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How to Turn a Brooklyn Loft into an Urban Oasis


How to Turn a Brooklyn Loft into an Urban Oasis

July 26, 2013

Summer Rayne Oakes is probably not the only fashion model in New York who spends time tending to house plants. But that’s far from all she does. After getting a degree in environmental science and entomology from Cornell University and moving to New York a decade ago, she has also been a designer of sustainable clothing, a television host, a green-style guide author–and a startup founder. No wonder she needs a haven.

“I think I’m just compensating for the lack of trees and open space,” she says of her Brooklyn loft. “My house feels like a cabin in the woods.”

Oakes, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, shares her space with more than 60 species of plants, some of which populate a newly installed wall garden. The setting is the green backdrop for the weekly conversation series she recently began hosting on her website, summerrayne.net.

Here, Oakes gave us a look at her verdant apartment.

Photographs by Jill Danyelle.

GD: Is it true that you keep more than 120 plants in the loft?

SRO: I actually have over 200 plants: 80 on my green wall alone and over 60 different species. It’s amazing what you can cultivate in such a small space. Here’s a list of some of the species I’m growing: Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum), Bromeliads, Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia), Codiaeum, Diefenbachia, Maranta, Peperonia, Schefflera, Zebrina–and I could keep going. 

GD: What do urban dwellers need to know about plant care?

SRO: Always try to get planters with drainage. If you don’t have drainage, try to get rocks for the bottom of the pot so you can create interior drainage. Add charcoal to the soil to prevent bacteria buildup. If a plant seems to be suffering because of lack of light or too much light, move it to another area of the house. And don’t be afraid to prune: plants often get scraggily and sickly looking; trimming and cutting can inspire new growth.

GD: As an indoor gardener, what’s your greatest challenge?

SRO: I have so many plants now that they often compete for sunlight. Also, some of my plants are almost a decade old and quite sizable, so they need repotting. They require hours of daily work and a lot of muscle.

Above: A fiddle leaf fig enjoys city life in the living room. (For more, see Considering Fiddle Leaf Figs.)

GD: You’re like a mother with a giant flock of kids. What inspired you to garden vertically? 

SRO: I’ve wanted to build a green wall for the longest time, but didn’t have the space. Six months ago, when my last start-up, Source4Style, upgraded from a room in my apartment to  an office, I decided that the room needed a pick-me-up. I asked a friend to help me track down the best in the vertical garden business. I worked with Mingo Design and I have not been disappointed. 

GD: Tell us about the installation in your kitchen?

SRO: My dad was giving me flak for building a wall garden without any edibles. He happens to be really handy, so I asked if he’d like to build a Mason jar herb garden with me using found materials. To be honest, herbs don’t grow well in the jars because the wall doesn’t get enough sun, so I’m growing creeping figs, pothos, ponytail palms, and marantas in them instead. The herbs, meanwhile, have migrated closer to the kitchen windows. But I have to say, the Mason jar garden was the best activity I ever did with my dad, and it was super easy to build.

GD: We like the way the greenery extends to your walls. How did you come up with the paint color? 

SRO: This shade of lime was chosen by my Brazilian friend, so I can’t take credit for it, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I love the way the golden light shines through the tree leaves and reflects off the walls. There is a word for it: frondescence, which really means “foliage,” but summons in my mind great light and greenery. That’s what my kitchen is all about.

To learn more about Oakes’ vertical wall, watch this short film. If you’re interested in recreating her mason jar garden, this video will get you started. 

City dwellers: For more ideas on bringing botanical greens into your life, see our posts on Urban Gardening.

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