Ask the Experts: The Garden Designer

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

Many landscapers don’t love working in urban environments.
To me, working in the city is a piece of cake; there’s so much available to purchase. I don’t just garden in an outdoor space. I deal with every single element in the space—the fabric, the lighting, the awnings, the tableware—every aspect. I’m gardening in a room. Plants are the easiest part.

Are small urban gardens more challenging than big landscaping projects?
Each poses its own set of issues or problems. It’s not the size, it’s the location. When you go to work on a space, and the door is only 32 inches wide, you better have thought about that in advance.

You’ve championed the living wall. Can vertical gardens stand the test of time?
A good living-wall system should cost as little as possible and be as maintenance-­free as possible. They should really only need to be checked once a month, and last for years.

People must be fussy about messes in their apartments.
My secret weapon is that we break our projects down into an erector set. We even created a method of planting the plants and boxing them up before we get to the site. Nothing is open or exposed, and we can go through a pristine, white apartment. It sounds like sci-fi, but it makes it easier to move later—we had a client who did a renovation and pulled a 1600-square-foot terrace garden out and put it in storage.

So, modular gardening?
I’m always thinking of the “what if.” What if something needs to be moved? What if you don’t like something, what if you want to change something? I’m constantly changing things myself, I get it.

Native plants: integral or overblown?
Because the city is such a harsh environment, my biggest concern is sustainability, or, really, durability (what’s more sustainable than that?). What is a native plant in NYC—or any city, for that matter? I want to ask: Will the plant survive heat or drought? Is it going to need pesticides to live where we plant it? Native plants should be used as much as possible, but it’s important to plant the right plant for the right space.

Landscaping can be wasteful: How do you fight that?
Other companies take soil out and replace it. I amend the soil, I rework the soil, I do berms. I rarely dig out and take anything away. I incorporate the “waste” of the backyard into the design.

Everyone thinks they have a black thumb: Do they?
Knowing when plants need water is one of the hardest things in the world. Our living walls are designed to make watering easier. In NYC, people ask for “low-maintenance” when really they mean no maintenance.

Trick of the Trade
“Act as if you are an interior designer for your exteriors; consider the lighting, the hardscaping, the table, the glasses. Think outdoor rooms.“

Ask the Experts: The Garden Designer