Aug 10, 2012

The Big Apple bit me back

    After two years of living abroad, it was not clear if I wanted to return to New York City again, but it is my home, the place that  I was born and love and  is always running deep in my veins.  A pact was made to myself that if I did move back to New York, it would be on my terms this time.  And that's how it began....
    By chance, I came across a beautiful gem of an apartment while wandering the BedStuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.  It was a discreet building, an old rectory to be exact, situated next to an old unused church.  I quickly called the number in the window and met the landlord on site within  minutes.  
    The apartment was gorgeous, it was large and cavernous inside, with beautiful wood details throughout, glass doorknobs on every door, plenty of rooms and windows, and most importantly, there was a garden, a 700 sq. foot open canvas. That is when I knew this place was a catch.
The garden was dormant when it was seen on that cold day in January, but I knew it was a special place, an apartment that I needed to live in.  It all seemed slightly neglected and just needed some hard work and polish to really help it shine, and it was calling my name, asking me to help.  I wasted no more time and secured the place on the spot with the landlord. 

 The garden was bordered on one whole side by a church, with stained glass windows, buttresses, and views of the steeple. It immediately gave the garden a sense of space.  In thinking about the possibilities, there was no denying that the church was the main feature of the garden and needed to be acknowledged,  not fought against.  It created the character of the place.  It reminded me of a quote:
"One would have to be singularly insensitive to the possibilities of one's craft if one failed to reassemble and reformulate from the thousands of hints and indications that wait within the range of one's eyes."  Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener 
Thank you Mr. Page.

Days and nights were consumed with thoughts and ideas for the garden,  and it was a good thing that it was winter because it prevented me from getting out there in the garden and making any irrational decisions due to over excitement.  Immediately I set out sketching layout after layout. I needed to keep in mind that you entered the garden  on the  corner, so how would I make the entrance not seem forced,  and that the best view of the steeple was from the back end. 
When I am sketching during these periods I don't necessarily know where I am going, but when I see ideas that don't work, they get discarded. When something strikes as a possible idea, it helps set me off in that direction until it feels natural and right. 

Once I had my sketch I used bamboo stakes to help me visualize what it would look like before it became more permanent, adjusting them as needed helped it get to the right point.  Another bonus of putting the seating area in the back was it was furthest away from the bedroom windows,   giving more privacy to people in the apartment or the garden. 
The soil was very poor, and to make matters worse, there was not a water source to be found, anywhere.... (I checked and checked, and checked and checked....) The thought process was to get plants that could tolerate poor soil, drought, and would drop seed to help increase the number of  plants in the garden.  I wanted the garden to have a feeling of being there a lot longer than it was, and with plants spreading, they would help to achieve that.  Cut flowers and foliage as well as fall color were important to me too.
Over the first winter, I found some old blue paving stones and some garden furniture. While it helped to define the space more, it also seemed to make the area look smaller.  Either way, it was filling up.

Filling up is exactly what it did come spring time.  Plants put in the previous year had already started blooming such as Aquilegia chryantha 'Yellow Queen', and the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris.

       Here is an arrangement of an unknown pink rose, which already existed in the garden, and Aquilegia chrysantha 'Yellow Queen' in the fading summer city light....
The garden started to take on a life of its own, telling me what it did and did not like, we started to understand each other. Some of the plants were doing great, like Thermopsis caroliniana, Baptisia 'Purple Smoke', which is a nitrogen fixer to help with the soil,  and Diervilla sessilifolia 'Butterfly'.
To have this piece in the garden, my sculptural focal point, makes me very happy.  This circle in the square stone piece was in my student garden at Longwood and has many happy memories attached to it, 

 and in it since on top there is a pocket filled with Sempervivums (from my student garden as well), and striped marbles that were always found while digging in the garden soil. 

I loved looking  each morning at the pots that I would plant up and arrange outside my bedroom window
or the cut flowers I would  bring inside to put next to my bed.   Having cut flowers on my bedside table always ensures one last smile before I turn the lamp off each night.  
     Many memories have been had in this beautiful space, many friends and family, lunches and dinners, late night drinks and many, many laughs and smiles. 

    In the evenings, all the candles would be lit  and it was wonderful, magical...
A garden is to be used, to entertain in, to transport people some where else, and this is exactly the life it took on and that made me happy....

It filled out just as much as it filled up my expectations, but not for as long as I wished.  Life came and beckoned me, its always when we least expect it.. Though I had planned on staying in NYC, I met my other half, from another country, a chance meeting that none of us ever know when will happen.  And I started to wonder, the mind thinks one thing and the heart another, for I did not want to move,  I had a garden! but what if.... what if......  I knew the right choice but needed one last push.  In speaking with a mentor whom I greatly admire, I told of my dilemma, do I marry and move to England to be together, or stay behind in my palace and garden.... The advice was: 'you can make a garden anywhere....'   And that is advice that I will never forget... Thank you wise man. 

So  autumn came, and the changes that were happening were real, for I knew come winter I would be moving on. Fall always makes us contemplative and I spent many a day alone enjoying  the details and found irony in creating a garden that I wanted to eventually be able to take care of itself...
 (Coleus 'Sedona' and Aster 'Purple Dome') 
It was a real treat in my life to live in a place that had such an effect on me and the people I know, and I just know more good things are right around the corner.

  Life was offering me a beautiful adventure and I wondered what would happen to this place I stumbled upon in Brooklyn, my palace, my jewel-box garden.  Happy, it worked out well, as I was able to pass it on to 2 very good friends of mine who would enjoy it as much as I had.  We decided to keep it "in the family". There is always a room for me,  there is always a bed,
and the garden will always welcome me back.
It is a place that will always be sketched in my mind... 


  1. Jimmy!!!!!
    I didn´t know you had a blog!!!!
    This post is so emotional and gorgeous but darling, look forward and another garden will come :) xxx

  2. Whatttt!!! I'm dying. I can't believe you lived there, I have been such a fan of that little building from back when I lived in Bedstuy 7 years ago. The facade used to be covered in ivy. Dream apartment. Some lucky friends you have there :)