Thursday, September 15, 2011

Out and About in Manhattan

If you spend a lot of time walking around the city -- and look up at buildings instead of watching where you’re walking -- you’ll notice floor after floor with empty balconies.  Granted, those postage stamp bits of outdoor space are a little dizzying, but people do pay a premium for them.  Wouldn’t you think they would be filled with furniture and plants and actually used by their owners? If not planted by the owners, what about the developers or the landlords?  They could give some competition to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by nailing a few boxes to the railings and filling them with plants.  Think how beautiful streets would be if buildings had vines cascading down their facades.

A surprising basement entry

On the other hand, tiny spaces at ground level appear to be beloved of their owners or renters.  You can see the difference this makes in a streetscape by walking down almost any block in any of the boroughs. From the elegant townhouses between the great avenues to basement entrance strips of tenement walk-ups, people are making good use of the merest scraps of available space and light.

Plaza Florist window box
Within a walk of only a few blocks, I spotted Plaza Florist on Lexington Avenue with window boxes overflowing with sweet potato vines, three kinds of coleus and trailing pelargoniums.  On the sidewalk outside the shop a mix of topiary myrtle, rosemary, ferns, creeping fig, ornamental peppers and cabbages show the home gardener what can be done on the smallest strip of paving.

Bamboo at Bella Blu
Across the street, Bella Blu uses awning-height bamboo in stone containers to screen a few sidewalk tables from the shop entrances on either side.  Around the corner red-berried holly, variegated ivy and white impatiens fill a zinc doorway planter.  Next door, elephant ears triumph over pink impatiens grown tired at the end of the season.

Carol Prisant, winning over her co-op board, filled her building’s tree pits with a luxurious blend of begonia and sweet potato vine.  The most astonishing growth appears in a tree pit whose tree had been lost to some urban tragedy.  Without competition, the minor fillers became the dominant players.  Attention to detail was meticulous;  the building staff watered, and Carol fertilized every 10 to 14 days.  

A tree-less pit
I made a similar effort at our building on West End Avenue, but with much less attention paid.  The building staff watered, but if I remembered to fertilize twice I’m giving myself more credit than I deserve.  I was also tight-fisted in my purchase of plants, and there were not enough begonias to give a robust show.  In this case, less was definitely not more.  No photographs this year, as I’m embarrassed, but by next year I will have learned my lesson.

Old tins and waxed containers
This last photograph is not in New York City, but on a side street in Jerusalem behind the marketplace.  Nothing is discarded as you can see, and nothing is without its own beauty. 

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