Green Oasis in a Small Urban Space
See what this determined city dweller created from the wasteland behind his rowhouse, and how he did it
The backyard used to be a wreck. Once I started pulling up the rotting deck that sat in the middle and the crumbling cinder-block retaining walls around it, I unearthed piles of broken concrete and discarded bricks. But my wife, Vivian, and I had big plans for the forlorn patch of dirt when we bought our Brooklyn brownstone three years ago: We'd make it into a little urban oasis, with a patio surrounded by plants and a cherry tree for privacy and shade. It would be a place to entertain and chill out after work. Here's what we did.
Cleanup would prove to be the most challenging part of the project. Once I'd pulled up the deck, I set to work with a sledgehammer, breaking up the concrete walkways that ran beside it. Along with a lot of debris, I found remnants of a granite slab that was probably as old as the house, which was built in 1903. I planned a patio for the middle of the yard, so I buried much of the broken concrete in the center—I figured it would help with drainage. Besides, throwing stuff out isn't easy in New York City. I had to bag any trash and set it on the curb with the garbage after hauling it through the house, which is 40 feet deep and has narrow hallways. And I could leave out only a few bags at a time.
With the cleaning done, I could work on creating. My idea was to start with basic elements—patio, walls, trees—then make several mini-gardens. The yard sloped toward the concrete pad outside the back door and the area flooded. So to improve drainage, I decided to terrace the yard, adding stepping stones leading off the concrete pad to a foot-high retaining wall that steps up to the new 12-by-12-foot patio. Four-foot-deep flowerbeds border it on both sides. I work dangerously close to a farmer's market in Manhattan, and I began bringing perennials and shrubs home on the subway, a few at a time. I like how varied and long lasting foliage is, so I chose most plants for their leaves and use flowers as accents.
I did about half the planting the first year and the rest last summer, when, with help from our neighbors Joe and Rich, I put up a cedar fence on two sides to hide the ugly plastic and chain-link ones. A 30-inch-high wall in back sections off a 10-by-20-foot raised bed. We used brick for the walls but chose tumbled concrete pavers for the patio—they have the feel of old cobble-stones. Three pallets of bricks, gravel, sand, and pavers were delivered to the sidewalk, and in one day I had to get them through the house on a hand truck. Don't ask how many trips I made. The hand truck didn't fit through the back door, so I had to unload there. Using countless reference books, magazines, and the Internet, I gradually learned how to lay brick walls and patio pavers, putting down plenty of gravel underneath for drainage. I figure I saved $10,000 by doing everything myself.
The garden is like a slow-motion work of art. I'll never be done with it. After 20 years as an apartment dweller, I love getting my hands in the soil. I started clearing the yard in March and finished the patio in late May. Then I made lots of trips to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—it's just a quick subway ride away—for inspiration, including what to plant in sun and what in shade. The perennial beds there are amazing; they really show how to use color, texture, and leaf shape to design a garden. Thanks to our new terrier, Roxy, who loves to dig, I may have to put sturdier plants in some places. Having this garden is such a luxury to us. It's amazing how peaceful and quiet it is—right in the heart of the city.
1. cedar fences
2. climbing hydrangea
3. Japanese maple
4. wisteria tree
5. creeping Jenny
7. blue fescue grass
9. brick retaining wall
11. smoke bush
12. 'Lavender Twist' redbud
14. Boston ivy
15. tumbled concrete paver patio
16. Kwanzan flowering cherry tree
17. dwarf Siberian pine
19. Japanese forest grass
20. oakleaf hydrangea
22. brick retaining wall
23. stepping stones
24. poured concrete patio