The Lucky Gardener

Urban Outsiders, #4

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the HGTV show, Urban Outsiders, in which I acted as design consultant and for which my company did the installations. Four gardens in Brooklyn, NY and two in Manhattan.

The upper East Side of Manhattan was the scene for this episode. We were to build paths, patio, beds and a pergola.

The new owner of this studio apartment inherited a true mess of a garden space, which is actually larger than the apartment and presented many challenges logistically. Getting materials in and out the tiny entrance, working around camera crew and sound guys was challenging. The project had to be completed in 5 days, and with rain 4 of thosecdays, we scrambled, got soaked and brought untold yards of mud through the tiny apartmen

Fortunately for all, the owner’s mom cooked up a storm every day, feeding at least 10 hungry and wet crew members.

The backyard as we found it

The backyard as we left  it

Rocks In My Head?
October 26, 2011, 10:00
Filed under: bluestone, garden design, inspiration, masonry, patios, Uncategorized

I find comfort in the company of rocks. Boulders, field stone, quarried stone or sandy pebbles – they all make me grin. The feelings run deep, relating mostly to my preference for using natural materials in my garden designs.

As with enduring lifelong friendships, certain rocks have accompanied me through more than one house move, becoming part of gardens in different locations. A good rock is hard to find and not lightly left behind.

One day last Spring, I wanted to rearrange a few plants and rocks in the garden. For some reason, I encountered exceptional resistance while attempting to move one of my larger ‘friends’ just a few inches from where it was. The wrestling match that ensued left me breathless, yet exhilarated.

At that moment, with a twinge in my back and twinkle in my eye, I realized that even though I design and build gardens every day, it had been quite a while since I was in the trenches, interacting with rocks at that more personal level. I missed the action, bloody fingers, blisters and all.

That brief encounter was an eye-opener. And, whether it was a personal challenge to summon long-dormant abilities, or a direct, some said foolhardy, attack on the aging process, I gave myself a summer project of building a bluestone patio on our property.

I set out each day full-tilt, buoyed by youthful enthusiasm and, no doubt, glorified memories of my own past conquests. With focus firmly fixed to the tough work of hauling, lifting and sorting slabs of stone, the patio quickly began to take shape.

However, as August gave way to September, fatigue and apathy had me in their grips and slowed progress considerably.

Heart and soul lost ground to creaking bones and aching joints that led to nightly bouts of live rigor mortis.

I’m convinced that had it not been for a hurricane, flattened wheelbarrow tire and my Chiropractor’s summer vacation, I surely would have finished in time for our Labor Day party.

When did rocks get so heavy, anyway?


Here is another garden transformation we completed in Brooklyn, NY as part of the HGTV series, Urban Outsiders. G. biloba Gardens, my landscape Design/Build company, was hired as construction contractor for six episodes of the series.

Because of the production schedule, we had only 6 days to complete the entire renovation.

This space, about 8′ deep  x  25′ long, is in Brooklyn Heights, along the Promenade.

Bare concrete walls and a concrete slab floor was the view the new owners inherited.

A simple and cozy design, by show host Matt James, changed the mood from alley way to Mediterranean.

The view of the back of the space shows a sitting wall and built-in cedar storage.

Snow What?
March 24, 2011, 16:11
Filed under: garden design, masonry, patios, snow pattern

The joy of Spring was put on hold yesterday as a mild snow storm made its way through our neighborhood, dropping 2 very un-welcome inches on our hopes for a quick season change.

Luckily, snow falling on warming soil doesn’t last very long and this storm followed that pattern mercifully.

The snow did provide some short-lived thrills to those lucky enough to get out to see it. Being one of those ‘Lucky’ few, I was treated to some images of melting snow interacting with the gardens and structures around my studio.

Can you guess what you’re looking at from the first photo? Maybe the second?

Quick Change, Artist (ically)


A few years ago, I was hired as Construction Contractor for a British Production Company doing a gardening show for HGTV, called “Urban Outsiders”, in Brooklyn, New York. The show’s premise was that host Matt James, a well-respected gardening expert/columnist in Britain, would come to the States and transform horrendous-looking city backyards into places of beauty and calm for their distressed owners. We did 6 episodes, 4 in Brooklyn and 2 in Manhattan.

Urban Outsiders, Brooklyn New York – Jon with Crew (above)

Show host, Matt James, with Jon (below)

Before and After’ pictures are always fascinating, so here are some of the gardens we built for the show. More to follow.

(Before, above) A typical backyard chosen for the show

(After, below) Magical transformation of the space

Want a patio?
February 4, 2011, 14:15
Filed under: bluestone, garden design, masonry, patios, Uncategorized

Who doesn’t?

If you have any unused outdoor space, wouldn’t a beautiful bluestone patio, say 10′ by 12′ fit your entertaining and relaxation purposes perfectly? I get to build 15 or so patios a year. Each is unique in the materials, shapes and the views they offer. The common goal is the comfort and extended use of a property.

My material of choice is stone, though there are sites that call out for brick. Some projects call for precast pavers;  around a pool or when the house style warrants. Manufacturers have come a long way to provide very nice color and design options.
Below are some time-line photos of a recent installation. Follow the pictures to see how many steps and  labor hours are required for proper construction.
The pictures will help you to understand how intense the process is and why the right techniques are essential to a long-lived structure..


Rolling (and Tumbling) Stones
July 30, 2010, 19:04
Filed under: bluestone, garden design, masonry, patios

I’m always on the look out for new and exciting products to include in my garden designs.

So, when I got an invitation to tour a new manufacturing facility at one of my stone supplier’s quarry, I didn’t think twice about making the 6 hour roundtrip journey. It isn’t often something new comes from out of the earth, especially when the products are made from eons-old stone.

What I found at the site was incredible. Here, among the rolling Pennsylvania hills, was a massive operation of quarrying and creating stone products, with inventiveness that went far beyond the typical patio slabs sold in every local stone yard and home center.

I was lead through a series of five buildings involved in the process of turning chunks of rock into delicate patio, wall, curbing, benches and veneer products.
The last building of the tour contained two machines. The first was a tumbler that rivaled the size of a subway car. Within it, large and small pieces of rock were tumbled with water and stone grit to soften their edges and surfaces – creating stone that resembled broken pieces of well-worn beach glass. (see photos)


The size of the second machine was insane. a stone-cutter, larger than anything I’d seen in my years hanging around such places. Had the magnitude of the operation somehow been lost on me thus far, this close encounter with the colossal stone cutting blade, suspended from an immense hydraulic carriage, erased any such possible ignorance.

I was, at first, almost afraid to approach the eleven and a half foot diameter disc, with its hundreds of ear-sized diamond blades. Once I got comfortable being the David to this Goliath, fascination and admiration washed through me. I began imagining the potential for including its products in my designs. We finally made friends as I posed with it to fully reveal its magnitude. (see photo)

I am accustomed to being around large and loud machines but I wasn’t prepared for the massive scale of equipment this company used to make their unique natural stone products. If you’ve ever wondered why buying rocks is so expensive, consider the multi-million dollars of equipment a business has to invest in order to make the stones for your projects.

Look at the different colors of these beautiful bluestone slabs.