Head to NYC to Explore 6 Stunning Designer Gardens

Check out how designers transformed these unique spaces.

Most garden visitors probably wouldn’t expect to see a coastal-inspired landscape on the 15th story of an apartment building and a restored estate garden covered in the same tour, but visitors will have the opportunity to see both as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s fourth annual Garden Dialogues series.

The series of tours travels from coast to coast, profiling some of the country’s exceptional gardens designed by contemporary leaders in the field. Unlike many garden tours, the designers not only will be on site for the tours, but they also will be leading them, giving visitors unique insights into the design processes and dialogues that happen involving the client, the designer and the site. Let’s take a look at six gardens featured on New York’s tour.

NYC Metro Garden Dialogues

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz

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Midtown Sky Garden

Designer: Hank White and Aaron Booher of HMWhite

What it is: 6,500-square-foot (603.8-square-meter) living roof on the 17th floor of an office building

The architects at HMWhite have created an outdoor oasis for employees at the Western Publishing Building high above midtown Manhattan. An area that had been an unfinished utility space with gravel and roof pavers is now a landscape that supports native grasses, butterflies, birds and outdoor brainstorming sessions.

“The primary role of the garden design was to bring the garden world inside on a daily basis, thereby transforming an urban worker’s expectations of what an office environment ought to be like,” says landscape architect Hank White. Perennial plantings surround the building on the north, south and east sides, giving workers a rich view, even from inside, and creating a sense of enclosure and protection from overpowering city views. An extensive network of boardwalks within the perennial grasses makes it easy for employees to bring their meetings outside. Intimate seating areas frame the views and are sheltered by surrounding grasses.

Drought-tolerant prairie grasses, wildflowers, spring-flowering bulbs and crabapple trees make up the majority of the planting. The landscape architects created a planting base using a limited number of cool- and warm-season grasses. They interspersed summer-blooming native perennials and spring-flowering bulbs to counterbalance the color and texture of the predominantly grassy landscape.

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The architects worked within the existing structural infrastructure to create subtle undulations in the landscape using lightweight geofoam. Inside and out, the mounding grasses dramatically contrast the building’s stark midcentury architecture. All the plants grow in a shallow, lightweight medium that the roof can support.

Grasses on the roof include: Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis), Prairie Blues little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Prairie Blues’), wavy hairgrass (Deschampsia flexuosa), Blonde Ambition blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’) and Mega Blue big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘Mega Blue’).

The textural matrix of grasses and wildflowers was designed for year-round interest. The design won a Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Award of Excellence.


The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz

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The Gillman Garden

Designer: Victoria Fensterer of Victoria Fensterer Landscape and Garden Design

What it is: Courtyard and pool area of a historic farmhouse

Landscape designer Victoria Fensterer reimagined an existing pool, making it a more natural shape and surrounding it with boulders plus lush, tropical plants and a pavilion. She planted smaller evergreen plants alongside mature ones, and the pool now looks like a natural water feature in a secluded clearing.

Evergreens provide interest year-round and screen the property to create more privacy.


 The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz

Urban Aerie

Designer: David Kamp of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture

What it is: 1,500-square-foot (139.3-square-meter) patio on the 15th story of an apartment building

“It was one of those typically New York rooftops,” says landscape architect David Kamp of the penthouse roof garden — bare, with clay tiles and little else. The homeowners had recently had a home built for them on Long Island, which immediately inspired Kamp. ”When she mentioned the beach house, I immediately thought of the barrier beaches,” he says.

Though the two settings couldn’t be more different, the plants need to stand up to similar conditions — extreme sun and wind — and Kamp also liked the idea of creating similar experiences with a coastal garden on the roof. “We tried to create intimate spaces and midscale views,” he says, much like what happens with dunes at the beach, even though the views in the city are very different.

Kamp planted winterberries (Ilex verticillata, zones 3 to 9), serviceberries (Amelanchier sp, zones 2 to 9) and native grasses. “Birds love the berries off the serviceberries,” he says, and bees frequent the many spring blooms. Two cedar planters in the deck’s center hold the serviceberries, while lightweight fiberglass planters around the perimeter hold the beach grasses.

Though Kamp was limited by the building’s structural requirements when it came to where he could place heavy objects, the planters he laid out frame smaller nooks and create views similar to those of the dunes of the coast. Along the perimeter, the fiberglass planters meet the ground plane with a gravel divider, giving them an almost floating appearance, and then the floor plane transitions to a customized cedar decking.

As the trees have matured, the views they frame have become even more pronounced and isolated.

