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Project: Pocket garden New York

Project: Pocket garden New York

The designers arranged the plantings and path to create the sense of wandering through a larger landscape. Photo: Lexi Van Valkenburgh

This mini oasis in Brooklyn uses paving and planting to defy its diminutive size, says Stephanie Mahon 

For a practice used to designing large projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, a tiny 700 sq ft garden in Brooklyn, New York, was an unusual request for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. “The client is the next-door neighbour of our principal designer Michael,” explains project designer Scott Streeb. “He never thought we would be interested in such a small-scale job – a typical brownstone with a small backyard – but we thought it would be fun to take on that space.”

The brief

The brief was straightforward. “The client and his wife asked us to create somewhere you would be excited to take your friends to. They encouraged us to be as creative as possible, which is rare with residential clients – often they are the most difficult because they don’t have a background working with designers, and there can be a disconnect when it comes to expectations,” Scott says.

But the couple had just done a major overhaul of the interior, and this helped prepare them for the outdoor work. They were also expecting a baby, and wanted the finished garden to be a space their child could use and enjoy; and to have a seating area for eight people.

The concept

When the design team did their first site visit, they found a yard that was “all dirt and brick”, Scott explains. “That day the temperature was 115°F, so it was hot and miserable.” He decided he wanted the space to feel bigger and to have a lot of seasonal variety in the planting. “A big goal was to choreograph where we placed the plants to give a forced perspective of foreground, middle and background, so we put one tree right in your face, another 10ft away, and another toward the back, to give you a view as you walk through the garden.

“We also wanted to provide a sense of mystery,” he continues. “The site is L-shaped, so I wanted the design to create a meander through one part, and then to turn and discover something else, giving a sense of surprise and playfulness.” This is helped by the interesting paving design made up of irregular rectangular stones, which he calls ‘logjam’ – a formation based on the patterns logs create when floating downriver. “We have done it before on other projects, and it’s a great way to animate a space. The garden was to have an almost Japanese, contemplative feel to it, and this organisation of the stone inspires people to move slower through the garden, to look around and look at what they are stepping on.”

Such an intricate pattern immediately seems like the sort of thing a cutting-edge design practice would model on computer, but Scott admits he went old school. “I used pieces of tape to do studies of the layouts. It was really effective because it was quick and helped get the idea down quickly. We studied about 15 different paving designs in all, including ones that were more sinuous, like a river. But the tension that came from the corners of these stone rectangles crashing into each other just felt right.”

The view of the garden from the upper terraces provides a feeling of living in nature. Adding ivy to the walls creates a sense of more space. Photo: Lexi Van Valkenburgh

The build

When it came to the build, the lack of side access to the yard was always going to be an issue. “We studied the feasibility of craning trees in, but given the height of the house, and the width of the street, there was only one crane in the country that would be appropriate, and it was prohibitively expensive,” Scott says. So, everything came through the house – through the clients’ recently renovated and newly finished home. “It was nerve-wracking,” he admits. “The trees with their rootballs weighed about 1,100lb each, and the paving stones, the longest of which was 5ft x 1ft x 3in thick, took three or four men to carry through.”

The issues

The team had to be extremely adaptable through the construction phase, not just because of these known issues, but when other unseen problems began to emerge. While excavating the site and doing a rough grading before getting in new topsoil, one of the contractors lifted up a small stone to find an old rain cistern, 13ft deep. “There are different theories as to why it was there,” Scott says, “such as drainage or a clean water source. “It was a magnificent artefact, and for a long time the client wanted to light it, and make it a feature of the garden. But there were concerns from a safety perspective. Our suggestion was to reuse it in a green way, and channel all of the irrigation and storm water run-off into it. Brooklyn’s storm sewers are a mess, they always get backed up, so it is actually the best thing we could have done, and turned out to be a great amenity for us.”

Another discovery during excavation was that the wall at the back of the property was built on dry laid stone. “I can’t believe it didn’t fall down earlier. We worked with a structural engineer to see how to reinforce it. In the end we went with brick columns, which add to the articulation of the space.”

Scott\'s concept of \'logjam\' takes inspiration from the patterns logs create when floating downriver. Photo: Lexi Van Valkenburgh

The planting

The amount of planting in the space makes it rather unusual for a small project, with layers of bulbs and groundcover, shrubs and trees creating an oasis of nature in the city. “With hindsight, the fact we visited on such a hot day embedded in our brains that we needed shade back there, and that was why we chose so many trees.”

The understorey is evergreen, hardy and established quickly, and the whole garden has a seasonal flowering schedule with camellias, mahonias, daffodils, crepe myrtles and hydrangeas blooming throughout the year, giving much-wanted seasonal variety but remaining low maintenance. Scott insisted the trees were all quite compact and put in at around the same size. “Now the canopy is rising together and creating lots of spindly multi-stem trunks, and as the ceiling of the garden gets higher and higher, the dappled light coming through will be fantastic.”

The result

The garden was finished in 2012, and Scott returns regularly to check on progress and advise the client as the planting grows. It was his first project in charge from start to finish, co-ordinating and supervising the construction, but he says it was a fantastic learning curve and he was lucky the couple were so open to ideas. “Other clients might not have gone for so much planting, as space is so valuable in the city, and I think a lot of people would have just paved the whole thing and had it as an outdoor terrace. There’s so much more out there to explore with garden design and for some reason there is this stereotypical view of what a garden should look like and be,” he says. “This garden shows that all the rules should be abandoned.” 

The tree canopies block the views of the garden from neighbouring buildings

The team

Design: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc 16 Court Street, 11th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11241, USA Tel: +1 (718) 243 2044

Landscape contractor: Statile & Todd Inc 540 Route 202, Far Hills, NJ 07931, USA Tel: +1 (908) 204 9918

Stone supplier: Goshen Quarries 71 Berkshire Trl W, PO Box 332, Goshen, MA 01032, USA Tel: +1 (413) 268 7171

Plants: Rivendell Nurseries 320 Stathem’s Neck Road Greenwich, NJ 08323, USA Tel: +1 (856) 453 0708  

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