I have just returned from probably the last truly chilly spring weekend in New York. The temperatures this week are in the high 20’s, but ten days ago the skies were still a cold, hard blue (or grey) and there was a gasp of surprise that trees, especially, were getting on with their spring unfolding against all odds in this extended winter.
But Spring was relentlessly trying to make itself felt. In Central Park, magnolias and azaleas presented sudden ballgown sweeps of pink against the familiar buildings towering at the park edges:
Walking the streets – which often felt tougher and grittier than I remember – the wonderful, free-limbed Gingko trees were lighting up the darkest redbrick with brilliant, fresh green leaves. Individual branches caught the light like a streak of liquid metal.
Our first morning began at the wonderful Frick Collection. I have always loved the pale, formal elegance of the three dome-pruned, 1930’s planted, magnolias in the Fifth Avenue Garden, a flurry of restrained pale pink against the extensive grey of the museum and simple topiary planting below. It is rare to prune magnolias – you are generally advised not to do so unless you have to – but these trees have become distinguished sculptural shapes and look great all through the year, especially wonderful when covered in snow.
Magnolias, Fifth Avenue Garden, Frick Collection – images courtesy of the vivacious NYC blog, Tales of a Madcap Heiress
Magnolia in snow – image from The Frick Collection archive
After our happy pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca, Vermeer and Holbein we wandered down to the Seaport area on our way to Brooklyn. We made a beeline for Emily Thompson Flowers on Beekman Street who has a reputation for creating extraordinary floral decorations.
Emily is an accomplished sculptress, trained at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA who has become know for exquisite, unconventional flower arrangements which aim to combine ‘the uncultivated organic world and the delicacy of classical ornamental design’. The girls taking a lunch break in the shop were incredibly welcoming and invited us to look around. The colour palette in the studio was vibrant yet subtle – burnt oranges, pale pinks, dusky mauves. I loved the delicacy of garden plants such as hellebores and fritillaries – graceful plants which usually stay firmly in the border and are not generally used as cutting flowers. There was an atmosphere of rich potential everywhere you looked: in the intriguing selection of foliage plants, the towering shelves of tarnished brass vessels, the hanging rows of black and natural candles and the collection of natural props such as wasps nests.
Now back in the UK I look back at this palette and think how wonderful it would be to design a planting scheme using the same balance of brilliant and muted shades as a starting point …
The exquisite palette at Emily Thompson Flowers Towering shelves of vases and candles at Emily Thompson Flowers Brilliant foliage against geometric floor tiles and a silver tray at Emily Thompson Flowers
In the evening, after Evensong at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue where our son, Llewelyn is singing with the wonderful choir, we went to our new favourite Italian restaurant, Il Buco on Bond Street, just off The Bowery.
How did they know that ‘roasted gnocchi with morels and English peas’ would be my new favourite supper and that placing a gorgeous vase of blown peach coloured peonies on our table would make me smile from the moment I arrived?
The further advantage of the relaxed and delicious Il Buco is that there is a relaxed and delicious sister deli/restaurant Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in the next street. Obviously this means that each day in the city can begin with a perfect breakfast of fresh orange juice, imaginative homemade bread, ‘red-eye coffee’, and homemade ricotta with olive oil:
On our second morning I head up to The Cloisters – an extraordinary museum of medieval art, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, situated way up on 190th Street in Fort Tryon Park which overlooks the Hudson River. As you emerge from the subway it is disorientating to be in Northern Manhattan, but to feel so far away from the hub of the city:
It takes me a while to get my head around the very premise of this museum which is a dazzling collection of important cloisters, chapels, stained glass, sculptures and tapestries, mostly French, mostly from the 12th to 15th Centuries, which are incorporated into a single purpose built museum funded by John D Rockerfeller and which opened to the public in 1938. But I am soon wooed by the staggering beauty of the collection and by the feeling that everything is so well loved and so intelligently cared for.
I head first for the Cuxa Cloister – a salmon pink marble cloister from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa near Perpignan, France, dating from around 1130-1140.
