In Poland’s verdant Masurian Lake District where interior designer Magdalena Keck grew up, everyone gardened as naturally as they breathed. “My parents always had a garden, my grandparents too, both sets, and that’s what they did on weekends. Even on weekdays,” she says. “Nature was all around us, basically.”
About six years ago, Ms. Keck bought an apartment in downtown Manhattan’s East Village–a neighborhood which, to put it mildly, is not known for having a hospitable attitude toward greenery. But as luck would have it, the top-floor apartment came with access to a 900-square-foot roof.
Now a riotous roof garden flourishes one flight up from the blond-wood-and-taupe serenity of Ms. Keck’s indoor living space. Pink and purple plants prevail. “The bright colors are kind of a funny choice for me. But it felt right. I had custom covers made for the outdoor furniture and when my upholsterer received the fabric, they called and said, ‘Magda, your fabric arrived…and it’s pink.’ I said that’s great. They said, ‘We just wanted to make sure it’s yours.'”
As soon as the weather warms up in spring, you’ll find Ms. Keck in the garden every morning and every evening. Let’s take in the view from her roof:
Photography courtesy of Magdalena Keck Interior Design.
On a roof, the less weight the better. In the containers, Ms. Keck uses a lightweight growing medium. “There’s a lot of perlite and peat moss, mixed with soil. In the beginning I was not sure how much I could use to lighten the mix,” she says. “Every time I planted or replanted, I would use more and more and see how the plants liked it. Now the ratio is 50-50.”
The sun on the roof is very strong in summer. After she planted the garden, “the first year or two years we didn’t have irrigation. Every morning I would spend a good half an hour watering. I basically had no choice or else everything would die,” says Ms. Keck. “I would just stand with the hose in my hand–it was very peaceful.”
Among the plants that thrive in the hot sun are herbs (lavender, chives, sage, oregano, tarragon, basil, rosemary, cilantro, and parsley), raspberry bushes, butterfly bushes, and Russian sage.
In wintertime, everything stays on the roof. The furniture gets covered and the plants go dormant. “Some things die, but most survive, even sage and thyme,” she says. In winter, she cuts back plants and adds a layer of mulch for protection. “I don’t cover anything. I tried that the first year, but everything just blows around. It was a nightmare.”
Plans for this year: “I really want to build a trellis above the dining table and will probably add another wisteria to grow on it and create shade above the dining table,” says Ms. Keck.
Ms. Keck planted several heirloom varieties, which give her successive crops of berries from June to October. “I have raspberries every morning,” she says.
Through trial and error, she discovered which plants wouldn’t work on a Manhattan roof. “Coming from Poland, where I grew up in a forested area, I had the very romantic idea of having lily of the valley. But after a friend gave me some from their backyard, they barely bloomed. I had three little ones with flowers that lasted about a week. It makes sense. They grow in the woods. I had to let them go.”
This year Ms. Keck’s mother (“a wonderful gardener”) is coming to visit in April. Perfect timing.