Creating a Garden Oasis in the City
Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard. But after they moved in with their daughter, Illia, then 9, they realized that the poor layout, overgrown plants and swampy conditions limited what they could do in the space.
“The rear area was damp and shady, so totally infested with mosquitoes,” said Ms. Kawash, 53, a writer. (Her husband, 48, is a lawyer.) “The fences were collapsing under ancient overgrown ivy,” she added, and a beautiful but messy juneberry tree dropped fruit that found its way inside on the bottom of shoes, staining everything it came into contact with.
In New York City real estate, outdoor space is a rare commodity. But creating an inviting oasis amid the concrete jungle has its challenges. Try finding furniture that will fit (and not fly off) your 34th-floor balcony when winds pick up. Or drowning out the constant whine of sirens below. And fixing up and maintaining your patch of the outdoors, no matter how tiny, can be expensive and time consuming.
As a result some would-be urban gardeners end up neglecting the terrace or balcony that was once high on their list of apartment must-haves. Balconies become bike storage. Gardens grow out of control. Terrace landscaping turns to tumbleweeds in the sweltering city sun, alongside rusted grills and sun-bleached toys.
Those with the determination — and the wherewithal — to turn a balcony, terrace or backyard into a functional outdoor area, however, say the investment is well worth it for a breath of air in a crowded city. Here is a look at how five homeowners invested in their very different outdoor spaces, from a tiny Upper East Side balcony to a sprawling backyard in Brooklyn.
AN EXPANSIVE BACKYARD Last year, the Kawash-Coopers finally decided it was time to take back the garden. Working with Todd Haiman, a landscape designer, they gut-renovated the 1,600-square-foot space, replacing a deteriorating brick patio with silver tumbled travertine pavers, putting up a new fence with a blue barn door as a folly, adding two fountains and a wall at the back made from salvaged brick.
“Todd brought us the idea of arranging the space into connected rooms, and creating the idea of a journey to move from space to space,” Ms. Kawash said. “The rear is totally inviting now — it’s shady in the hottest part of the day, with the burble of the fountain to drown out all the city noise, and the trees and plantings block out all the other houses.”
Closest to the house is the dining area and grill, so it’s easy to run in and out during meals. In the center, there are sofas and chairs for lounging, surrounded by native flowers that draw bees and butterflies — “an unexpected bonus,” Ms. Kawash said. “I’m hoping we can attract even more butterflies this year. There is something incredibly peaceful and life-affirming about surrendering to the rhythms and activities of the insects.”
Of course, none of this was cheap. The pavers alone cost $12,000 installed, said Ms. Kawash, who declined to provide the total cost. Instead, she offered, “I would say, more than we expected, but totally worth it.”
A LONG, NARROW TERRACE Relaxation was high on the list for Saffron Shelley, a 29-year-old social worker, and her husband, Armond Miller, 32, who works in finance. Last year, the couple hired Sera Rogue, the owner of Red Fern Brooklyn, a garden design firm, to landscape the long, narrow terrace that wraps around the two-bedroom duplex they share with their dog, Wendell, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “We were immediately drawn to the space because of the potential we saw in the terrace,” Ms. Shelley said, noting the space “was really nothing more than a paved roof” when they bought the apartment in 2015.
To create a “flower-filled chill space,” Ms. Rogue said, she created a “boardwalk-style” deck surrounded by blue Mexican pebble stone and custom planter boxes at varied heights, for their $30,000 budget. “A beachy, Montauk feel led the design,” added Ms. Rogue, who created an intimate coffee space outside the master bedroom, a designated spot for a lounger and a bench outside the kitchen surrounded by flora, to “insulate the space” with color and texture. “We really love the dimension it adds to the rest of the apartment,” Ms. Shelley said.
A TRIANGULAR BALCONY To maximize a small (78-square-foot) terrace with an odd shape (triangular) on the Upper East Side, Amy Wechsler worked with Kim Hoyt, an architect and landscape architect, to create furniture that fit its tight angles. “I wanted a small oasis with plants and a seating area,” said Dr. Wechsler, 47, a dermatologist who lives in a four-bedroom apartment with her two teenage children. A built-in sofa with integrated side tables allows seating for three. A cube with a reversible top (a cushion on one side and a wood surface on the other) can serve as either a coffee table or an extra seat. Planters that line the perimeter preserve the river view. And a synthetic sisal carpet, typically used on boats, was cut to fit the space and hide the concrete floor. While the upfront investment was substantial (about $18,450), the transformation was worth it, Dr. Wechsler said. Before, the terrace was an “ugly, empty space,” she said, but now, “I spend a lot of time sitting out there.”
A CONCRETE PATIO In 2015, Jaylaan Ahmad-Llewellyn moved into a two-bedroom ground-floor duplex in Park Slope, Brooklyn, largely for its private outdoor patio. But at just under 250 square feet and surrounded by 10-foot concrete walls, it was the opposite of inviting. “To be honest, it looked like what I would think a prison exercise pen would look like,” said Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn, 38, who is completing a master’s degree in clinical psychology after working in the entertainment industry. “It felt like a concrete box.”
But Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn knew it had potential. Another plus: “Having small, elderly dogs who were used to warm weather and outdoor space” — Mo and Lala, Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn’s 17-year-old miniature Dobermans — “the ability to have a safe place for them to go outside off leash when the weather is bad was a major draw.”
To add greenery and maximize space, she spent $11,560 on an irrigated planter wall system from EcoWalls, which was installed by Parker, a landscaping company (about $5,000), in Scotch Plains, N.J. Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn also splurged on colorful Ann Sacks floor tiles (about $4,190).
“It feels like a beautiful, private escape from the hectic energy of the city,” she said. “I also love that my planter wall is completely self-sustaining. I am in no way beholden to watering the plants, as they are on a timer with irrigation. They do require maintenance, but it does not require hiring someone or asking a friend to take care of them when you are away.”
After two years of enjoying her renovated patio, Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn has listed her apartment for sale with Ms. Tabor and Kris Sylvester of Halstead Property. Her next move: a farm.
A ROOFTOP TERRACE When Jon and Ashley Gensler moved into a three-bedroom condominium with roof access in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, three years ago, the outdoor space was nothing more than raw, unfinished roofing, said Mr. Gensler, 39, who works in clean energy. But all the couple saw was green. Their vision: an outdoor kitchen on one end and a living and play area on the other, all surrounded by a lush seasonal garden.
“The green roof was a major element of what we wanted for many reasons: to give the feeling of a yard, while still on a roof; to add interest in what otherwise could have been a bare, hallway-feeling space; for the green aspects,” said Mrs. Gensler, 35, who works in home décor and e-commerce. “We also were keen on hiding elements of the roof next to us and even blocking some sound from an air vent on top of that building.”
Working with Cara White, the founder of Elevations Urban Landscape Design in Brooklyn, they splurged on a built-in grill and prep area with a couple of stovetop burners and a refrigerator/freezer. To create a shady spot for dining, they erected a pergola with benches with built-in storage. “We also had plans to put horizontal fencing between our deck and our neighbors’, but truthfully never got around to it,” Mrs. Gensler said. “Plus, we liked our neighbors, so didn’t mind being able to chat across the grill.”
The couple have since moved, because of a job relocation. But as Mr. Gensler noted, “I can’t help but think it absolutely helped with the sale.”