The monastery was sacked in the 17th Century and had fallen into ruin by the 19th Century. As reconstructed here, it is about a quarter of its original size, but the proportions remain the same and additional stone required for the reconstruction was painstakingly sourced from the original quarry. It is bizarre to find yourself peering through stone arches at a twelfth century stone fountain having been on the A train from Columbus Circus only moments before – but I am quickly enjoying the intriguing early spring planting in the beds under the four expertly pollarded crab apple trees. I am enchanted by the tall spires of Fritillaria persica – both the greenish white form and the very dark bruised purple form. Fritillaria persica alba and Narcissus poeticus in the Cuxa Cloister
Two forms of Fritillaria Persica with Narcissus poeticus above and a small white Narcissus – possibly ‘Jenny’ or ‘Thalia’ – below
They look rare and elegant amongst sheaves of neat white Narcissus – and the jewel-like mood is extended by flashes of sharp pink from low-growing species tulips (for example Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’) and touches of delicate rose from pink muscari. This is a satisfying and contemporary interpretation of planting inspired by medieval treatises, herbals and works of art. It would be exciting to try out a similar scheme at home: Fritillaria ‘Ivory Bells, an excellent new selection of the greenish white flowered form, and Fritillaria persica ‘Adiyaman’, with dusky purple flowers, are available from Broadleigh Bulbs, and Kevock Garden Plants offers ‘Ivory Bells’ and Fritillaria persica ‘Midnight Bells’. Both nurseries offer the pale pink grape hyacinth, Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’.
Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’ with white Narcisssus in the Cuxa Cloister
I drink in the endless gorgeous candelabra, perfect orange trees in terracotta pots and the vaulted halls of exquisite stained glass until I have to stop and linger again in front of the Unicorn Tapestries – a series of seven beautiful and complex story-telling tapestries from the South Netherlands (1495 -1505) woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads.
The iconic ‘Unicorn in Captivity’ may have been created as a single image and is rich in imagery of love, fertility and marriage:
The unicorn sits under a tree laden symbolically with ripe pomegranates, and the tapestry is wonderfully and intensely decorated throughout with delicate, mostly botanically accurate, representations of flowering plants offering layers of symbolism on the theme of love and sex. Of the 101 plants featured, 80% have been identified by the New York Botanical Society.
In the next room, I fall completely for a single, earlier – 1400-1415 – South Netherlandish tapestry, ‘The Falcon’s Bath’.
Here courtly figures are persuading a trained falcon to take a bath against a richly clothed rose trellis and a perky flowering turf bench. It is the vibrant, celebratory, highly stylised traditional ‘millefleurs’ background that draws me in. Such strong shapes, sureness of touch and wonderful use of colour – milky pastel pinks and oranges against an inky blue-green:
And so I tear myself away from the 15th Century and rattle back on the A train and then up to the fourteenth floor of an Upper East Side apartment block to meet artist, writer, designer and gardener, Abbie Zabar, and find out about the passionate way she gardens on a tiny Penthouse rooftop. It was Abbie who had warmly recommended The Cloisters to me. I had not met her before but we had corresponded via The Dahlia Papers and she had very kindly invited me to visit. I knew (not least when she announced that her great friend, Chris, CEO of a major not for profit organisation, was managing to find time to make me her ‘special scones’ !) that the visit would be a brilliant treat.
From the moment I emerge and step directly into her rooftop garden, the collection of olive oil jars which house a refreshingly free-growing collection of boxwood, create a sense of shelter and intimacy away from the blasting wind and industrial feel of the roof tops beyond:
The elegant apartment paved with smooth limestone flags and discreet, perfectly proportioned cupboards, is orientated always to the rooftop terrace at its perimeter. From the neatest stainless steel kitchen – where lemon verbena tea is simmering away in the covetable vintage pyrex coffee pots she has been collecting for years – a single slim window frames the now famous hawthorn terrace ( see New York Times feature) and an 18th Century gilded Italian mirror above her caramel leather sofa holds an image of the terrace which greets you as soon as you arrive:
The terrace is tiny, but Abbie – who has written books about container gardening, topiary and is a herb and alpine plant specialist – had the brave idea 12 years ago to plant three hawthorn trees (Crataegus pyracantha) in containers to see if she could harness their long season and fantastic toughness to create a natural shade canopy fourteen floors up in a position which is battered by wind and harsh winter conditions and then overwhelmed by sun and heat in the summer. The project is a continued labour of love – Abbie, who as a matter of extreme good fortune ‘loves to prune ‘, is a petite woman of a certain age, but she gets up on a seven foot ladder with goggles and protective clothing throughout the winter to remove the staggeringly long thorns from the trees. She has just repotted them into newly made oak Versailles tubs – which took serious man power and the risk of a slightly slower start to the season, as the trees adjust to their new homes.
