The Outsider: Gardening on Concrete in Williamsburg

Welcome to the first installment of The Outsider, Brownstoner’s new Sunday garden column. We’ll cover backyards, front yards, terraces, decks, patios, rooftops…wherever a Brooklyn homeowner or renter can stake out a garden. Like The Insider on Thursdays, The Outsider is written and produced by Cara Greenberg, who blogs at casaCARA: Old Houses for Fun & Profit. Find it here every Sunday at 8AM.

 

THERE’S NO DIRT in Tyler Horsley’s Brooklyn backyard, except in pots. Yet Horsley, a professional garden designer whose urban practice involves many terraces and roof gardens, has elevated the use of containers to a high art. What he calls a “mismatched hodgepodge of dumb plastic pots” follows time-honored principles of garden design. (He prefers grayish pots to terracotta, which flakes in cold weather and whose color, he says, is “shriekingly bad with magenta and pink.”)

Horsley’s Williamsburg backyard — south-facing and open, with 6 hours of full sun a day — is a 13′x30′ concrete rectangle behind a former rosary factory converted in 2000 to one-story rental apartments. The photos in this post show it over the past decade and in all seasons. There are certain ‘backbone’ perennials, trees, and shrubs, but the garden is never quite the same from one year to the next.

How does he do it? “The first principle in a small space is layering,” Horsley says. “Get something tall that arches over people’s heads, so it feels like you’re really in a garden environment,” as well as  some “things that tumble down, to get a lush dimension.”

Bold moves are the ticket, says Horsley. “Plant things simply and repetitively. If you have a plant that grows well and your conditions are perfect for it, plant more of it. Repeating stuff makes for a much more restful garden.” Planters look better if each is planted solidly with one thing, he says. “Don’t mix things up too much. If you clump together five pots with hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) for a big sweep, it looks great.”

More after the jump.

  • Horsley’s favorite local source: Crest Hardware & Urban Garden Center on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. “They opened a garden shop a couple of years ago and it’s terrific: interesting plants, unusual and thoughtful choices. They’re making a first-rate effort.”

Photos: Tyler Horsley

 

 

Spring 2004, “when the garden was new and the plants were little.” Mixed violas and pansies in exposed pots. Lilies emerging in the far left corner, but not yet blooming.


Early June 2008. Spring bedding with small burgundy coleus in front that will later take over. Perennials yet to bloom: sedum, filipendula, lilies, santolina.


June 2005. The ‘Heritage’ rose in a wooden barrel died one hard winter. “It got saturated with water, which turned into a block of ice,” Horsley recalls, “and the roses were history.”

 

Spring 2010. Azalea ‘Golden Showers’ in bloom behind the tall yew against the wood fence. Solomon’s seal emerging in shaded pots at rear. The Japanese maple on the right is a mainstay. Horsley also pots up arugula and other salad greens in spring.


In July, white annual nicotiana towers over green foliage of yet-to-emerge rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), hakonechloa, and white begonias. The enormous dark leaves of elephant ear are in the background.

 

Late July/early August. Rudbeckia is now blooming in profusion, along with white begonias, hakonechloa, and Solomon’s seal. The nicotiana was ripped out when its scraggly foliage became unsightly. “It had its moment of glory,” Horsley says. “Enough is enough.”


A summer view toward the concrete block wall at the rear of the garden, which Horsley painted black so that it would recede; also because plants “stand out against it, and it looks chic.”


 

Elephant ears and cannas, which can grow 10′ in a season, lend a lush jungle ambiance by August. Sedum spectabile in the foreground is in its ‘broccoli phase,’ before reddening in early fall. Salmon-colored impatiens thrive in this shady back area. Houseplants like the schefflera elegantissima spend the summer outdoors.


Morning glories around Labor Day in the early days of the garden. The purple spikes are a perennial salvia; the purple flowers on the lower right a clematis vine.

 

Late in the season, sporobolos, an ornamental grass, is backlit by the afternoon sun.


Winter 2011. The structure of the garden is still visible under a cover of snow. The building under construction in the background is fortunately not a tall one.


