Every leaf counts in tiny garden
In a city filled with micro-pads, New Yorkers are creating gardens to match.
The New York Times
NEW YORK — Sixty-six square feet is certainly bigger than a window box, but it is, perhaps, smaller than some fire escapes.
Yet the dimensions of this narrow outdoor room, which sits outside a garret-like apartment on top of a Brooklyn brownstone, are ample enough to support a tangle of roses, lilies and anemones, along with clematis, heliotrope and creeping jenny, strawberries, figs and herbs, mint and echinacea, two lanky humans and a large, irritable black cat. Also, a table for two and a brazier for cooking.
One hot, bright evening recently, Marie Viljoen and Vincent Mounier sidled this way and that on their terrace (she is 5-foot-11 and he is 6-foot-2), offering gin infused with red currants and topped off with beach-plum liqueur or water with basil, mint and lemon. And what about a loquat?
On the table, there were roses in a jelly jar and Estorbo, the cat. Like the riot of plants outside, Viljoen, 42, and Mounier, 48, would appear to be thriving in their tiny habitat (their two-room apartment is just under 400 square feet). Eight years ago, when she was single, and hankering for a garden, Viljoen, an opera singer turned garden designer, moved into this apartment (rent, $1,900) because she knew what she could make of its outdoor room, which was then an empty, leaky masonry box.
As the micro-pad continues to work its way through the news cycle, following Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's challenge to developers to design 300-square-foot micro-units for a city-owned plot on East 27th Street, it is worth noting that in New York City, tiny apartments have been a housing staple for at least a century, their constraints and quirks part of the price of admission here.
And living well in them has long been celebrated, in a literary tradition that includes the essays of the late Laurie Colwin, the domestic miniaturist, who elegized her one-room Greenwich Village apartment, just "a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia," and the meals she made there on a hot plate. (Colwin would recognize a kindred spirit in Viljoen, whose literate, lovely blog, 66 Square Feet, is a memoir told in meals. What Colwin might have made of the Internet is another story entirely.)
Many New Yorkers continue to endure their cramped spaces because they come with another prize: outdoor space. As the photographer Alex MacLean showed in "Up on the Roof: New York's Hidden Skyline Spaces," a new book with images shot from the bubble of a helicopter, that urban greenery takes multifarious forms. The bright patches of green — proof of life, aloft! — that fleck the gray aerial grid will take your breath away.
What follows are tales of two of the city's tiny gardens, and how they grew.
The accidental gardener
Alejandro Aguilar has developed a 12-step program for those who dwell in micro-pads. The first step: "Admit you live in a small space. Deal with it."
Aguilar, a 48-year-old designer from Honduras, has been dealing with tiny spaces for more than a decade, ever since he moved into a 184-square-foot apartment on the Lower East Side and carved out a specialty as a wrangler of tiny homes after having puzzled out his own.
He has taught classes in small-space living at the continuing-education school at Hunter College. He is an expert at excision, exhorting students and clients to prune unwieldy, unused possessions and bad habits. (Aguilar allows himself no more than six pairs of shoes, one jacket, one change of sheets and four towels.) He eschews free-standing furniture for built-ins.
But in 2006, when the rent on his own micro-pad rose to $1,200 from $800 and the landlord began charging for electricity, which averaged an alarming $250 a month, Aguilar left Manhattan and became the third roommate in a three-bedroom apartment in a rowhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Before that, there was an unhappy rental in the South Bronx, but that is another story.) Since he was the third and most recent roommate, he drew the smallest, worst room, next to the kitchen. It looked out on a grubby tar roof walled in on three sides by his own building and the two that flanked it.
In his 10-by-12-foot room, which he rents for $1,000, Aguilar constructed a storage and living system of built-ins, curtains, mirrors and lighting, drastically altering the feeling and functionality of the space. Then he tackled the roof.
In May 2010, he laid down a deck with timber he cut in varying lengths to make a pattern like a Mondrian painting. He built one raised bed, then another. He hung containers up the wall, proceeding vertically, as he had in his bedroom. He worked instinctively, making assemblages that pleased him visually, buying plants for their color and shape, and learning the names as he went along.