Abbie loves the trees for the shape of their leaves, their flowers, their vibrant orange berries and rich autumn colour, and most of all she loves them for the shelter they provide once the temperatures begin to rise which allows her to enjoy being outside despite the heat and to grow a host of other plants in the gentler climate the trees create at their base. The new oak containers and the immaculate trellis (which includes a cunning sliding trellis section to screen a working area of hose pipe and garden tools) are all painted in an excellent demure milky brown which will be a perfect foil for the rich greens and reds to come:
Abbie is a passionate and inspiring collector of beautifully made objects. As well as 1950’s Murano glass and rare Shaker baskets, she has collected these ‘Jailbird’ nesting boxes made by prisoners in the 30’s and has arranged them in a soaring pattern on her dusky brick wall:
Abbie’s spirited approach to making the most of every possible opportunity to garden in this limited and often hostile space is uplifting. Away from the main terrace, at the end of a skinny external passageway between terrace wall and the interior solarium, I am led to a specialist rock garden – a tiny dynamic city of terracotta and stone containing an expertly nurtured collection of low-growing alpine plants. I love the way the pots hold their own against the sky scrapers beyond.
Here she nurtures rather battered young olive and fig trees with impressive faith:
And yet the Boston Ivy beginning to make its presence felt against the brick suggests that this is a garden which will blow your breath away for its lushness – and sheer audacity – in a couple of months time:
I am taken along a further black painted passage, passing two elegant green-painted wooden benches, hooked up efficiently ship-cabin style, on the way:
Vintage wooden benches, folded away and hooked up ship-cabin style
Here, in the toughest, darkest section of rooftop is a background of dark paint, mirrors, green glass pebbles and softening elements of terracotta and wood ready to be clothed in green as the summer progresses:
Buffeted by the wind we are relieved to get back inside where Abbie serves me a quite wonderful feast of the scones, homemade jam and cream delivered to her, wrapped in a cloth – for me! – earlier that morning:
There is too much to talk about, but we manage to cover the beautifully, solid orchid pots in fine Italian terracotta she has just designed for Seibert and Rice. I naturally bought one to bring home in my hand luggage. The orchid pots are reviewed in detail on Matt Mattus in his excellent blog GROWING WITH PLANTS.
Abbie also told me about her exhibition which begins in June 2015: Abbie Zabar: Ten Years of Flowers at Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural centre just outside the City. This is a woman who managed to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every week for ten years to make an unbroken record of the famously extravagant floral arrangements in its entrance hall …
A taste of Abbie Zabar’s works on paper or board for her Wave Hill Exhibition, Summer 2015.
I wish I could be back in New York for the exhibition and to revisit this garden when it has fully sprung to life. Instead I go on my way back to street level and down to the Lower East Side.
That evening we discover the serene underground Japanese restaurant, Kyo Ya. I am charmed and calmed by the wooden interior with beautiful iron screens, the opportunity to taste different ‘Spring sake’ from tiny pottery vessels, and completely delicious food.
Each slice of pressed sushi with marinaded mackerel was decorated with tiny flowers and delicate piles of wasabi or pickled ginger:
Pressed sushi of marinaded mackerel with flowers at Kyo Ya
We sit against a perfect screen of almost luminous Honesty (lunaria annua) seed heads pressed within panes of glass.
Part II of An English Gardener in New York, From the High Line to Ground Zero, to follow shortly.