In The Weeds

September 1, 2015
Little-loved plants win the affection of Future Green Studio.

The huge backyard along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was the perfect site for the summertime Sunday afternoon parties that the DJs Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin liked to throw. It had plenty of space, room for a bar, and the overgrowth that comes alongside New York’s lovable Superfund waterway. But they had only temporary leases and permits to throw parties. Their time in the huge backyard wouldn’t last forever.

Carter and Harkin went looking for a permanent home and found something similar: a garbage-strewn industrial lot covered in weeds next to the L tracks in Ridgewood, Queens, a few miles away. “When we found it, it was, like, kind of just a junk heap,” Carter says.

Carter called David Seiter, ASLA, the principal and the design director at Future Green Studio, a landscape design and urban ecology firm of about 20 people then based close to the party space along the Gowanus. Seiter and his studio had also warmed to the area’s unkempt feeling and wanted to keep some of that messiness in the design of the party space. They tore out the asphalt but kept some of the honey locust trees that had sprouted through its cracks. There was inspiration in other spontaneous plants that had inserted themselves into the disturbed site; Future Green planted another 30 honey locusts and saved or replanted a number of other species commonly thought of as weeds, including sumacs, gray birch, quaking aspen, goldenrod, and Queen Anne’s lace. Carter says the place has the backyard atmosphere he and Harkin were hoping for, with the informality and blurry edges that you’d expect behind a house next to the train tracks. “It doesn’t feel too done,” Carter says. “They’ve kind of set it up to let nature do what it would do, and maybe pushed the fast forward button on it a little bit.”

The space, called Nowadays, opened in mid-June. “It’s been our best opportunity to design with weeds,” Seiter says.

The idea of designing with weeds is gaining adherents among landscape architects as they pay more attention to native species in plantings that require fewer resources to establish and maintain. It’s an approach favored and popularized by Peter Del Tredici, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, through his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide.

“There’s a huge opportunity for landscape architects if they begin to embrace this,” Del Tredici says. “And it’s a different way of designing. It’s much more of an editing with a few little punctuations, as opposed to starting from scratch.” [...]