Toddler Garden in Brooklyn

Some evidence of maturity in the small Brooklyn garden belies its true age–only 16 months since planting started, merely a toddler garden. I wonder if I’m in for a bout of the “terrible twos.”


Now that we’ve moved into the latter half of September and autumn is just around the corner, I think this is a good time to evaluate some of the plantings. The shady side (below) still retains foliage interest, with a diverse mixture of shapes, structures, and colors. Some of the plants with larger leaves–Astilboides tabularis, Darmera peltata, Ligularia japonica–look much better at a distance. Their leaf tissues are delicate and, although extraordinarily sensuous in spring and most of the summer, they take on a beaten look by late summer and fall. They don’t stand the summer heat well, at least in the city, even though they are almost entirely in shade. I need to seek out probably two other plants that retain a more youthful look into the fall. I’m thinking a large form of equisetum might be interesting.


On the other hand, the plants on the sunny side are thriving. The black bamboo (r to l), Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’, Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Steroidal Giant’, Panicum ‘Cloud 9’, and (hidden) bronze fennel and Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain mint) have held up very well through the stress of summer heat and are in active growth still. They’re crowded, though (this might be the “terrible twos”), so some changes are in store for next spring.


I still want to stain the timbers used for terracing, but I’m undecided about color. The slate of the back wall or a lighter color closer to that of the gravel? I suppose I’ll have to try both, then decide.


The reflection in the pool on a cool, sunny morning … I have no qualms about this. The pool dominates the garden, and will remain as it is.


Some of the smaller plantings are doing well. Tumbling over the low wall here is a late star, Ceratostigma plumbagenoides (plumbago) flowering in brilliant blue in bright sun (it almost seems to vibrate) and it continues very late, then the foliage turns an exciting red. The Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’ to its left adds a pleasant contrast in color and form. The sedum isn’t as pink as it looks here (my camera seems to amplify some colors). Behind is a ‘Snowflake’ Hydrangea quercifolia, which will add greatly to the massing of large foliage at the back corners of the garden in a few years, and should push out those endlessly remontant, drooping flowers.


The Panicum ‘Cloud 9’ is an interesting contrast to the huge leaves of the Tetrapanax. I’ll tie it back soon to give it a vertical lift. I do like this bit of the prairie in Brooklyn and hope I don’t have to give up its space. I’ve decided not to mulch and wrap the Tetrapanax this winter in hope the cold will kill back some, or all, of the top growth without killing the plant entirely. A risk but, I think, a necessary one.


More plumbago creeping out around the base of one of the four Sunburst Honey locusts.


The garden seating, which should have been stained the color of the fence, but I’ve been too busy with the Federal Twist garden. The watering hose lives in the metal bowl.







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33 thoughts on “Toddler Garden in Brooklyn

      1. Personally, I’d go for the dark colour… but there’s something thematic that sticks in my mind. You have a light side and a shade side to the garden itself, and have exploited this so successfully in the plantings. Is there more you can do? Whether it’s with the colour of the timbers or with something completely different, I’d love to see more done with the dark/light/shade/sun theme.

        1. Pat, I like the thematic suggestion. I need to think about this. It’s quite an interesting idea. I have a lot of gold in the garden–Sunburst honey locust, Sedum ‘Angelina’, minature and large hostas, the variegated Cares muskingumensis (which reads almost as gold). I had planned to add a mass of all green Hakonechloa at the back. Since I can’t find it, I may go with ‘All Gold’. These are only superficial things. I like playing with the meaning. Possibly some contrast with the dominant, still, reflective, dark pool.

  1. James,
    I often talk about gardens in terms of grades; my wife is a third grade teacher. A new garden is like a sweet elementary school pupil: sweet, eager-to-please, behaves well, pliable. The plants generally get along well together. Then the garden hits puberty and all hell beaks loose. The plants aren’t being nice to each other. Some are shrinking violets, some are bullies. Sometimes discipline and tough-love are required. Some plants need to be sent off to boarding school. Young adulthood is a nice period where there is optimism glow to it. Then middle age hits with its overweight issues and mid-life crises. The golden years are all about shade if there are trees. I haven’t been gardening long enough to know about the last two but I have experienced middle-schoolers and high school students with all the drama that goes with them.. In my system, your sunny side is approaching premature puberty. Enjoy yourself now, before the acne and hormones kick in!! Things look great now, BTW.

    1. Good analogy, Michael. Not to be overly dramatic, but perhaps there’s a story of passion here, sacrificing (if only temporarily) the garden to that spectacular Tetrapanax. But I have to remember, this is just the shakedown cruise. (To further mix metaphors.)

  2. Darmera is so gorgeous for much of the season… and so painful to look at when it begins to go brown. Ditto for astilboides. What a shame, because they are such fabulous plants and look so good in that first photo, from a distance. I’d be interested to know what you find that performs better into autumn.

    Seeing this garden change over time has been a treat. Thank you for showing the progress.

      1. I was on a twilight tour of Chanticleer last evening where I saw Farfugium. It has very tough foliage, and looks like it would last through the summer in good condition. The only question is whether it would be hardy in my microclimate. I may give it a try.

  3. I see what you mean about the pending terrible twos James – which has the biggest elbows and ahead of time.

    I guess the cloud 9 is pulling to the light away from the dark of the fence behind and wonderfully ‘cloudy’ it looks too. Need you straighten it?

    I like the Brooklyn garden. The tetrapanax is a triumph and I’ll be interested to see what evolves come next spring following a mulch free NY winter.

    1. The Cloud 9 is really being squeezed by the Tetrapanax, Rob. And flopping over, but I can tie it back invisibly. I might consider replacing it with one of the new beautifully colored Andropogon gerardii such as ‘October Thunder’ if the Tetrapanax remains as large after a winter of over exposure. That grass is much more vertical, at least in the country garden. But only time will tell. I’ll have to reevaluate the situation next spring.

