When you live in one of the largest cities in the world, a backyard is considered a luxury. New York's historic Cobble Hill district in Brooklyn has a small-town vibe and charm, with a mix of 19th- and early 20th-century brownstone and brick row and townhouses that are highly coveted. The homes—which have gone from single-family to multi-family and back to single-family again—are on extremely narrow lots. Homeowners and landscape designers must be resourceful and clever when creating outdoor space, using roofs, containers, and walls as escapes and places in or on which to garden.
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Seeking Growing Space in the City
Brooklyn-based Flo's Gardens was contacted by the five-member family of a brownstone built in 1899 to help them convert a neglected backyard into a space that could be enjoyed by adults and children alike.
French-born Florence Sheers and Cecelia Kuhn, the owners of Flo's, transformed the space into a private urban paradise. The friends began their garden design business in 2004 and it has flourished as they've beautified Brooklyn and Manhattan homes with seasonal window boxes, container plants, rooftop gardens, and beautiful and functional yards.
The Cobble Hill project was challenging because "It's a small space and very dark, surrounded by other tall houses," explains Florence. "We focused on giving them privacy and a place to entertain as well as making it safe for the children."Continue to 2 of 17 below.
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In Dire Need of a Makeover
The homeowners had just finished a complete renovation of the brownstone's top three floors before enlisting Flo's to conquer the backyard. A victim of neglect, the yard was a mess and a hazard, with uneven or missing pavers, dying shrubs, and junk left over from the previous owners. It's definitely not a space in which the family's three children could play.Continue to 3 of 17 below.
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After discussing the homeowners' needs and desires for a new yard, Florence and Cecelia presented Sketchup plans to help them visualize the space's potential. While Cobble Hill homes must comply with historic landmark district guidelines, Florence says that garden designers have more freedom with their work. However, fences can't be higher than 6 feet.Continue to 4 of 17 below.
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The Plum Tree Stays
Like the symbolic tree that reaches for sunny skies through the shady courtyard in the 1940s book and film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the ornamental plum in this Cobble Hill courtyard provides its owners with color, privacy, and a touch of nature in a big city. It was one of the few elements from the original yard that remained.Continue to 5 of 17 below.
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Florence and Cecelia focused on giving the narrow yard some privacy and emphasizing materials, textures, and the contrasts between them. That's how they came up with the idea of building a pergola out of rich, sturdy ipe wood. The structure provides warmth, privacy, and comfort while using vertical space—up or down are pretty much the only directions to create garden space in a city. "It is nice to have something over your head, giving a safe and cozy atmosphere to any garden," says Cecelia.Continue to 6 of 17 below.
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The Warmth of Wood
Sun shines through the trees onto the patio. Florence and Cecelia know what works and what doesn't in Brooklyn's sun and shade gardens. "Most urban gardens are in the shade and lack air circulation," Florence explains. "Extreme heat in summer promotes mildew and various types of fungus. So, the soil has to be cultivated constantly, plants have to be treated and the water supply must be closely monitored. Humidity versus heat might be tricky. In terms of plants, it depends on sun exposure. Birch, hellebores, and heucheras are a nice mix. We also like to plant spring bulbs, clematis and when the light allows it, climbing roses. We love to work with everything climbing, as it doesn't eat up space and gives a real 'garden feel' to the outdoors." Continue to 7 of 17 below.
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Softscape: Where to Put the Plants
When it came to softscape (plants), the designers were challenged with two issues:
- A lack of light
- Lack of privacy: the next-door neighbor had a "plunging view" of their clients' yard. Likewise, the owners wanted to gracefully conceal the neighbor's window.
Florence and Cecelia planted shade-tolerant birch trees near the neighbor's wall. Within a couple of years, the trees completely covered the window. They planted a fast-growing Clematis montana ˆnear the pergola, which quickly covered the canopy while allowing the sun's rays to shine through.Continue to 8 of 17 below.
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Focus on Containers
Plants grow in planter boxes, small beds, and containers. Flo's Gardens maintains most of their clients' containers with seasonal updates. Larger projects, like this Cobble Hill yard, presented logistics challenges that many landscape designers face when doing a major remodel, introducing new hardscape, and building structures. Larger objects require wider and easier access to the yard. In this case, the crew's access point was the rear garden. "It's always a challenge to bring soil, long stretches of wood, and all types of construction materials through a small door and narrow corridor," explains Florence.Continue to 9 of 17 below.
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Since the yard is shady or has dappled sunshine, Flo's selected shade-loving plants like hellebores and hostas. Florence and Cecelia are especially fond of hellebores, which is known as the Christmas rose because it blooms early in winter. Hellebores thrive in light shade, but need fertile, slightly alkaline soil and should be planted deeply. They also benefit from an application of mulch in the summer to help form buds.Continue to 10 of 17 below.
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What's Growing in the Garden
Shade lovers come and go, but Flo's recommends ferns, lime sweet potato vine, pink begonias, and blue Torenia fournier. Other plants used in the Cobble Hill yard include Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride' (coral bells), lily of the valley, bleeding hearts, and the above-mentioned clematis, birch trees, hostas, and ferns.Continue to 11 of 17 below.
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Textures: Flagstone and Field Stone
Concentrating on textures, Florence and Cecelia chose original bluestone pavers for the patio and natural cleft field stones for the low drywalls, which also double as seating because of the limited space.Continue to 12 of 17 below.
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Ipe is also used for the patio table and bench, which can be used for dining or activities when the weather is nice.Continue to 13 of 17 below.
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A Beautiful Space
The family can step down into the garden for privacy and the fresh air without having to worry about nosy neighbors peering at them. In a small space, Flo's Gardens created an organic haven through rich materials and plants that grow from different spots and at various levels.Continue to 14 of 17 below.
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A View From the Stairs
The flowering plum tree remained. "It's beautiful so we kept it," says Florence. "We pruned it drastically to give the garden more light."Continue to 15 of 17 below.
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Flo's puts window boxes throughout the space where they are accessible to maintain and make a dramatic display. Plants are changed-out seasonally or for the holidays and many of Flo's Brooklyn clients retain them on an annual basis for maintenance and updates.Continue to 16 of 17 below.
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Front Window Boxes
Flo's Gardens is known around Brooklyn for their beautiful window boxes, which change with the seasons. "Inspiration comes with our finds in the nurseries like a cook would prepare his or her specials with the market produce," says Florence. "The mood of the moment influences colors, flow, of composition and boldness."Continue to 17 of 17 below.
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In addition to window boxes, Florence and Cecelia like to spruce up the sidewalks for some real curb appeal. During the winter holidays, they add pine and spruce cuttings, pinecones, and other seasonal greens to spaces that often are ignored.