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


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