  4. It looks amazing for such a young garden! I’ve been contemplating adding some Ceratostigma to my own garden…but was worried it might overwhelm smaller plants…what has your experience been with it? I’m mostly concerned it might swamp newly-planted warm-season grasses. I’m always wary of Tetrapanax…I’ve seen it spread insanely fast here in Portland…even when killed to the ground. Love the ‘Cloud Nine’…that haze of blooms is divine!

  5. The Ceratostigma certainly grows well in Brooklyn, but it’s certainly not overly rambunctious. And it seems to barely survive in the country. But I think my experience is vastly different from what you will experience in Portland. I can imagine Tetrapanax in any form would be highly invasive in your climate. I don’t think it’s supposed to even survive in mine. But I’ll know next year.

  6. “Looks much better at a distance” is frequently my gardening motto.

    Do you have an example of the color the timbers will naturally age to? I imagine it’s close to the color of the gravel. I would definitely give lighter a try first. But I’m kind of liking the new-wood light brown/grey now that all the plants are in. Maybe just leave it another season?

    I feel like the mass/weight of each side is a little too far apart. The sun side is so tall/heavy compared to the shade side. (But I love that “Cloud Nine” too.) Would an oak leaf hydrangea make it on the shade side?

    1. I’m tempted to let them age since that involves the least work. Maybe there are stains or wood treatments that will speed a “natural” darkening.” A neutral gray would be good. A friend uses steel wool soaked in vinegar to get a stained look.

      As to the Oakleaf hydrangea, I think it might be worth a try, perhaps one of the smaller ones. Hydrangea foliage would be likely to give me the longevity I want.

  7. I feel you have very little to worry about, James Golden, in your contained Brooklyn garden, any more than you’ve had in your expansive FT garden.
    I thought maybe it might all be a bit too small, but you’ve gone and shown how glorious a small space can be.
    It’s delicious. The blue-grey walls pack a ( quiet ) punch.
    It’s new and young, but so very alive.

  8. What an interesting selection of plants, especially when you are able to toy with sun and shade. I’m interested in that Ceratostigma plumbagenoides since I saw a lonely pot of it at the garden centre the other day, but didn’t bite. I’ll now have to go back and snag it ;c) I also planted the Astilboides for the first time this spring and see what you mean about it looking sad in the late summer, early autumn. What with the vagaries of age and the marauding squirrels, mine looks a little downtrodden. But the whole in your garden looks lovely James and it is interesting to me how pivotal those apparently random boxwood are to the overall design. I also vote for the timbers to be the same dark as the fence, but am interested to see the tones you’re struggling with. I do love how beautifully lopsided the garden is :c) and applaud your efforts in this ‘toddler’ space.

  9. I’ve noticed that Astilboides and Darmera, when used by Piet Oudolf in gardens in the UK, last much longer than they do in our continental climate. The Darmera over there makes a beautiful plant, with a lot of color, in the fall, whereas here, it’s a dried, scarred, wrinkled thing. The difference must the the heat of our summers. I wonder how these plants last in our Pacific Northwest. On the other hand the Ceratostigma does very well in Brooklyn, on the sunny side. You can feel the deep blue almost drilling into your eyes.

  10. It’s looking so settled for only being a year and a half old. Your challenge will be to keep everything in scale in such a small, tightly planted area, but so far it is all working well. I like that you use big bold foliage in this contained space — the way it contrasts with the Zen-like tidy box balls and serene pool is just wonderful.

    Can’t wait to see those trees take on some size!

    1. As the growth of summer slows, I’m noticing other issues. In addition to crowding in some areas, I have holes in others. And the box in the deep shade of the fence seem to be dying on the “dark” side. I think quite a few adjustments will be necessary in the spring. But the pool and fish remain healthy and, so far, the needs of the fish are in balance with nutrients available in the water. No sign of algae blooms. Last, I’m happy to report that the repeated pruning of the trees seems to be paying off. They are finally beginning to move up instead of out.

  11. Thank you for allowing me to step into your serene urban oasis, once more. What you have created soothes both the eyes and the soul. If you think that the terrible twos are challenging, wait until you encounter the horrible threes 🙂

  12. Gardeners are always amazed when the things we plant do exactly what we want them to, especially when they do it in such a short period of time. Your toddler looks good, I hope it will respect you when it’s a teenager.

    1. Working at home this morning I was able to look out at that garden as the sun first struck it, then moved from back to front toward the house. For the first time, I felt it’s beginning to show a more adult spirit, suggestive of a jungle of green that hides itself from surrounding houses. I’m not sure when or where I’ll find that teenager. I hope yours is behaving.

  13. What an interesting project. We have downtown gardens in San Antonio, Texas. I like the way you guys use metaphors of toddlers, puberty to talk about plants.

  14. The dark fence is stunning against the texture and greens of the garden. In the winter, when the grasses are golden, it will surely take on a different backdrop- and just as lovely. I followed your previous posts when choosing a color to paint the fence, but what type of lumber was used in its construction? I am baffled by the choices/prices and pros/cons of wood selection! Thank you.

    1. I didn’t have much choice because my garden is in Brooklyn where garden fencing isn’t easy to find. I found having the fence built from good lumber would have cost a fortune, so I used the least objectionable pre-made fencing I could find. It’s pine and will eventually rot, I’m sure, and I’ll have to deal with it then. If you can afford it, I’d go with a more weather resistant wood like cedar or redwood, and have the fence installed by professionals. If budget is an issue, I suggest the kind of pre-manufactured panels I used. The dark color hides a world of sins.

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