The Hanging Gardens of Brooklyn

392A FEW YEARS BACK, this 25’x30′ Brooklyn Heights backyard was basically a dog run, with a broken stone patio and a canopy of ailanthus trees.

Now, with the help of garden designer Nigel Rollings, who teaches the popular Urban Garden Design course at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, it’s a verdant oasis on several levels, with one bold, theatrical stroke: a circular wall fountain.42

On September 11, 2001, this space was covered in ash and debris. Soon after, the homeowners called Nigel and asked him to create a “healing garden” with a dining area, water feature, and seasonal flowers.

He chose a circle for the unusual 12-foot-diameter wall fountain because it’s a universal symbol of unity and healing, and it complemented an existing, gracefully arching Japanese maple.39

Raised beds diagonally bisect the space, making it appear larger. “Hanging gardens” vertically extend planting space on either side of the fountain, with cascading mandevilla, fuchsia hybrid ‘Autumnale,’ ipomoea ‘Blackie’ (sweet potato vine), and abutilon.54-hanging-garden

There’s a ‘bistro deck’ big enough for two outside the kitchen door, with a box for culinary herbs built into the railing.21

Plantings are in wet and dry zones. Astilbes, cimicifuga, huechera, and long-blooming annuals like coleus (about  $2,000 worth each season) are drip-irrigated. The central bed and terrace garden flanking the waterfall are filled with drought-tolerant annuals like Algerian ivy and liriope.

Shrubs, including oak leaf hydrangea, Japanese plum yew, and bridesmaid mountain laurel are living screens and space definers.

58-nigel-rollingsDuring excavation of the old patio, workers discovered an archaic food storage chamber, possibly native American. Once uncovered, long-dormant fern spores sprouted there. It’s now covered by a thick piece of plexiglass and lit at night, adding a mysterious dimension to the garden.5245

8 thoughts on “The Hanging Gardens of Brooklyn

  1. Inspiring indeed! Amazing what can be carved out of another light-challenged Brooklyn space.

  2. Inspirational – especially in March!! It must have been difficult to photo, but you did a good job at conveying what it is all about.

  3. This is so beautiful – just an amazing design. Such a sensitive Brooklyn garden.

  4. Very nice although not my taste. If you had written that the garden is located in San Francisco and is a recent redo of the original done in 1986 I would have believed you. Anyway, the garden must have set them back a touch!

    Listen, I have to chime in on this one since I can’t abide from promulgated ignorance: it sounds and looks to me like the “archaic food storage chamber, possibly native American” is simply a dry well chamber.

    I can speak to this knowing both these backyards (our house has the same stone lined mouth to a larger chamber underneath) and a bit about in-ground food storage (both that of my grandparents’ generation…the old “root cellar” and the indigenous food storage methods before Europeans arrived in this region). The peoples of this region, when they stored food stuffs underground, usually dug long pits lined them with bark, put in the food (parched corn kernels, acorns for example), layered them over with leaves and more bark as a lid and then soil over the whole thing. They didn’t “knock themselves out” digging deep pits and building with stone…just didn’t happen. [Iin fact, if it must be known, even in Europe before massive deforestation, there was much, much less stone masonry. Like the indigenous peoples of this region, throughout the Middle Ages, Europeans often lived in wood-based constructions and had incredible skills working with simple tools to make their dwellings.]

    And, to boot, the indigenous peoples of this region relied even more so on wooden implements made by burning and scraping down raw wood. They would harden the surface of wooden tools for pounding corn and nut meals and digging, poking, etc. by giving the tool a final burn. They did the same to make spoons and bowls. These tools took a LOT of time and effort to make and would not be used to dig deep pits in stony earth.

    The chamber in this yard was a dry well which probably had (or still has if you dig around a little bit) a brick conduit leading from the house. The conduit carried water from both the kitchen sink and rain water off the roof. Depending on the age of the house, that one interior drain was at the sink in the kitchen on the ground floor. That’s where the cook and maid poured out the waste water from cooking, dishwashing and washing basins and possibly urine (feces was taken away on carts that came around and did this at a charge).

    Prior to the massive NYC sewage system, the rain from the townhouse roof had to go somewhere to percolate into the soil so it would not pool and flood the yard and soak into the ground close to the house where it might easily flood the basement. Yes, some of it may have been diverted to one, maybe two, casks for later use but so much can come down during a storm that hundreds, if not a thousand-plus, gallons can easily accumulate off a regular townhouse roof during a storm “event”. For example, one of those big summer tropical storms or hurricane drop 4 or more inches in a day. Even a lesser downpour might flood the yard and dampen the cellar if not for the dry well. Even then, the cellars had to remain with their sand “floors” so water would not pool for very long but soak away.

    Today we have materials and ways to store these larger quantities of water more easily (large polypropylene tanks, etc), but the original inhabitants would not likely have had a HUGE wooden water tank with a lead lining sitting in the yard, so aside from one barrel, they needed the dry well to make sure the water from the roof would soak away slowly underground and the fetid water from the sinks would not smell things up.

  5. Wow. Well. I had no idea WordPress allowed such long comments! Thank you, FGG, for taking the time to write all that. I will see whether Nigel Rollings, the garden designer, has anything to add about why he thought the well was archaic.

  6. Hi, not to be a complete you-know-what, but I have to point out that Nigel is from England…and as they say in the Old Country: “He don’t know.”

    If you find a well in England, yes, there’s a chance it’s 500 years old. In Brooklyn Heights, I’m not so sure.

    Unless someone uncovers a fabulous Roman mosaic floor under two feet of townhouse backyard, I’m afraid we’re not likely to find anything terribly archaic. :-)

    It may be that when these rowhouses started going up in Brooklyn Heights, changing it from wooden buildings and an occasional masonry one, these new, closely packed houses required dry wells. Not that the wooden houses seem to have been far apart all the time in the old Brooklyn Heights area, but they may have had more courts and yards to carry away run off. Plus, the streets weren’t paved so that “carried” water away but into, most likely, a muddy mess that all of us today can barely conceive of (unless one has experience with dirt roads in heavy rains)…not fun.

    Maybe the old wooden houses of Brooklyn had dry wells too…I’m not sure…but surely they had latrine pits and other swank amenities by the late 1700s… Also, there must have been quite some effort to capture clean water from roofs, wells, etc. I wonder if they were able to use fresh ground water in what is now Brownstone Brooklyn. I do hear what sounds like an underground stream that is piped into the storm sewer at S. Porland and Hanson Place…

    It may be that at the same time the brick rowhouses were going up in Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene, those going up in England benefited from more consistent sewer service and the streets may have had ditches and engineered storm sewers…I’ll have to look at old architecture books when I get a chance. This might have mitigated a constant need for home-based dry wells so Nigel is less familiar…anyway, I think most of his career has been spent in the US, no?

    BTW, I reread my overly long post from earlier: I was typing fast so added “from” after “abide” which looks a little dumb. Sorry!!!

  7. Indeed, the ferns are gorgeous and so nice they’re volunteers. Can you imagine the whole of this area once being forest with ferns? My, my, my…

    The native area at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden unfortunately gets a lot of noise from Flatbush Avenue right there, but it has a very nice effect.

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