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My Brooklyn Story: Creating a Townhouse Garden from Scratch in Crown Heights

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My Brooklyn Story: Creating a Townhouse Garden from Scratch in Crown Heights

November 2, 2016

I set out brimming with optimism after my husband and I bought our limestone townhouse in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood in 2010. At the time, the house (which had been built in 1893) had nine units and was in complete disrepair. We spent three years restoring it to a one-family house and moved in in the fall of 2013.

At that point, I thought creating a garden would be a one-year project. And despite having never gardened, I quickly managed to wrangle the likes of a prison yard–with 6-foot weeds, hub caps, and barbed-wire fencing–into a beautifully landscaped space, with composted beds ready to blossom into an English garden.

Then came Season Two. I waited and waited. That was the year I learned gardening is perhaps life’s greatest lesson in patience.

Photography by Douglas Lyle Thompson for Gardenista.

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Above: My front garden and stoop.

In Season Three, the garden really did leap–but there still were pockets of major casualties. Expensive ones, like a $275 rhododendron whose leaves fell off in fall and never reappeared in spring.

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Above: A climbing rose grows up the facade next to my front door.

I dove headlong into a diagnosis, but after exhausting countless hours on YouTube and in garden books, none of the advice seemed to fit my particular situation. Was that patch of sun in the corner not enough for a partial shade plant? Did I water too much? Not enough? Is there something wrong with my soil, even though the pH seems to be right (am I even testing that correctly?!).

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Above: A clematis grows on a trellis against my neighbor’s front stoop.

A wave of self doubt crushed my optimism. I was in over my head, desperate for hands-on advice. Hiring a gardener would have robbed me of the joy of gardening; plus, I wanted to get really good at this.

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Above: Some of my favorite potted plants, including herbs and alyssum, greet visitors at the front door.

I wished there was such a thing as a garden tutor, a hybrid expert/fairy godmother who could assess my unique predicaments and teach me to care for my investments. According to the Google, there is not. But then I told the team at GRDN (my favorite neighborhood garden shop) that if my grandmother lived here, she would guide me, but barring that, I was looking to hire a garden grandma.

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Above: My garden grandma, Valerie Strait (R), and me in the front garden.

They recommended Valerie Strait, a most-decidedly un-grandma-like garden expert—they noted—but someone who might be open to the idea. Valerie started her landscaping business Still Gardens with the intention of offering instruction as well, believing that Brooklyn homeowners would be interested (she even has an 11-year-old “student” who helped with a recent garden installation).

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Above: My backyard garden no longer looks like a prison yard.

We worked out a program in which Valerie would “tutor” me every season with step-by-step ways to care for each species. First we tackled the rhodie. Cause of death: planted too deeply, which caused the crown to rot. (It seems so obvious now!)

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Above: Instead of grass (which would not do well in my shady back garden), I have a gravel courtyard that looks good year-round.

And that’s just it—Valerie unlocks the common sense of gardening. She is a natural teacher with reserves of patience.

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Above: Hostas and a hydrangea are happy in my shady backyard.

As we work our way across the beds, from plant to plant, she “storytells” her lessons. I work in advertising; people remember stories, not stats. Now I always remember to tie my spent tulips and alliums into neat little knots, the way her mother did in Michigan.

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Above: I am training ivy to grow in a diamond pattern on the fence in my back garden.

Our time together reminds me of the parenting classes I took before my kids were born. Valerie’s hands-on guidance has empowered me with more than know-how; she’s instilled confidence.

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Above: The first time we explored pruning techniques on my smoke tree, Valerie showed me where to make the cut. It was about two feet further down than I would have cut, and I gasped aloud when she lobbed off the branch.  

I never would have had the guts to do that. But now the tree is a fuller, much more attractive shape. And I’ve since taken my new-found skill (and confidence) to my five other trees, and the neighbor’s, and the tree on our street…and to anyone who will let me have at it.

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Above: In warm weather, potted plants live outdoors in the back garden.

These skills are becoming second nature. The more time we spend in my garden, the more garden maintenance feels like muscle memory. That, and my garden tutor and I can’t seem to stop chatting, which makes learning all the more fun.

For more Brooklyn gardening inspiration:

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