Mickey Rathbun: Rooftop gardens for the stars

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Published: 8/11/2016 3:48:08 PM

Most of the gardeners I know and write about work in the ground, digging up dirt, pulling out rocks and roots, and making pleasing landscapes with trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s a long-term process that plays out over years, even decades.

The other day I met a gardener who turns this concept on its head. For Judith Maniatis, a garden designer who works on penthouse terraces in New York City, “in ground” gardening is a rare event. Although she occasionally works on townhouse gardens, most of the time, she creates beautiful gardens in planters and pots high above the city.

Maniatis has been working in garden design since 1995. In 2000 she started her own business. Many of her clients are popular celebrities, but she doesn’t name names.

She says the hardest part of her work is dealing with fussy building superintendents. “They’re little tyrants!” she says.

Container gardening may strike some of us as limited, but Maniatis insists that container gardening “is not anyone’s poor cousin.” And a glance at her work proves her point.

For Maniatis, the containers themselves are an integral part of the design. As a former art student and antique dealer, she loves pots of all shapes and sizes. “It’s about how the containers look, marry with the plants, and how they relate to the interior of the apartment.”

Although she loves the color and texture of terra cotta containers, she finds them impractical because they crack easily and are very heavy. Instead she uses a mix of fiberglass containers in a shade of dark gray that resembles lead along with simple Chinese and Indonesian pots. “The glazes make them so beautiful.”

Building-code weight restrictions limit her work to some extent. (Imagine a 10-foot-tall Japanese maple in a 4-foot-wide concrete planter falling through your bedroom ceiling!) To keep things light, she uses a soilless planting mix.

Maniatis creates new designs for spring, summer and fall. In the winter, she uses a combination of evergreen branches of different colors and textures, including boxwood, pine and cedar, to make an appealing visual display. “By March, my clients are glad to see me,” she says.

Unlike many in-ground gardeners who favor perennials, Maniatis relies almost entirely on unusual annuals. She explains that perennials generally aren’t well suited for containers. “They have a short blooming period and then turn nasty and leave a big empty space.”

In her work, “everything has to be perfect,” she says. This means taking out plants while they’re still fresh. “It’s hard to pull out pansies and primroses that are still looking good,” she says. “They’re doing a beautiful job, but as soon as the weather turns hot, they look terrible.”

Maniatis uses small trees, evergreen and deciduous, and a variety of shrubs. She favors hydrangeas of all kinds. She explains that the size of the container will determine the size of the plant. “The root ball can only get so big,” she says. She does periodic root pruning and adds fresh soil to keep them healthy.

Altitude affects climate. Gardening on Manhattan rooftops “is like gardening in the Himalayas,” says Maniatis. “It’s so windy.” Fortunately, she says, “plants are extremely adaptable. They say, ‘It was kinda bad last week but now I’m OK.’ ”

Her work is full of surprises. Lately, she’s encountered squirrels on her penthouse terraces. “It’s a mystery how they get way up there,” she said. “I guess you could say they’re upwardly mobile.”

Maniatis loves her job. Not only does she enjoy working with plants, she likes that people recognize and appreciate her craft. Window boxes give her particular pleasure. “They add beauty to the building,” she says.

“My art is ephemeral,” she explains. “Things pass quickly. I like that. By the end of the summer, I love taking everything out and doing a whole new thing for fall.”

What Maniatis said about new plants for the fall struck a chord with me. I admit that I tend to let my June-planted containers become tangled, leggy messes after Labor Day. This year I will try sprucing them up with ornamental kale, mums and other fall favorites. The spent plants can make a contribution to the compost pile.

Master gardeners at Berkshire farmers market

Western Mass Master Gardeners will be at the farmers market at the Berkshire Mall Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon to answer questions and advise patrons about the new soil-testing policy. The mall is located at the intersection of Old State Road and Route 8 in Lanesborough.

Crunchy munchy fun for kids

Are your youngsters picky about eating fresh vegetables? You might want to take them to Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston for a Garden Sprouts program celebrating salad Tuesday from 10 to 11 a.m. For pre-schoolers through kindergartners, the event will feature vegetables picked fresh from the garden and ready to eat.

Children must be accompanied by an adult. Cost: Members, $5; nonmembers, $10.

Register in advance at towerhillbg.org

Collecting andSaving Seeds

Western Mass Master Gardener Diane Wetzel will present a class titled “Save Money Collecting/Saving Seeds From Your Favorite Flowers or Vegetables” on Aug. 27 from 10 a.m. until noon. The class will take place in the demonstration gardens behind Springside House in Springside Park at 847 North St. in Pittsfield.

For more information, contact Mary Ann Emery, 743-4284, memery395@gmail.com or Jim McCarthy, 637-2940, heljim@msn.com.

Registration is not required.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.




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