Construction changed this New York City garden from full sun to shade, sparking a redesign full of creative solutions
Words and photography by KEN DRUSE
Whether on a windowsill, rooftop, or terrace, or on solid ground, gardening often brings surprises, and the urban environment offers its own variety. We don’t have deer, but there are cats, squirrels, and pigeons. More often, it’s the humans, however, who prove to be most meddlesome. The landlord might rescind his offer to let you garden on the roof—after you’ve carried several whiskey half barrels and a ton of soil up the stairs. On the ground, community gardens grow in the shadow of threatened development. Even the sheltered brownstone backyard is not safe from a teenager who decides to share his or her favorite CD with the neighborhood.
In New York City, some people hunt for a high-rise apartment with a view and maybe a balcony for a couple of potted plants. Others, like Kim Flodin and her husband, Farhan Ali, choose a bit of terra firma: an apartment or house with a backyard. In 1988, the couple bought a humble wood-frame house in Brooklyn, just outside Clinton Hill’s Historic Preservation District. It wasn’t the home alone that attracted them; it was the sunny backyard, 50 feet deep and about 20 feet wide. The house was next to a vacant lot, so there was nothing standing between a garden and southern sunlight.
The house was burglarized soon after purchase. Back then, getting broken into was a rite of passage for pioneers in a changing neighborhood. The couple recovered from the burglary (not to mention the car that drove through their basement wall and into their office), had two daughters, Yasmine and Maja-Lisa, and by 2000, Clinton Hill had become the tony neighborhood it is today. The little house, repaired and renovated, made a polished addition to the block. The sunny little garden thrived, and Flodin and Ali had plans to improve it further. They called garden designer Bill Fidelo.
“They hired me to design a plan that they could implement themselves to make their garden a more user-friendly space,” Fidelo recalls. Flodin wanted to expand the planting beds, which meant shrinking the lawn, much to the dismay of Ali. But lawns rarely do well in city gardens. If the grass lives, it often looks like a bad hair transplant. Fidelo found a compromise and created a plan with a small ellipse of lawn in the sunniest spot in the garden.
Those plans had to be scrapped in 2001, when they learned their little paradise was about to be lost. The long-abandoned lot next door had been sold, and a laundromat was going to be built. The sunlight would be blocked by a 20-foot-high wall. The first impulse was to move. But Flodin and Ali had another thought. They called Fidelo once again to ask for help. But even before he could rework the plans, another event happened, on the day before Thanksgiving 2001-one that Fidelo refers to as “the Big Bang.”
“They pushed down a big maple tree,” Flodin explains. “We were told the tree would not have to come down.” But it did, just missing the house and smashing the deck. They worked things out with the laundromat’s owners, had a new deck built, and added some fencing and a paved patio. “But we were left with a huge, ugly wall [of] cinder block,” Flodin says.
Fidelo started playing around with ideas, including one to make a carriage house facade on the wall, which would have been pretty cool, except for the budget-busting estimate of $17,000. So it was back to the drawing board, and an ultimate plan that would enlist plenty of paint and vines.
Bill Fidelo is known for urban solutions, and often incorporates references to the local environment, such as concrete rubble or rusty pipe, into his designs. He saw the massive wall as a challenge at worst and an opportunity at best. He didn’t want to, nor could he, make believe it did not exist. He decided to view the outside wall of the laundromat as the inside wall of a now more private garden. He chose a neutral taupe color for paint and planted vines like Parthenocissus tricuspidata (Boston ivy) at the wall’s base.
“The minute Bill painted the wall, the garden changed,” says Flodin. Fidelo’s idea was to direct visitors’ attention to colorful shade-tolerant plants on the north side of the garden; this would keep the wall behind them. Today, hostas, ferns, Japanese maples, the shade-tolerant grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, and other plants chosen for texture and bright foliage thrive in the garden.
The deck, off the kitchen on the second floor, looks over a colorful garden. Stairs lead down from the deck to a path that directs the view to a beckoning water feature and chairs at the rear of the garden. “I wanted it to look as if the water was coming out of the building, so I used the same kind of pipe and valve as they did, but it is actually recirculated with a pump” Fidelo says. The water flows into a metal planter, its drainage hole plugged and its interior fitted with a rubber liner.
Telephone poles and wires are disguised by a screen Farhan Ali built and Yasmine and Maja-Lisa covered with copper foil strips in a basket weave pattern. Fidelo even made a chandelier out of plumbing pipe to hang over the dining table. The big eyesore, the wall, fades into a neutral background for the work of lighting art. The chandelier also lifts the garden view up to the sky, which in a small, narrow city garden becomes ever more important, as a reminder that one is really outdoors and part of something bigger.
Behind the Fountain
Designer Bill Fidelo added a simple water fountain for visual and aural interest Its workings are largely hidden when viewed from the garden (see photo on page 58). A peek behind it shows its straightforward construction.