Creating a Garden Oasis in the City

“Outdoor space in New York City is on many buyers’ wish lists, but there just isn’t enough to go around, and a lot of what is available isn’t that usable when you get right down to it,” said Xanthe Tabor, a saleswoman for Halstead Property. “A private roof terrace may seem appealing, but becomes less so after you’ve carried a tray of wineglasses up and down a flight of stairs a few times.”

Those with the determination — and the wherewithal — to turn a balcony, terrace or backyard into a functional outdoor area, however, say the investment is well worth it for a breath of air in a crowded city. Here is a look at how five homeowners invested in their very different outdoor spaces, from a tiny Upper East Side balcony to a sprawling backyard in Brooklyn.

AN EXPANSIVE BACKYARD Last year, the Kawash-Coopers finally decided it was time to take back the garden. Working with Todd Haiman, a landscape designer, they gut-renovated the 1,600-square-foot space, replacing a deteriorating brick patio with silver tumbled travertine pavers, putting up a new fence with a blue barn door as a folly, adding two fountains and a wall at the back made from salvaged brick.

“Todd brought us the idea of arranging the space into connected rooms, and creating the idea of a journey to move from space to space,” Ms. Kawash said. “The rear is totally inviting now — it’s shady in the hottest part of the day, with the burble of the fountain to drown out all the city noise, and the trees and plantings block out all the other houses.”

Closest to the house is the dining area and grill, so it’s easy to run in and out during meals. In the center, there are sofas and chairs for lounging, surrounded by native flowers that draw bees and butterflies — “an unexpected bonus,” Ms. Kawash said. “I’m hoping we can attract even more butterflies this year. There is something incredibly peaceful and life-affirming about surrendering to the rhythms and activities of the insects.”

Of course, none of this was cheap. The pavers alone cost $12,000 installed, said Ms. Kawash, who declined to provide the total cost. Instead, she offered, “I would say, more than we expected, but totally worth it.”


In Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Sera Rogue created a “flower-filled chill space” with a “boardwalk-style” deck surrounded by blue Mexican pebble stone for Saffron Shelley and Armond Miller.

Photographs by Robert Deitchler for The New York Times

A LONG, NARROW TERRACE Relaxation was high on the list for Saffron Shelley, a 29-year-old social worker, and her husband, Armond Miller, 32, who works in finance. Last year, the couple hired Sera Rogue, the owner of Red Fern Brooklyn, a garden design firm, to landscape the long, narrow terrace that wraps around the two-bedroom duplex they share with their dog, Wendell, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “We were immediately drawn to the space because of the potential we saw in the terrace,” Ms. Shelley said, noting the space “was really nothing more than a paved roof” when they bought the apartment in 2015.

To create a “flower-filled chill space,” Ms. Rogue said, she created a “boardwalk-style” deck surrounded by blue Mexican pebble stone and custom planter boxes at varied heights, for their $30,000 budget. “A beachy, Montauk feel led the design,” added Ms. Rogue, who created an intimate coffee space outside the master bedroom, a designated spot for a lounger and a bench outside the kitchen surrounded by flora, to “insulate the space” with color and texture. “We really love the dimension it adds to the rest of the apartment,” Ms. Shelley said.


A triangular 78-square-foot balcony was maximized on the Upper East Side, with a built-in sofa and a cube with a reversible top. Planters that line the perimeter preserve the river view.

Robert Deitchler for The New York Times

A TRIANGULAR BALCONY To maximize a small (78-square-foot) terrace with an odd shape (triangular) on the Upper East Side, Amy Wechsler worked with Kim Hoyt, an architect and landscape architect, to create furniture that fit its tight angles. “I wanted a small oasis with plants and a seating area,” said Dr. Wechsler, 47, a dermatologist who lives in a four-bedroom apartment with her two teenage children. A built-in sofa with integrated side tables allows seating for three. A cube with a reversible top (a cushion on one side and a wood surface on the other) can serve as either a coffee table or an extra seat. Planters that line the perimeter preserve the river view. And a synthetic sisal carpet, typically used on boats, was cut to fit the space and hide the concrete floor. While the upfront investment was substantial (about $18,450), the transformation was worth it, Dr. Wechsler said. Before, the terrace was an “ugly, empty space,” she said, but now, “I spend a lot of time sitting out there.”

A CONCRETE PATIO In 2015, Jaylaan Ahmad-Llewellyn moved into a two-bedroom ground-floor duplex in Park Slope, Brooklyn, largely for its private outdoor patio. But at just under 250 square feet and surrounded by 10-foot concrete walls, it was the opposite of inviting. “To be honest, it looked like what I would think a prison exercise pen would look like,” said Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn, 38, who is completing a master’s degree in clinical psychology after working in the entertainment industry. “It felt like a concrete box.”

But Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn knew it had potential. Another plus: “Having small, elderly dogs who were used to warm weather and outdoor space” — Mo and Lala, Ms. Ahmad-Llewellyn’s 17-year-old miniature Dobermans — “the ability to have a safe place for them to go outside off leash when the weather is bad was a major draw.”

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