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Notes From the Balcony

Photograph by Caroline Härdter

Brawl Between the Boxwoods

Marigolds wither, periwinkles rot, and a tree mysteriously dribbles cat urine. Our writer is in over her head, once more, with plants.

The balcony I am currently battling looks east over the rooftops of the West Village. People sometimes visit and suggest it’s too bad we don’t have an apartment on the other side of the building, where the views are of the Hudson River. But on clear evenings we watch the deep yellow light set the whole Village aglow.

I often sit on the balcony and pretend Jane Street is a mountain pass: the townhouses are low, like rolling hills, until Greenwich Street, where a couple of apartment buildings rise up like peaks on either side of the street. There is a spectacular red wall half-covered with ivy that billows in small breezes and fills with starlings at dusk. To the north, Washington Street curves west just enough for us to see a sliver of the High Line and the Standard Hotel built over it. At night, the shifting lights of the Hotel Gansevoort alternately clash and compliment the lights of the Empire State building farther north.

A garden draws your attention to the ground, to the well-planned beds. It turns out a balcony, no matter how you plant it, competes with the view.

I was thinking about this when I went to the Chelsea Garden Center at 44th Street and 11th Avenue to buy plants. After months of staring and drawing little diagrams, I was finally ready to dig in. I wanted to line the railing with flower boxes in imitation of a terrace I remember from a trip to Switzerland long ago. I pictured cascades of colorful petunias. I thought I’d buy a small tree, partly because I love them and partly because, living above tree height now, I miss the dappled light that comes into a home through tree branches.

I thought I’d buy several large pots and fill them with a combination of evergreens, perennials, spring bulbs, and willowy grasses. I thought I might buy a bench. And a small table. I hoped for an all-weather storage box in which to keep tools and supplies. And a pot for tomatoes, another one for herbs, and a box for each of the children to grow marigolds and whatever else they wanted.

Does anyone remember the dimensions of my balcony? Because clearly I didn’t.

It wouldn’t have mattered, though, because I made an important tactical error when I left the house that Saturday morning: I was alone with the children, which meant I would have approximately 10 minutes to complete the errand.

In the end I had more than that, but only thanks to a gecko.

I wouldn’t have guessed it, but the employees of urban garden centers are not as stoic about bugs and animals as their counterparts in the country. When I lived in Charlottesville, I once saw a woman at a nursery gently cup a spider in her weathered hand in order to take it outside. My grandmother used to pet the bumblebees every morning as she walked, barefoot, around her garden in her nightgown. (She didn’t work for a nursery, but she remains my standard for most things.) At this shop in Manhattan, the woman at the register spotted a gecko on the floor and began to shriek. He seemed to have arrived via the delivery truck from the South that was still idling on the street, and one of the delivery men, who’d been playfully flirting with the woman before the lizard appeared, tried to help by bringing a pot down over it. His intentions were good; I believe he was trying to contain it and take it outside, but the lip of the pot cut the gecko in half, and while the head and legs ran off, the tail bounced and writhed around on the floor.

Employees of urban garden centers are not as stoic about bugs and animals as their counterparts in the country.Apparently this is what geckos do—it is a survival tactic—but I didn’t know that at the time. My children were distraught, the man with the pot felt terrible and kept trying to kick the severed tail under a shelf, the shrieking woman never let up. The rest of the gecko was long gone, on his way to growing a new tail in a warmer place, I hope. The children crouched down and watched every last twitch of his old one. A pitiful sight. I tried to distract them—“Oh, look at the pretty African violet!”—but there’s not much to work with in a garden center for the under-six set. Not being able to remove a limb myself, I eventually told them to stay put. The extra time allowed me to gather what I could for the balcony.

What I came home with: 1 window box (I would need at least 6 to line the railing as planned), 1 large pot, 1 evergreen shrub, 1 standard boxwood, 1 variegated boxwood, 6 small periwinkle plants, 4 bags of potting soil, and a paper bag full of broken clay pieces to put in the pot and window box for drainage. I decided I needed more time to figure out what kind of tree and perennials I wanted (and could reasonably hope to grow on a balcony). In the meantime, the plan was to put annuals in the window box and around the boxwoods later in the spring. I got it all set up, and while not exactly the bower of my dreams, it was a start and I felt hopeful.

A week later, the super announced the balconies needed to be repaired. We had to bring everything inside. Within 48 hours, blue scaffolding and black netting surrounded the building.

Forget the view. Let’s look at the state of my apartment.

The living room windowsill is draped in black garbage bags. The periwinkle, so green when I bought it, is now mostly dry and yellow. At the end of the dining table, there is an island of more thick garbage bags and towels. On this I have settled the large pot in which I planted the needled evergreen. It’s called a Taxus. I chose it because I liked the way the branches grow up and out in a sort of starburst shape. At least, they did, until the Taxus had to be moved indoors. The weeks it has spent inside have corresponded with its annual growth period, and now two to three inches of pale new growth droops severely at the end of every branch. A weeping Taxus.

The standard boxwood and the variegated one are surviving, but within a day of being moved inside, they began to exude an odor of—it is mystifying—cat piss. Every single person who has come by asks if we have a cat. When I say we don’t, and try to explain about the plants, they go to the windows to find the route the stray must have taken into our apartment.

“We’re on the sixth floor,” I say.

Still they look, and I do understand. The smell is that bad. It’s hard to believe it’s coming from a plant.

I am exactly where I feared I would be: In over my head, once more, with plants. What in the world was I thinking? How is this worth it? It is so easy not to keep plants in the city that I ascribe great virtue to the people who do. I wanted to be among them, but I’m not sure I have what it takes.

But then I stand in my balcony doorway (we’re not permitted to go out there now because of a resurfacing treatment that looks like butterscotch frosting) and dream of flowers. Two blocks down there is a little terrace with a window box of red geraniums. Just one window box, maybe four plants, but they pop in the landscape like a cardinal over a snowfield. Your eye is drawn to them, so simple but so compelling. It doesn’t take much. I’m going to try to remember that when I’m finally allowed to move everything back outside.