The Outsider: Oversized Roof Terrace in Williamsburg

MY LAST GARDEN COLUMN TODAY for Brownstoner, and I wanted to go out with a bang.
It’s a spectacular 4,000-square-foot rooftop woodland/meadow, all in containers, by garden designer Rebecca Cole.

You must see this…and you can, right here.

GARDEN VOYEUR: Williamsburg Rooftop

This post is adapted from an article I wrote that appears in the current issue of Garden Design magazine. These are my own scouting shots, taken a year ago this month.


THE VIEW FROM THIS 4,000 SQUARE FOOT ROOFTOP TERRACE in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a triple whammy, with the East River, the Manhattan skyline, and the monumental latticework of the Williamsburg Bridge all seen in close-up. It cried out for equally spectacular landscaping.


The client, who is in real estate, hired celebrity garden designer Rebecca Cole to turn the vast, 11th floor terrace into something two people could enjoy without feeling lost in space. Cole, a well-known TV personality and author, imagined the space as a sort of urban woodland, where you can “literally wander as you would through the woods, taking different paths around birches and evergreens, coming upon places to sit, noticing pretty little ground cover flowers.”


It does indeed feel like a natural landscape, which Cole designed by using the existing 24-inch-square concrete pavers almost like graph paper. She started with the trees (clump birch and red maple are the mainstays), “putting them in spaces that feel like they’re making winding paths. Then I figured out how many containers should surround them.”


Cube-shaped metal planters mimic the grids of steel across the river. They’re filled with tough  country-style perennials like rudbeckia, echinacea, Russian sage, coreopsis, spirea, nepeta, and salvia. Sun-loving and drought-tolerant, they are surprisingly happy on an exposed urban roof.


The client wanted a water feature, but because of the windy conditions, a fountain was out. So Cole came up with an architectural solution, simple and geometric — little ‘infinity pools,’ flush with the ground. Here, too, the experience resembles a walk in the woods, where streams pop up every once in a while.


Half a dozen shallow rubber trays, pre-planted with sedums in mixed shapes and colors, form patterned ‘carpets,’ positioned for all-season viewing from the loft’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Container Culture


THERE’S REALLY NOTHING you can’t grow in containers, provided the container is big enough — trees, shrubs, grasses, bulbs, perennials, annuals.

So, if you happen to have a 4,600 square foot rooftop terrace like the one above and below, atop a factory converted to living lofts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — come September, you can have your own prairie meadow, ablaze with golden rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans).

Rebecca Cole, the garden designer, created the look of natural landscaping, with metal cubes containing birch trees and grasses, ‘carpets’ of sedum, and lots of annual color. She carefully planned the placement of containers to break up the vast space into functional areas, and considered the view from indoors.



On the Greenwich Village terrace, below, also by Rebecca Cole, a Japanese maple thrives, along with a lush array of evergreens and perennials, many with chartreuse foliage.



Now for something a little more attainable. First, a couple of humble containers from my own past, and what made me happy about them:

The yellow-tipped hosta in a terra cotta pot, below at left, couldn’t be easier or more reliable. The five orange lilies at right were a free bonus with a plant order. They were stuck in a clay pot and forgotten, except for the few weeks each summer when they would reappear, vigor undiminished.


The perennial dianthus (mini-carnations), below, from a farmers market, were a complete surprise. How well they bloomed had, I think, something to do with the piece of salvaged mirror I placed along the wall behind them. A south-facing wall to begin with, the extra reflected light seemed to enhance and prolong their bloom, which lasted for many weeks.


Another bargain in a pot, below: coleus and impatiens stuck in a shady, bare space among hostas, ferns, and hydrangeas for instant, portable color.


If there’s one good rule for successful annual containers, it might be ‘Stuff it all in there.’ The urn below, created by landscape designer Mary-Liz Campbell at the entrance to her home in Westchester County, has at least five different plants, including cannas, Japanese blood grass, variegated ivy, and sweet potato vine.


Two important things to do with container plantings: feed and water. A lot. Nutrients in containers get used up quickly.

Last, an unpretentious little grouping, seen last spring on an Amsterdam doorstep. Not much to it, really — it’s mostly just one plant per pot — but doesn’t it make you want to go plant up some containers and stick them on your front steps?


BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Prospect Heights Fun House


BROWNSTONE VOYEUR is a joint project of casaCARA and Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, taking you behind Brooklyn’s intriguing facades to see what’s inside. Look for it every Thursday on both sites.


img_8579REBECCA COLE, a well-known, Manhattan-based garden designer and sometime interior designer, decorated the hell out of this 3-bedroom pre-war apartment on Eastern Parkway, with the blessings of her adventurous clients.

A couple in their 50s with grown kids, this is their empty nest. They moved from Connecticut and settled in Brooklyn to enjoy city life, calling on Rebecca to create a place that would be so much fun to live in they wouldn’t regret leaving their former home.


Among the standout features:

  • Brave, bold color in unusual combos like pink, brown, and chartreuse
  • Hand-stenciling on walls instead of wallpaper
  • The use of garden furniture indoors
  • Thrift shop pieces re-upholstered in serious fabrics
  • Playful light fixtures and accessoriesimg_8583


Rebecca reconfigured the space somewhat, removing a wall between the kitchen and living room (you can see the new steel I-beam) and laid new wood floors. The kitchen is all-new; the piece de resistance is a fuchsia-colored Aga stove. img_8603


She brought the garden indoors with abundant use of leaf and flower images on fabrics, wall art, and ceramic tile. The ceramic tile backsplash, printed with floral images, and the desktop in the chartreuse study, bottom, are from Rebecca’s line for Imagine Tile.