If you’re one of the lucky New Yorkers who has a private outdoor space, there’s a good chance you have struggled to figure out how to make it your own—especially if it’s small, as balconies and backyards in your average New York apartment tend to be.
But landscape architect Steve Griggs, who has worked in New York for decades, doesn’t think it needs to be that hard. One of his most recent projects was creating a rooftop oasis for the building at 86 Bedford Street (yes, the home of Chumley’s), which hit the market for $12.75 million earlier this year. (It was recently rented for a whopping $17,500/month.)
And while that rooftop is larger than, say, a small private terrace, Griggs believes that those spaces can be turned into their own little oases—with some help from thoughtful design. “Anybody who has a rooftop in New York City is crazy not to take advantage of it, even if it’s a five-by-five area,” he says. “The idea is to create your own vibe, your own little space in the world.”
Here are some of his tips for how to do just that, no matter the size of your outdoor space.
Bring the indoors outside. “You want to try to extend the indoor living space to the outdoors, so it becomes one space,” he explains. “You’re basically building an outdoor room.” So consider how you want the space to be used—for lounging, entertaining, cooking, or something else—and go from there.
Adding stylish decorative touches, whether through furniture or simple pieces like vases, that connect to your interior design can also achieve that.
Maximize the space you have. “Space in New York is very limited, so you have to be creative,” says Griggs. In the case of the house on Bedford Street, that meant building out a planter that’s covered with ivy (fake—but we’ll get to that), which serves as both an aesthetic focal point and a smart way to hide the building’s mechanicals.
And even if your space is super-small, Griggs thinks you can make a space come alive. “What do you really need? A space to sit, and a potted plant.”
Know your environment. A key element to keeping an outdoor space looking good over time is to work with environmental factors—such as how much sunlight it gets, or how windy it can be—and plan your decorative elements accordingly. Griggs uses boxwood and ornamental grasses in his NYC projects quite a bit since both are quite hardy. Griggs recommends looking for plants that are “low maintenance [and] low water.”
And yes, it’s okay to use fake plants; on Bedford Street, Griggs used artificial ivy (which has been UV-treated so it won’t fade in the sun) because it would provide that touch of greenery right away. He does, however, recommend using high-end artificial products if that’s the way you’re planning to go. “It has to look like it belongs,” he notes.
Add lighting. To ensure that your space is usable during the day and at night, Griggs recommends using LED, low-voltage lights to illuminate the space.
Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Whether it’s materials or foliage, Griggs thinks that putting different decorative elements together—types of seasonal plants, modern and rustic furniture, and the like—makes for a more interesting environment. “Get odd numbers of low-maintenance plants,” he recommends.