urban oasis

When I moved to NYC in 1997, I distinctly remember telling my new boss that I was looking for an apartment with outdoor space. We were celebrating my new job with drinks at the Rainbow Room atop the NBC Building in Midtown. He raised his eyebrows, surveyed the rooftops and concrete before us and asked dryly, “Do you see any green out there?”

I actually did find a place in Brooklyn with a small brick terrace that was all mine. I populated the edge with three half whisky barrels of variegated holly to block my view of the owner’s completely barren dirt yard. A tiny café table and two chairs completed the space. It was a little slice of heaven in the concrete jungle.

The prospect of more space never crossed my mind, but two years later I moved into my current abode and was most delighted with one thing: access to a fully landscaped common roof garden. For most of the past 15 years I’ve simply enjoyed the space. Sure, I planted a few herbs and pulled a few weeds, but my biggest investment was growing a couple of tomato plants up there each summer. Then last year the long-time gardener, a woman who lives in our building and had started the space herself probably three decades earlier, said she was retiring as caretaker. I thought at least one member of our co-op board would pop an aneurysm.

“What will we do?”
“We can’t afford to HIRE anyone!”
“Do you think we could change her mind?”
It took me about a hot second to write back “I’ll do it!”

And so I became the lead (though not quite sole) caretaker of a large paved space with roughly 75 containerized plants ranging from small saucers of sedum to a five-foot tall smoke bush. Many of these babies I’d never heard of before, so I resolved to spend the year mostly weeding, getting to know the irrigation system, and adding just a few splashes of color. I made only one significant purchase, this lovely “Julia Child” rose (a little blurry thanks to the iphone 4 photo):

Julia Child Rose

I developed a passion for gardening at a small house I rented when I first graduated from college. The long-time owners had no children and instead spent their decades together nurturing a beautiful yard. There were two herb gardens and a vegetable bed. Hollyhocks, rose of Sharon, tulips, lily of the valley, peonies, hydrangea, hostas, you name it. I grew tomatoes, cantaloupe, green peppers, squash, eggplant (a failure, not a long enough growing season), peas, cabbage, and rhubarb (didn’t know what it was the first year it sprouted!)

Now I tend a very different space. So let’s take a look at the current state of affairs. Here’s a series of  paired pictures, the first taken in very early May, the second of each pair from this past weekend.

The eastern area before:


And progress:


The three pots in the center and in the wooden trough contain herbs that have yet to take off this season and I’m a little unclear if the thyme and sage will make it after this past winter, but I’m giving them a couple more weeks.

Here’s more “before,” also to the east:




The south wall, with ailing climbing roses:




The southwest corner, including some lavender that didn’t survive the brutal winter:




(Forgive the funky floating light in the photo. Still figuring out my new camera updated for the blog!)

More of the west wall:



The white flowers are HUGE alysum and the yellow in the trough are daisies.

And more along the west:




And one more:




I had previously cut back perennials with some help from a neighbor and my bf James. We lost several plants in this year’s harsh winter. Two huge rosemarys died. About half the old-fashioned climbing roses we use to keep people away from the parapet wall are looking pretty sad. We’ve prune them back and are hoping. Some yarrow and coreopsis are looking like they have a 60-40 chance. We’ll see.

This memorial day weekend I focused on one area, a series of five pots on the western wall of the terrace. These:


Which looked like this when I started work on them Saturday:


My predecessor had a penchant for purple, so there’s a LOT of purple on our roof. This year I wanted to add some brightness, so I’m choosing lots of yellow and white. I picked up some purple flowering chives, white geranium and variegated vines to spill over the front.

The first step was to pull up the weeds. When I get to the smallest ones, I scraped the surface of the soil to dislodge everything and then plucked little monsters out a lot more efficiently:


Next, I dug holes for the plants and discovered this:


The chives were seriously “root bound,” a condition in which a plant is left too long in its nursery pot. The roots grow like crazy and have nowhere to go except round and round in their pots. Some plants actually like this condition, like the house plant jade, but if you want a new planting to take to a fresh environment, you have to break up those roots so they’ll venture into the surrounding soil and establish themselves there.

This was a particularly stubborn trio of chives, so I had to cut their plastic pots away, then split up the root ball with a sharp knife. I cut about an inch and a half deep on each side of the four sides of the bottom and pulled the quarters away from the center like this:



The next step before putting them in the ground (or new pot) is to stuff some fresh soil into the center of that root ball so you don’t create an air pocket at the base of the plant, which may allow the roots to dry out and die. And in go the plants to their new home. The trio I picked out looks like this:


And the row like this:


It’s important to water in the new plants when you first put them in the ground, both to give them a drink in their time of stress and to eliminate any lingering air pockets in the soil. I’m happy to report that 36 hours later everyone looks perfectly happy.


Now, about those two empty containers on either end …

4 thoughts on “urban oasis

  1. Holy cow that is a big garden! It looks beautiful!

    I had no idea about air pockets, which might be why my newly planted flowers are languishing.

    • Yes! Air pockets! If you are new to gardening, I highly recommend a book I bought 20 years ago that I believe is still in print. It’s called “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosche. It’s a really pleasant read and tells a little about everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>