Garden Voyeur Inside New York City Private Gardens

June 20, 2011 by


Vines climbing the trellis-clad brick wall of Greenwich Village backyard.

I got seduced four times in one day last week. The first time was in a Chinese Garden on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then I was swept away by the views on a romantic terrace overlooking Central Park. A third time on an elegant deck and patio kissing the edge of Washington Square Park. And finally, in Greenwich Village backyard bigger than my first apartment. Ah, New York City can be so alluring.

Even in the Smallest Spaces
It was a perfect New York summer day as I joined a small group on the private gardens tour hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française, part of their Art de Vivre (Art of Living) program. I attended last year’s tour, the first of the urban garden tours that FIAF hosted, a highlight of their lifestyle series bringing the community up close with French designers, artists, and authors, and featuring exclusive culinary and wine events.


Viewed from upper terrace, 18th century Chinese sculpture is centerpiece of courtyard garden below.

The garden tour was offered as part of the Gardens for Gourmets series, which explores how our relationships with gardens and gardening influence how we cook and live today. The program has featured writer/chefs Patricia Wells and Ina Garten speaking about The Salad as a Meal, and Eli Zabar addressing ‘rooftop to table’, about the importance of fresh produce and how the markets of France have shaped his work and lifestyle. Prince Louis Albert de Broglie and Roger Doiron, head of Kitchen Gardeners International and a lead activist behind Michelle Obama’s White House kitchen garden, presented last month about the rise of garden tourism and biodiversity in 21st-century gardens. “As more people choose to cultivate even the tiniest plots of land,” notes the Institute’s website, “gardening has become a powerful expression of social and economic responsibility.”


A Buddah reflected in the mirror is just one of the illusions created in the Chinese garden.

Trompe l’Oeil Chinese Garden
An 18th century sculpture from Beijing serves as the centerpiece of the main courtyard in the two level Chinese Garden designed by Christian Duvernois. The garden, which consists of the lower courtyard and upper terrace which overlooks it, was inspired by the client’s Chinese art collection.  As Duvernois led me a around the intimate space, pointing out the authentic Chinese doors that hide the barbecue and tools behind it, he revealed that 90% of the gardens plantings were…faux.


Above courtyard, living room opens onto upper terrace.

Since the courtyard sits in the shadows of the much taller buildings surrounding it, the garden gets precious little sun. Mixing artificial with real plants was the designer’s unusual solution for the shaded space. The result was a pergola covered private, lush space that suggests a garden much larger than it’s actual square footage. Whatever on might think of the use of fake plants, I must say that it was hard to tell the difference.

Romantic Terrace Garden


Salvaged antique doors are focal point of this terrace garden.

Drawing inspiration from both the Romanticism of the neighboring Frick Collection, and the rustic qualities of its owner’s personal collection, the second garden on the tour opened up onto the city’s rooftops and Central Park. A set of antique doors reclaimed from an architectural salvage yard served as the focal point for this terrace in the sky. Like the first garden, this one also designed by Christian Duvernois, utilized some trompe l’oeil effects including window shutters atop a distressed stucco finish revealing just a bit of the wall’s original brick beneath.


Window shutters on the distressed stucco wall are surrounded by vines.

On casters, the modular powder coated galvanized containers flanking the two sides and end of the terrace can be rotated and moved as needed while they also allow the designers to layer the plantings in a small space.

To provide lush privacy screening, the designers planted evergreen bamboo which they let grow tall, but keep trimmed at the base to keep it from growing too full. A specimen Japanese maple lives happily in a corner offering some contrast to the surrounding shrubbery.

Glazed ceramic pots, above, surround the antique doors whose mirrored interior reflects light and gives the illusion of an entrance to perhaps…a greenhouse?

Meditative Village Backyard
It took the owner-architects four years to completely gut and renovate their 1840’s Federal building, a former stable on the edge of Washington Square Park.

The result is a stunning and spacious layout that extends down to the flagstone back patio and garden where various outdoor “rooms” offer serenity and respite from the commotion at their doorstep.


Artist Victoria Bell’s sculpture keeps company with bamboo in a Zen corner of the garden.

“Every piece of the garden is a special memory for us,” explained the owner. One corner represents the Northwest Woods, another the owner’s native Provence, and another is reminiscent of Japan.

A slate corner Koi pond, above, is cocooned within the graphic green trellis, softened with flowering vines.

Mingling with the Boxwood, Crabapple, Wisteria, and Redbud blend their pink and aubergine hues with the surrounding deep green of the surrounding vines and fencing.


Vines climb the trellis arbor adding a pink punch to corner that recalls the owner’s native Provence.


Lettuce grows in a hanging basket by the garden steps.

Photos weren’t permitted in the last garden on the tour, so you’ll have to take my word that sipping wine and nibbling hors d’oeuvres on that terrace overlooking the flowering garden below…well, words alone can not adequately describe the fantasy I had that this was my own special urban garden.

Marie-Dominique Deniau Sorman, former garden columnist for Madame Figaro, curated the private gardens tour. After studying at the Ecole de Paysage de Versailles, she began writing about gardens and also served as member of the Jury de la Presse for the Journée des Plantes de Courson, the French equivalent of the Chelsea Flower Show. For twenty years, she’s been designing and cultivating gardens in Paris and Normandy and now splits her time between Paris and New York.

The Art de Vivre program is directed by Melissa Ceria, former freelance journalist and Editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Time Style & Design, NY Times Style Magazine, Departures, and Ralph Lauren.

  • http://joybennett.com Joy Bennett

    Thanks for a beautiful garden tour!

  • http://linkedin John Killary

    Forgot about the “hidden beauty spots” of the big city, especially here on the East Coast. Thanks for the refresher Robin.

  • https://www.gardenyourcity.com Barbara

    Love that hanging lettuce crop to capture the sun. The fake flowers??? : (

  • lucy schwartz

    There are some great ones here in the Pacific Northwest. Lush Green all year. I will go on a designer Chicken Coupe tour next week here in Seattle area. These things are amazing . One has a chandelier in it. And Stained glass windows like in a beautiful church. How many chickens can you have in New York City ? 3 here. Fresh eggs. yeah

  • Robin Plaskoff Horton

    Lucy, I so want to go on that Chicken Coupe tour to see the one with a chandelier and stained glass windows! Can you please take some pics and send them to me?! More and more folks are raising chickens in the city. Takes some work and when you go away…a chicken sitter.

  • http://www.glenwoodnyc.com/manhattan-living/courtyard-gardens-new-york-gardens/ Glenwood NYC

    The beauty of these “secret” gardens cannot be overstated. Taking a quiet walk through your photos and it is hard to imagine that we are really in New York City.

  • http://www.patios-clotures.com/home.php deck design

    Amazing creativity! The flowers are beautiful. You have no idea of how enjoyable seeing the garden is. I have so many plans for my own garden and canâ??t wait to see more. Thanks!!

  • http://www.samarottodesigns.com Gina Samarotto, Samarotto Design Group

    I have yet to meet a small space garden I didn’t like! These are just lovely.

  • http://www.southendgardens.com Mark Corbin

    Beautiful. Well done.

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