There are few gardening conditions more dispiriting than the scrap of earth that lies between a New York City building façade and the sidewalk. Passersby toss in candy wrappers. Local Laws 10 and 11 mandate scaffolding to inspect and repair stone work which can take a few weeks, a few months, or what feels like forever. Nonetheless, a few building owners officially take on the task of managing these strips, and in some cases a sole volunteer will make a small paradise out of an unpromising plot.
|365 West End Avenue in June|
Carol Morton is one of these intrepid gardeners. 365 West End Avenue is a grand old rental building where tenants who stayed put still meander through what seems like vast spaces to anyone looking for an apartment today. The garden, however, was not a joy; on either side of the front entrance ubiquitous yews wrapped in dusty ivy were left to fend for themselves. The mandated scaffolding, supposedly erected only every five years, has occurred at 365 three times in eight years. Each time it blocks light and air, causing plants to struggle.
|'Sombreuil' with Clematis|
Carol planted impatiens for starters, and removed the old plants one at a time. The owners of the building, the Mehlon family, were skeptical at first, but have become enthusiastic supporters. “They love the garden now,” Carol reports.
In the early years nobody helped, which was fine with Carol. A quintessential West Sider, she says ”I don’t want anyone else’s opinion. I’ll make my own mistakes.”
I don’t know what those mistakes might have been at the beginning, but there don’t seem to be any now. Carol specializes in roses, if specialization is a reflection of passion and knowledge. She selects roses only a daring gardener would risk; eye-stopping orange and purple, leavened with yellow and white. “I want only the greatest roses,” Carol says. She selects from the ratings of the American Rose Society, the official arbiter of commercially available roses, and purchases new ones only if there has been a fatality. All her roses are versatile, adaptable, continuously blooming, and disease and pest free.
Carol’s inspiration has been her cousin Richard Katz’s roof garden in Brooklyn. It was his roses that convinced her to try them on West End Avenue, and now she is returning the favor. “I gave Richard ‘Dortmund,’ a climbing red pillar rose he planted at ground level. It is enormous, covering the entire gate to the garage.”
Now to the roses: starting at 365’s southern corner, ‘Sombreuil,’ popular since 1850, has flat, creamy, very large white flowers, is mildew-free and ideal for training on walls. It blooms vigorously in June then again in unexpected, unpredictable flushes throughout the season.
Next in line is ‘Westerland,’ a beautiful apricot-orange rose with big, three-inch orange flowers, semi-double and wonderfully fragrant. It pales once the street trees leaf out, and it loses some of its orange cast.
‘Sally Holmes’ follows up the line northward. The individual flowers are modest, but the cumulative massing on a plant is memorable. Close up, the flattened form changes color with the season: white in early spring, apricot in later spring and early summer, and rosy pink with the cooler nights of fall.
The startling ‘Night Owl’ is next, sporting dark, reddish-purple blooms with prominent yellow stamens. “I am not pleased with it;” Carol complains, “there is not enough light for it to flourish.” She has only herself to blame. When new street trees were planted Carol, a good New Yorker, took on the watering task. The trees flourished, and now the roses that used to be in full sun are shaded most of the day. Some gardeners are architects of their own demise.
Carol’s season doesn’t end with the fading of the roses. In the summer the garden glows with the double white flowers of Rose of Sharon, which climb to the second floor. Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ accompanies summer phlox. “I’m crazy about tuberous begonias, and I planted eight this year.“
|Spring Columbine at Ground Level|
Like most generously spirited New Yorkers, Carol has a demanding day job; she manages money for individuals. “I work in the garden on weekends, about three hours a day, and the building staff waters. Carol has been doing this now for ten or more years, and there are no hard and fast rules. “Gardens are very idiosyncratic,” Carol observes. “In this building heat leaches from the limestone façade and creates a microclimate that encourages even Cannas to winter over.”
As if the frequent scaffolding and the robust street trees were not trouble enough, passersby allow their dogs to pee in the garden, attracted by the Please Curb Your Dog signs. “If dog pee smells so good,” Carol reasons, “why don’t they let them pee in the house?”
|Carol Morton in the Garden|
However, there are many more appreciative passersby than abusers. Recently, one woman walking with her ailing son said “ I can’t tell you how much this means to us. We just can’t get to the park anymore.”
The roses alone are worth a visit in June. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, take a look, and please leave a thank you note.