Urban Edens Turning Your Outdoor Space into a Garden

A private garden in New York is like a rare jewel glittering in the concrete jungle. Co-ops often overlook their hidden outdoor spaces, but a well thought-out garden can transform a rooftop, terrace or courtyard into an oasis that enhances the value of your property as well as enjoyment of your building.

Planting the Seed

A good landscaper can do much of the work for you, but you'll want to consider a few basic questions before you talk with the hired guns. Madelyn Simon of Madelyn Simon & Associates, Inc. is both a veteran landscaper and co-op board member. Before putting spade to soil, she advises clients to take the following preliminary steps: First, decide on a budget for installation as well as maintenance. Next, limit the number of decision-makers. According to Simon, "Even if everyone on a co-op board has great taste, design by committee is never a good idea. I've found that with more than three people, nobody can agree on a direction." You'll also want to decide how you want your space to be used. Will people use it for sunbathing, or relaxing in the shade? Should it be open at night? Will it be accessible year-round? How much traffic do you expect? Should residents be encouraged to use it for cookouts and picnics? What about entertaining? These questions will determine what kind of plants and furnishings you'll choose, whether you need lighting, how much shade you'll want, and so on. Finally, consider the logistics your landscaper will face. "Sometimes people come in with these gorgeous drawings, but they're completely impractical," Simon laments.

So, Simon says, assess the basics: Is there a loading space? A freight elevator? Will landscaping crews be able to fit large plants through doorways and into elevators? Are there any large obstructions in the space that needs to be removed before work can begin? Is water pressure adequate to irrigate a rooftop garden? Performing a little reality check before you start dreaming up the "perfect" garden will save you - and your landscaper - endless frustration.

How Green is Your Garden?

Once realistic goals and expectations have been established, the next thing you'll want to consider is style. A landscaper is part botanist and part designer. She or he can do all the designing for you if need be. But, as an interior designer once noted, "Nobody knows what they want, but everybody knows what they don't want." Give it some thought beforehand. You don't have to be Frank Lloyd Wright to have a basic idea of what you're looking for. Do you want a sleek, modern design, or something romantic and natural? Should it feel homey and secluded, or airy and spacious? Do you envision a lush, green wonderland or a spartan rock garden? It's your landscaper's job to know which plants are best suited to the style you choose, but the better you understand your building's (and its residents') "look," the better your pro will be able to help you. Take photos of gardens you like. Tear pictures out of magazines. You may not be able to get an exact replica of something you've seen elsewhere, but you'll give your landscaper a good starting point. Both the New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are great places to view samples of a wide variety of garden styles.

Trendy Tulips, Passé Peonies

Like any design modality, gardening has trends and fashions. Simon claims she's been seeing lots of "ornamental grasses, which are beautiful and stand up well to harsh city conditions." Beth Hardee of Town and Gardens, Ltd., a major Manhattan landscaping firm, says that tropical themes are popular now, but, as she points out, "What New Yorkers really want is something unique. They're always looking for the plant nobody else has, so we're constantly searching for unusual plants and building materials." Harde also says that clients often request herb gardens, cut flower gardens or vegetable patches for the kids. Corinna Kettner of the Chelsea Garden Center, a plant retailer and landscaping specialist, reports that bamboo is the plant of the moment and that "Zen gardens" are in high demand. "We're also doing a lot of waterwise gardening and xeriscape gardening - a new technique that requires no watering at all. These are particularly smart choices in the face of our recent drought, and we expect them to become much more popular in the future as water conservation comes into play," says Kettner.

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