Midsummer Oohs and Aahs at New York’s Conservatory Garden

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IT’S BEEN CALLED the ‘crown jewel’ of New York City’s public gardens: see why. The plantings at the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street — different every year — are exuberant. Their unrestrained color combos feel like the tropics; the attention to textural variation makes nearly every spot an arresting visual. High summer is the time to go, though this garden — made up largely of annual plantings, with a backbone of hedges and perennials playing a supporting role — will be fabulous through frost. Combine with a visit to the Folk City and Paul Rand exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York across the street for an ideal midsummer outing.

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Diary of a Suddenly Busy Lady

imagesLATELY, I’VE BEEN RUNNING hither and yon and back again. In the five days since my last post, I put 450 miles on my car — from East Hampton, L.I., to Brooklyn (108 miles), down to Philly and back (150 total), and out to Long Island again today (another 108), plus side trips. And if you count subway miles — well, I’ve been on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan and in Brooklyn neighborhoods from Carroll Gardens to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

<- Colored Rhythm, Sonia Delaunay, 1946, Cooper-Hewitt

A few months ago, I could be heard telling people my life was “quiet with a capital Q.” It was, and even with my highly-developed tolerance for solitude and quietude, I was a little unnerved by it at times. When I began my dual-home lifestyle in earnest this spring, I found myself gardening to exhaustion here on Long Island, then going back to Brooklyn to relax. That program has now been discontinued.

Suddenly, there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week no matter where I am (and I haven’t even been doing any work work — I polished off the last of five magazine deadlines a week ago). I was reminded of one of my English friend Diana’s visits to New York, when she drew a grid, divided each day into boxes for morning, afternoon, and evening, and wrote an activity into each time slot.

Much of my recent busy-ness has revolved around the life-defining events that June will bring (graduations, baby showers, weddings). I’ve been to a Broadway show (Jerusalem: the hype about Mark Rylance is true), a museum (the Cooper-Hewitt, to catch the wonderful Sonia Delaunay show before it closed), a public garden (the Conservatory Garden in Central Park), and three new-to-me restaurants.

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Tin City, a coffee shop/cafe on Lewis Avenue in Bed-Stuy

My new camera, a Canon S95, stayed in my bag most of the time. Taking pictures seemed too much like work. But occasionally, something compelled me to take it out for an airing, like the morning I met my cousin for a spot of house-shopping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

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Love the awning — you don’t see many like that

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A freestanding mansion on MacDonough Street in Bed-Stuy

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Saraghina, a farmhouse-style place with a lovely garden on Lewis Avenue, Bed-Stuy

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Front-yard greenery on MacDonough Street, Stuyvesant Heights Historic District

On Sunday, I zipped down to Philadelphia to consult with my son and his girlfriend about what to do with the somewhat bizarre 800-square-foot space that has just become vacant on the ground floor of their 1870s townhouse. At one time, there was an ice cream parlor/candy store there, but now the interior is as charmless as the outside is charming. There may be wainscotting and other details hidden by wall paneling, acoustical tile ceiling, and industrial carpeting, but we’re not going to find that out right now. The priority is to rent it as quickly as possible to someone who can use the space as-is: a CPA? Massage therapist? Art gallery? The location is prime Fishtown and the rent is cheap: $795/month. Spread the word!

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There’s a vast disconnect between the vintage exterior, above, and the clean but commercial-looking interior, below (it’s still zoned as a store, by the way, and is also legal for living).

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We had dinner at prolific Philly restauranteur Steve Starr’s newest, Frankford Hall, below, a beer garden set in an atrium constructed within the shell of an old brick industrial building. I think German food is the wurst, but who cares — it’s mostly about the beer.

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Dig the funky two-tone paint job on the woodwork of the Fishtown building, below

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Today I traversed the Isle of Long in the opposite direction, arriving back in Springs around 8PM. That’s Accabonac Harbor, below, as it looked last week. Not a bad place to be at all. Think I’ll stay awhile.

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BOOK REVIEW Garden Guide: New York City

M-Greenacre Park 2NEW YORK in 2011 is truly a great garden city. World-class, I’d venture to say. Yet, as Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry point out in the newly revised edition of Garden Guide: New York City (W.W. Norton, $22.95), as recently as 10 years ago, people were puzzled to hear they were writing such a guide. Gardens in New York City? Really? Are there enough to fill a whole book?

<-Greenacre Park, East 51st Street

Irish Hunger D8Now there can be no doubt. In the past decade, there’s been a great flowering, if you will, of gardens and landscape installations all over the five boroughs. There are the obvious, most impressive recent ones, like Chelsea’s High Line — the conversion of rusty elevated rail line into a well-used planted park — and landscaping efforts at the Battery in lower Manhattan, where Dutch designer Piet Oudolf has brought a naturalistic new aesthetic to the riverfront.

High Line D11The book calls attention to gardens that have been around a long time, but that I’ll bet a lot of newish arrivals to the city (and maybe some oldish ones) don’t quite realize are there, including the attractive, well-maintained botanic gardens in Queens and at Snug Harbor in Staten Island, where they are interspersed among picturesque Greek Revival houses.

Even I, a NYC resident of 40+ years, just ‘discovered’ what the book calls “the crown jewel” of New York City gardens — the Conservatory Garden at 105th street and Fifth Avenue, six acres of romantic magnificence in all seasons — within the last few.

Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City ->

<-High Line

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Conservatory Garden

Garden Guide: New York City covers more than 100 gardens open to the public, including the Lotus Garden on West 97th Stret, the only rooftop community garden in New York City; urban farms from the Bronx to Red Hook; and the small plots around such historic houses as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, and the Mount Vernon Hotel on East 61st Street (formerly known as the Abigail Adams house).Noguchi Q5

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum ->

Many of NYC’s gardens are concealed in some way — inside museums, hidden behind skyscrapers, up on rooftops. Probably none of us knows New York City’s gardens as well as we might. This chunky little guide feels good in the hand, fits neatly in the glove compartment, and insures that no weekend need pass without discovering some new-to-you refuge of green.