He planted a dogwood, a plum tree and lilac bushes. He put begonias in tiny containers that fit together like a puzzle, so the begonias wouldn't grow any bigger. He planted vines like moonflower and grapes, roses and clematis. And as they began to climb, he built a ladder for them out of metal sign holders (in the winter when the leaves are gone, the grid they form looks like a Mondrian painting as well).
When the vines reached an upstairs neighbor's window, he wove a net of twine and threw it down from the roof, so the vines could latch onto it and skirt the windows above.
All in, he has planted more than 300 plants (and spent about $8,000), a tally that does not include the seeds from a wildflower mix he tipped into a planter last May, the progeny of which is now waist high.
As a child, Aguilar said, he learned early on to fit in, to take up as little space as possible, to be nearly invisible. He came to this country at age 9 to be treated for a brain tumor and lived on Long Island with a series of aunts and their families, whom he barely knew. He grew estranged from his parents.
In six years, he moved six times and attended six schools, graduating early to study biochemistry at the University at Buffalo, though he eventually dropped out. His professional life as a designer can be summed up by the manifesto "do more with less."
But his garden, as abundant as a tropical jungle, is in opposition to these principles, a corrective to a lifetime of restraint.
A big enough patch of happiness
"Ask for what you want. Then stick around." That is one of the posts on the blog Viljoen began in May 2007 as a place to stretch out as a writer and photographer.
The blog form was just right for recording her enthusiasms, as she put it, for the minute changes that occur in a garden, like the opening of a rose. It also gave her a way to communicate with her mother back home in Cape Town, over their shared interest in gardening.
But that particular post was no floral reference. It was the epigraph to her first meeting with Mounier, with whom she had been corresponding for a few months, blog to blog, as it were. He was a photographer based in Vancouver, B.C., and she was interested in a photographic technique that he practiced. Googling it, she came upon his blog, which had an inscrutable name, Coriolistic Anachronisms, but lucid essays about his craft.
After a month or so of trading increasingly epic comments and emails with Viljoen, Mounier wrote that if she lived in his city, he would love to take her out for a cup of coffee. She challenged him to do so. In September of that year, he flew in for their first date, a cup of coffee at the Newark airport. Viljoen's post that day was pictorial, a photograph of fireworks.
By January, they were married at her parents' house in Cape Town. "We had rather a good day on Thursday," she wrote with typical economy.
Viljoen's first career was onstage. She had been an opera singer, living in Washington and New York City, and singing in Europe, when she contracted whooping cough in 2000, ending her career. (At 16, when her high school classmates were receiving their pertussis boosters, she hid in the bathroom.)
Looking for another way to pay the rent, she walked into the Chelsea Garden Center and asked for a job. She grew up gardening, so she knew a lot about plants, but not much, she said, about those in this time zone.
Before long, though, she was designing gardens, including a multilevel extravaganza for Anderson Cooper. She also adopted Estorbo, the shop cat, because his jaw was broken and he needed care. Eventually she graduated to a job as the head designer of a company called Holly, Wood & Vine, but in 2009, during the first wallop of the recession, she was let go, a traumatic event that nonetheless jump-started another career, as a garden writer.
With lush photographs and spare prose, Viljoen has used 66 Square Feet to record her life as a gardener, a cook and an urban forager, harvesting mushrooms from Green-Wood Cemetery, beach plums from Jamaica Bay and century-old glass bottles from the dump at Dead Horse Bay, as well as plucking condoms from Prospect Park, a group endeavor she called the Prospect Park Litter Mob, and built a blog around, before throwing out her rubber gloves last spring (that blog's mandate: carpe condom).
Meanwhile, 66 Square Feet (http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/) has slowly gained an avid following, which resulted in an article in Martha Stewart Living and, later, a book deal. Out in 2013, "66 Square Feet" is a diary in recipes that progresses seasonally, the sum of which Viljoen describes as "an edible love letter to living in a tiny space in an enormous city." Though truth be told, she and Mounier hope they will not be living in such a small space forever.
Out on the terrace last week, the light was honey-colored and horizontal. As Estorbo tried halfheartedly to scratch one visitor, Viljoen ducked under a door jamb to offer another visitor a second glass of red currant gin.
"I think two people can live well no matter what and no matter where," she said. "The idea is to take pleasure in life, and be willing to be pleased."