Kamp custom designed the cedar decking to accommodate the desire of one of the homeowners to go barefoot. He spaced the planks especially tight, 3/16 of an inch apart, and beveled the edges. The wood’s tight grain minimizes the occurrence of splinters. ”The idea that you won’t catch your toes and lose the moment is why you need to sweat the details,” Kamp says. Water drains through these level cedar planks onto a clay patio that is pitched to drain.

Surprisingly, when Kamp ended up actually seeing the beach house, the landscape wasn’t at all how he pictured it — it was a suburban lawn. He ended up redesigning the beach garden using plants and details from the roof terrace. Manhattan’s growing season is about two weeks ahead of Long Island’s, he says. When the homeowners are in New York and then go out to Long Island, they can catch both gardens blooming.


The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz​

M. Bakwin Estate

Designer: Michael V. Ruggiero of MVR Landscape Garden

What it is: 50-acre estate

This estate in Westchester is on quite a different scale than the rest of the landscapes featured on this tour. Landscape architect Michael V. Ruggiero painstakingly restored 10 managed landscape acres on a site with more than 50 acres over the course of several years, during which time he also lived on the property, and they have been maintained and improved by onsite gardeners over the years. The gardens accompany a Tudor-style home, built in the 1930s and continuously inhabited by the same family since.

The estate was built on a series of rocky outcroppings, which Ruggiero worked to restore and emphasize, removing overgrown invasives and other unkempt plants that had overtaken the garden over the years. Mature woodlands were thinned to create beautiful views of the wetlands and the ephemeral light in the distance. A main walk runs through the site, with small nooks and crannies off to the side of the path for guests to venture into and discover. “The space just seems boundless,” Ruggiero says.

Ruggiero says these gardens are much different than estate gardens of the same era and scale. Instead of formalized garden rooms that lead sequentially into one another, the gardens at the M. Bakwin Estate flow fluidly from one to the next. Though there are distinct outdoor spaces, it’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly one ends and the other begins. “It’s a landscape garden,” Ruggiero says, referencing the English estate gardens of Capability Brown and other such garden designers, and it highlights the natural features of the site in its design. A deer fence, installed beneath ridge lines to obscure it, runs around most of the landscape to keep browsing deer away.


The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz

Brooklyn Heights Townhouse

Designer: Robin Key of Robin Key Landscape Architecture

What it is: 1,875-square-foot (174.2-square-meter) backyard

“When we first came, there was really nothing there and it was totally overgrown,” says landscape architect Robin Key of this Brooklyn Heights backyard. A thicket of mature trees shaded the backyard and added some privacy from the 15-story building directly behind the house, but many trees were in poor shape, and their roots were competing for space.

After thinning out some existing trees with the help of an arborist, Key designed two water features to block some of the ambient noise that occurs in an urban garden. “They do a wonderful job of masking that air conditioning sound,” Key says.

The interior floor adjacent to the backyard is porcelain tile, which Key carried to the first level of the patio as well. She blended modern moments with a little bit of a traditional twist to keep with the age of the house — the concrete wall surrounding the first-level patio also has a cap. Moving from the remodeled 19th-century brownstone into the landscape,“you really do feel like you’re walking into a blended space,” Key says.

She installed bluestone pavers on the next level of the backyard that had been left in a stack by a previous owner. Using the bluestone gave the urban garden a wonderful texture, she says. “The Weed”, a sculpture by one of the homeowners, adds a fun element on the bluestone-paver level.

The bluestone didn’t quite cover the entire backyard, but Key didn’t want to mix more bluestone with what she found on the site.

At the farthest end of the backyard, she made the flooring wilder and more woodland like. Staggered pieces of ipe and moss create a cozy and natural space that gets away from the hardscape and more into a landscape setting.


The Cultural Landscape Foundation, original photo on Houzz

Pool Farm

Designer: David Seiter of Future Green Studio

What it is: Restaurant’s rooftop deck

The Pool Farm combines two unlikely ingredients: urban farming and a rooftop pool. In this kitchen garden and private dining area for the midtown Manhattan restaurant The Press Lounge, an unused pool finds new life as a sheltered and productive food garden for the restaurant’s chef.

Landscape architect David Seiter salvaged ipe wood from the restaurant’s remodel to create something of a decking system that softly cascades from the pool deck down into the base. Herbs and veggies that align with the restaurant’s cuisine fill out the built-in planters and vertical garden, arranged by size and planter depth.

Little mementos, like the original pool railing, steps and swimming depth, remind diners of this garden’s previous life.

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