It's spring, and while urban gardeners may have only a few feet in which to celebrate -- be it one skinny window box, a sweltering four-foot rooftop garden, or a shady townhouse Eden -- it pays to savor every centimeter. As landscape architect Kevin Gerard points out, "urban gardening is, by its nature, intense gardening, because every inch counts." The following advice and tips from the city's top landscape architects and garden designers will help point you to the best solutions, and the best resources, to develop and enjoy your own little patch of green.
Even if your apartment's stuffed to the ceiling on the inside, there's at least room enough to hang a planter on the outside. For humble window boxes, take the advice of full-service garden designer Maggy Geiger of the Window Box (686-5382) -- who's worked with the likes of Madonna, Richard Avedon, and Barbra Streisand -- and try out helichrysum, a velvety, tall, silver plant, or spider plants and asparagus ferns as alternatives to trailing plants like ivy. Both Geiger and landscape architect Edwina von Gal (718-706-6007) suggest succulents for your smaller planters. "Their root systems are minuscule," says Von Gal, "and their water requirements are in keeping with your lifestyle -- they prefer to be forgotten." Echeveria, which resembles a rose and combines beautifully with alyssum, works well in planters, and some aloes can survive the winter if you bring them indoors into at least medium light. Another plant that works well in containers is scaevola, which blooms all summer with large violet flowers and was first carried in this area by Home Depot (various locations; 718-369-8400 for Brooklyn), also a great source for cheap and healthy hanging baskets. (Call ahead to see when new shipments come in.)
For consistently high-quality strains of window-box-worthy annuals like ranunculuses, pansies, and dianthus, and the best selection during off-season times, landscape architect Signe Nielsen (431-3609) recommends taking the easy trip to Nabel's Nurseries (1485 Mamaroneck Avenue, White Plains; 914-949-3963), where five acres and thirteen greenhouses, plus a 40-acre growing facility in Dover Plains, ensure you won't go home empty-handed. Or stay in the city and swing by the Chelsea Garden Center (205 Ninth Avenue, at 22nd Street; 929-2477), which has a large urban-horticulture library, a helpful staff, and the best-quality plants, from lady's-slipper orchids to nine-foot-tall Jack Monty trees. The high-end nursery also designs, installs, and maintains city gardens, from mowing lawns to seasonal cleanup ($150 for two men for one hour). Or mail-order the appropriately small, excellent plant specimens from Roslyn Nursery (211 Burrs Lane, Dix Hills, N.Y.; 516-643-9347), a horticultural heaven with unusual varieties of rhododendrons.
Since the harsh conditions that prevail here year-round can limit growth and even survival on terraces and in window boxes, it's sometimes easier to see your urban garden as an annual effort that will die off completely every winter. Gardener Roger Miller (662-6142) likes to plant herbs because they work well in small planters, smell good, and love lots of sun. Stop by the Union Square Greenmarket to pick up basil, rosemary, chives, tarragon, and thyme. For terraces, Miller favors birches and water-tolerant junipers as well as ornamental gourds and squashes. Landscape architect Kevin Gerard (Studio Gerard; 718-399-6998) urges gardeners to experiment with deciduous plants that have unusual branching habits, like black locust and staghorn sumac. With changing leaves and blossoms, these perennials add more excitement to your garden; since you'll probably spend the colder months indoors, you needn't worry about how bare they look in winter.
Signe Nielsen, whose clients range from Woody Allen and Mort Zuckerman to P.S. 1 (she charges anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 for backyards and terraces), has found that people in the city don't realize how big trees get, and soon have too much shade or weight for their space. For rooftop gardens and terraces, she recommends smaller trees like the Yoshinoi cherry, the Leonard Messel magnolia, or the paperbark maple, which have attractive bark and flowers that provide an elegant year-round focus.
Garden designer Mary Riley Smith (496-2535) uses Kousa dogwoods and crab apples in her rooftop and terrace designs because they bloom nicely in spring, can stand up to wind and heavy sun, and turn a deep-red color in fall. For the largest selection of trees and shrubs, stop by the 101-year-old, sixteen-acre Rosedale Nursery (51 Saw Mill River Road, Hawthorne, N.Y.; 914-769-1300).
