up to the rope,” notices Ms. Bass. “It’s very exciting.”

You can find Ms. Bass on Instagram @serenabass23

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