Step Onto the Terrace, and Pick Some Grapes, Please

The real-estate signs that scream LUXURY CO-OPS! have been ubiquitous for so long now, they barely register. Another glass box? Who cares. But perhaps that’s just lack of imagination. A lot can be made of an innocuous, low-ceilinged, soulless new space—at least, if you’re Nobu Otsu, who made a virtual Eden from a rather personality-free, new-construction apartment in Harlem.

Otsu didn’t set out to change the world with his terrace. He’s not a budding lifestyle guru or an eco-activist/blogger with a spade to grind. “This isn’t a political statement,” he says cheerfully, showing a visitor around the lush plantings. All Otsu, a longtime art director, and his boyfriend, Joe Healy, knew was that they had lived too long in a cramped Upper West Side one-bedroom. They found themselves looking at the plans for a small three-bedroom apartment in a Harlem building. Though it was still under construction, they committed and moved in 2002.

The couple was delighted for many reasons: more space, obviously, but also a south-facing 1,100-square-foot terrace where Otsu’s been tending a vegetable garden almost since they unpacked. It’s now a lush, fertile rooftop with so much produce that the couple didn’t have to buy a single vegetable all summer—and still had plenty to share with the neighbors.

“We learned basically that two plants of something was enough for two people,” says Otsu, who developed a passion for gardening growing up in Japan. This summer the garden produced, among other things, eggplant, string beans, peppers, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, and a multitude of herbs.

And there are fruit trees—plum, peach, cherry, apple, persimmon, and lemon. The cherry and apple trees came pre-grafted: Otsu gets three kinds of cherries from one tree and four kinds of apples from the other. And flower beds: roses, rhododendron, peonies, lavender, and irises.

“Editing was painful,” he says with a sigh. “I would love to have big trees, but big trees mean big problems. And I would love to have some beautiful chickens, but Joe put his foot down.”

Of course, a rooftop garden is not without its hazards. In September, buildingwide leaks from poor construction meant that everyone had to dismantle their terraces. It’s been a logistical nightmare and a huge undertaking for the couple; the garden is temporarily a sorry sight, but it will all be restored by Thanksgiving. There are some surprise upsides to cultivating such lushness nearby. Otsu—who recently opened a wineshop around the corner, the Winery—and Healy are so happy on their terrace, they’ve stopped going out of town on the weekends. Their feeling is, the country house is right outside their bedroom. Fresh vegetables for dinner, a green place to sit and read, a shady spot on a hot afternoon; with an escape like Otsu’s, why fight the traffic?

“Having a bucolic luxury like this is something money can’t buy,” Otsu says. “You become really sensitive to the natural world—the sky, the seasons, the annual cycles of birds. We really noticed when the bees suddenly disappeared two years ago.”

The master bedroom windows, a Styrofoam deer head, and a lime tree Otsu has been cultivating for twenty years all look out onto his personal Eden.
Photographs by Reuben Cox

Nobu Otsu at work; even city gardens require constant maintenance.

Who needs the Greenmarket?

Who needs the Greenmarket?

Otsu designed the garden shed. With its blue color and decorative bull’s head (as well as the surrounding lushness), it feels like a farm shack in Tuscany.

Step Onto the Terrace, and Pick Some Grapes, Please