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.

GARDEN VOYEUR: Same Designer, Different Styles in Park Slope

HERE’S AN ILLUMINATING EXAMPLE  of how a professional landscape architect, working to address clients’ unique needs and properties, comes up with totally individualized solutions.

The professional is Liz Farrell of Park Slope, who has degrees in environmental science and landscape architecture, and has been in business since 1994. The clients are, in the first case, a family with three teens, two dogs, and a small budget; in the second, an empty-nest couple with an 800 square foot, excessively shady backyard.


Sunny, tiny (18’x35’) and cost-conscious, this Park Slope garden was originally a rectangle of struggling lawn with a concrete perimeter.

Four years ago, the homeowners called Farrell to rethink it. They wanted an area for entertaining as well as space for their two yellow Labs to let off steam; they also had a desire for a cottage-style garden full of herbs and flowers.


Today, they have all that. Farrell divided the space into two functional areas: a paved half of Belgian block and a symmetrically planted garden centered on a circular area made of salvaged slate. To save money and raise the back and sides of the garden up a few inches, Farrell re-used the original concrete curb that rimmed the lawn. An arched trellis at the entrance to the planted area and a metal tuteur with clematis in the center provide vertical structure, along with two tall junipers at the back.



Bold primary colors on the house extension (a mud/utility room) provide cheer in all seasons.


Japanese holly divides the paved and planted areas. Summer-flowering shrubs (spirea, astilbe, honeysuckle, azaleas, climbing hydrangea, barberries) border the perimeter; perennials (geraniums, clematis, and more) and herbs are toward the center. Pink roses climb the fence on either side of the garden in early June.


11#2 ZEN

This 800 sq. ft. garden behind an elegant row house was a “real shade challenge,” in Farrell’s words. The homeowners wanted privacy while sitting on the deck and a focal element they could enjoy from the kitchen’s square bay window.


Farrell designed a spiral-shaped water feature of pebbles from Long Island Sound, with a simple, low fountain made by drilling a hole through natural rock. The stacked stone bench and bamboo fence, made from rolls of bamboo threaded with copper wire on a wood frame, give the garden a meditative, somewhat Asian feel.



Plantings include white paper birches, wood hyacinth, ferns, liriope, oak leaf and climbing hydrangeas and rhododendrons. The irregular paving stones have moss joints. A stand of bamboo under the metal deck and tall taxus in corners provide additional privacy from surrounding neighbors.