Make sure you use the right soil to give your plants all the nutrients they need. Edwina von Gal's favorite brand is 1881 Select (though it may be too heavy for rooftops), and Lonnie Zamora (Zamora and Company, Inc.; 254-4604) prefers to add organic matter to MetroMix to keep the weight down. Zamora's favorite one-stop spot in the city is the Upper East Side's Dimitri Nurseries (1992 Second Avenue, near 102nd Street; 876-3996), the largest garden center in Manhattan, with 15,000 square feet of everything you'd need, from bonsais to birdbaths, soil to seeds. Its small-town feel -- and reasonable prices -- will make you forget you're in the city.
For larger planters, Mary Riley Smith recommends using an evergreen backdrop of hedges like taxus or Ilex crenata, then highlighting with terrace-hearty flowering annuals like salvias or petunias up front for color. Jeff Mendoza of J. Mendoza Gardens (686-6721), known for his unusual, inventive color combinations, aims to capture the "contemplative quality of Japanese gardens," and often uses galvanized sheet metal to create custom lightweight, rust-free planters. Small Japanese maples can help you achieve this effect yourself and are hearty enough to survive city life, as is the tough and graceful Miscanthus sinensis, a tall, arching grass that blows nicely in the wind. Mendoza installs and maintains every garden he designs (prices starts at $10,000; maintenance is $50 an hour), changing the plant and flower combinations every year to allow each garden to evolve.
For shady townhouse greenery, garden designer James Johnson (Green Earth Gardens; 718-836-1754), chairman and landscape designer of the four-and-a-half-acre Narrows Botanical Gardens, finds that Allegheny spurge, a perennial ground cover, works well, as does the hummingbird variety of Clethra (sweet pepper bush), a shrub with white, spiky flowers. Johnson, who specializes in native plants and fragrant gardens, also recommends the silvery Elaeagnus pungens, an evergreen shrub that tolerates the high levels of salt often found in city soil and smells of gardenias in October (when nothing else is blooming).
Johnson likes to stop by the largely undiscovered G and D Landscaping and Nursery (2139 57th Street, off 21st Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-256-7600), tucked away on a dead-end street in Borough Park, for large perennials, and Bay Parkway Nursery (2151 57th Street; 718-259-4449) next door for annuals and houseplants.
A few tips to remember when shopping for plants: Whenever possible, go on weekdays, when you're guaranteed more attention; bring a photo of your garden with you, and make sure you know which direction it faces.
And as Mary Riley Smith points out, "gardens need as much attention as a house," so you'd do well to call Declan Keane (Estelle Irrigation; 262 West 26th Street; 563-3483), recommended by everyone in the urban-horticulture business for irrigation systems. Complete with a timer, filters, backflow prevention, low-voltage valves to prevent flooding, and a rain sensor, his custom installations (from $1,000 to $5,000) will leave you worry-free during the summer months and properly winterized throughout the cold ones.
Resources: With the only horticultural library open to the public in Manhattan, the Horticultural Society of New York (128 West 58th Street; 757-0915; www.hsny.org) will prepare you for the work ahead: Get advice from professionals (bring in a dead bug and someone there will surely identify it); use the repotting service ($5-$10 fee); have your Felco pruners cleaned and sharpened; and read up on the latest fertilizing methods in gardening periodicals. Most useful are the classes and lectures by experts in the field (starting at $28 per session for anything from "Rooftop and Terrace Water Gardening" to "Edible Flowers").
The city's botanical gardens are also invaluable resources for ideas, advice, and the highest-quality plants. Signature membership ($125) at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-623-7200; www.bbg.org) gets you free admission and discounts, plus a complimentary Signature plant of your choosing (from a list of varieties propagated at the garden specifically for the city's climate and conditions). The plant-information service at the New York Botanical Garden (200th Street and Kazimiroff Boulevard, Bronx; 718-817-8681; www.nybg.org, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org) will answer any questions you have, from identification to care. For a fairly complete list of garden designers and landscape architects, contact the Metro Hort Group (799-1276 or 877-4433), an organization of garden professionals in the New York City area.