The Outsider is looking for leads to notable Brooklyn gardens. Please send photos to caramia447@gmail.com.

 

21 Comment

  • Wow! What an inspiration! Love seeing the garden over several seasons.

  • Incredible. I would like a bit more color, but so lush! Love the morning glories; I plan to have plenty of those in that vivid blue. I already have some “volunteers” in the dark purple. Too bad about the rose bush. I want one of those too. Great new addition to Brownstoner.

  • callalily

    Lovely. That spike of yew works plus the Japanese maple work surprisingly well as structure. What is the white flowering vine over the door — clematis?

    I’d like to plant some trees in our backyard that look pretty but don’t get too tall and won’t create too much shade, such as flowering peach — is there such a thing as permanently small trees?

    I’m having trouble figuring out how to train roses and vines prettily along a fence. It’s a big mess.

  • This is great and so glad to see an interesting container garden looking so lush. How large a pot does the japanese maple need to survive? Would love to put one on my deck.

    • There are some dwarf varieties of Japanese maples that could live for a long time in a 20×20 planters. The maple I have is in a planter that’s about 30 x30 x 24. That’s a big planter. Japanese maples aren’t drought tolerant, so just be sure you can keep up with the watering if you are going to plant one, but otherwise they are great container plants for our area.

  • minard

    very nice. container gardening is very important in the city, especially on terraces or roof decks. banking the containers like this is very clever and looks great if the right plants are chosen as in this garden. Watering is crucial though. I assume there is a drip watering system in place? Otherwise, one hot dry afternoon and some of these more shade loving things would be toast.

    • I don’t even have a hose out there, which is just crazy. I connect a hose to the kitchen sink. I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone except a plant nut, but there you go…. I have to water almost every day in the hot hot summer. Having big containers helps a lot.

    • I don’t even have a hose out there, which is just crazy. I connect a hose to the kitchen sink. I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone except a plant nut, but there you go…. I have to water almost every day in the hot hot summer. Having big containers helps a lot.

  • slopemope

    wow, great city getaway. and – dare i say – dream tenant!

  • slopemope

    wow, great city getaway. and – dare i say – dream tenant!

  • More from Cara is always good news. I look forward to reading this column and the first installment is truly lovely. Tyler has done the most imaginable with a tiny space. I’m dead jealous of his “six hours of full sun.” As my surrounding buildings have gone up higher and higher I’ve had to move from daisies to ferns and hosta.

  • Tyler, I knew you were waterin’!! Just not that way! Have done similar stuff myself in the past. Some people will do crazy stuff just to garden. My first container garden 40 years ago in Daytona Beach FL was planted in styrofoam ice chests ($.99 at K-Mart). We’re all still here but I probably I poisoned my family with those veggies!

  • Looking forward to more installments of The Outsider! I’ve been using several variations of “self-watering” containers that I first came across in Gardeners Supply. I started enlarging the reservoirs & added wicking thread to increase the absorption. I’m gardening on the the 6th floor and the wind has a major effect on what’s sustainable.

  • Looking forward to more installments of The Outsider! I’ve been using several variations of “self-watering” containers that I first came across in Gardeners Supply. I started enlarging the reservoirs & added wicking thread to increase the absorption. I’m gardening on the the 6th floor and the wind has a major effect on what’s sustainable.

  • dash

    Do you take some plants inside for the winter?

  • dash

    Do you take some plants inside for the winter?

  • Beautiful kick-off to this series. Really shows how much you can do just using containers!

  • The retirement home/nursing home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is located between Manhattan Avenue & Franklin Avenue, facing Dupont Street. The complex has an amazingly lush garden & flowerbed in the rear, facing Eagle Street. Access & viewing is capable from Eagle Street; however, if a formal article is to be written, I suppose it may be best to enter through the complex’s main lobby which faces Dupont Street to announce one’s arrival & gain permission for publishing. The garden is LOVELY!

  • Beautiful selection and arrangement of foliage. Can’t wait for a post on rooftop gardens.

  • Beautiful selection and arrangement of foliage. Can’t wait for a post on rooftop gardens.