Alex's Column in The Rockaway Times

Some Still Have Sandy Challenges




31 MARCH 2016

Spring has finally arrived! The flowering trees have begun to dazzle us with pastel blooms, while the daffodils and crocuses remind us that the bright flowers of summer are just around the corner. Now is the perfect time to start planning our gardens. That being said, Sandy has changed a lot of the way we do things around here, and gardening is no exception. Today I’m going to talk about how to replant your front yards and gardens after the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

It’s been almost 3 1/2 years since the Superstorm, and our community has come back stronger. However, one major part of the Rockaway lifestyle that hasn’t fully recovered is our beautiful gardens. Our gardens give us an oasis to relax in the summer, a place to grill and entertain with friends and family, and a safe space for our kids to play in. It’s one of the reasons that make Rockaway such a special place to live.

In fact, inspired by my neighbors’ gardens, I took up gardening as a hobby 20 years ago, and later turned it into a career as a landscape designer. I owe my love of gardens to this community.

Before we start to plant, it’s important to understand why most of our plants failed. When the ocean met the bay, it flooded everything with a mix of salt water, pollutants, chemicals, and sewage from the local waste treatment plant. This mix saturated the soil, and all the plants absorbed that from the roots to the leaves. The soil eroded and left us with mud, which became compact infertile soil. On top of this, the salt spray from the ocean hit plants that aren’t salt tolerant. Our gardens didn’t have much of a chance.

But the good news is that there’s a clear way to restore our gardens. For ornamental gardening like a front yard, apply lime if you haven’t already. It will get the remaining salt out of the ground. Once we’re ready to plant, we first loosen the soil, and then we add in organic fertilizers like compost, nitrogen-based manures (chicken is best), and peat moss to help retain water in sandy soil. Depending on your soil condition, you may need other fertilizers to build it back. If you’re unsure about what your soil needs, you can get it tested at Cornell Cooperative Extension, or you can buy a kit to test at home.

Once our soil has all the nutrients it needs, we’re ready to plant!  At my landscape design firm Sungold Design Group, my clients come to me looking to make their gardens hurricane resistant. There are a couple of different shrubs out there that I recommend that thrive in seaside conditions. Hollywood junipers make great ‘anchors’ for your garden design. Certain hydrangeas, hardier rose bushes, pines, flowering cherry trees, hostas, lilies, and ornamental grasses all have better chances of surviving salty conditions.

When planning your garden, ask yourself how much of your landscaping do you want to be hurricane resistant, and how much do you want for your personal pleasure. It’s important to include plants that you love, because after all is a said and done, your garden is there for your enjoyment.

Next week I’ll discuss the secrets to planting a successful fruit & vegetable garden.

Alex Berkowitz is the Founder and Landscape Designer for Sungold Design Group, LLC a landscape design and installation firm in NYC and Rockaway Beach.


Learning to Love the Winter Landscape

finding to beauty in winter

finding to beauty in winter

I’m looking out the window as the snow falls onto the ground, creating a carpet of white fluffy powder accented by a blade of grass here and there. Even as I have learned to appreciate the beauty of snow, I still look out at my trees and wish that their abundant blooms of spring will arrive soon, and turn into lush green leaves of summer. I dream of the raspberries I’ll pick off the bushes in June, or the way my hands will smell when I touch the lavender plants in July. Traditionally, spring and summer are the most exciting times for landscape design. In spring comes hope, when we try to put all of our gardening aspirations into play. In spring we plant a tomato seedling into the ground and dream of how delicious its fruits will taste come August.

Perhaps because of all the excitement that a garden brings in spring and summer, it's easy to forsake it's beauty in the winter; for in winter a garden is austere in comparison. But to truly love nature, and by nature, to love a garden, a park, or any part of a landscape (urban, suburban or rural), we need to try to understand how to appreciate the garden in winter.  In winter, a garden takes it's rest from giving us the abundance of flowers, and leaves, and fruits throughout the year. It leaves us with an opportunity to contemplate life and nature and the lifecycle of the natural world. And if a summer garden, bursting with blooms and greenery is a showman, a winter garden, with its bare silhouettes and subtle clumps of snow, is a Zen master, finding beauty in the moment, the solitude.

Pine branch ikebana at the Noguchi Museum.

Pine branch ikebana at the Noguchi Museum.

For me, embracing a winter garden means to truly appreciate the seasonality we are blessed with in a northern climate. The variety of beauty that nature bestows upon us throughout the years could not be possible without the repose of the winter months. I wanted to share with you some people who have shown me a different way to love the garden in winter.

I partially owe my change in perspective to Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape designer who has been a great influence on my work and the way I think about seasonal gardening. He is best known in the U.S. for his work on The High Line (NYC), The Battery (NYC), and Millenium Park (Chicago).  An interview with Piet Oudolf in the New York Times, brought a different way of thinking about the garden to light, and I'm excited to share it with you:

Looking out over his perennial meadow, Mr. Oudolf articulated it this way: “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.” Allowing the garden to decompose, he added, meets an emotional need in people.

“You accept death. You don’t take the plants out, because they still look good. And brown is also a color.
— New York Times

To appreciate landscape design is to go beyond the plants, and understanding the world that surrounds the garden; the changes in nuances of lighting throughout the day, the cultural context of how our civilization has come to identify with nature, and how we express our relation to nature with cuisine, another art form where we work with nature to derive sustenance and satisfaction. Paying attention to these other facets of nature can shed light on the beauty of the winter landscape.


As a former chef, and a lifetime lover of food, I know that there is nothing more strongly bound to nature and the seasons than food and cooking. A few weeks ago I was watching "Chef's Table" on Netflix, which is a truly inspirational show on different chef's perspectives in cooking. One episode in particular stood out, it featured Magnus Nilsson, the hyper-local, hyper-seasonal, executive chef at Fäviken in Sweden (one of the top 50 restaurants in the world) There was a moment in the episode where they were cooking local scallops over juniper branches. I could almost smell the juniper smoke, and the warmth that must have surrounded the kitchen in the dead of winter. It was a beautiful celebration of the beauty of winter that showed a deep appreciation for the seasons- that no season is more special than the next. Every time I see my juniper shrubs, I think of Magnus and those smoked scallops, and how ingenious he was to see the potential in the winter landscape.  

With a short ways to go before spring arrives and puts on a magnificent show of blooms and greenery, let's take this time to enjoy the subtle elegance of a garden in winter. It can be quite beautiful if we learn to embrace it's Zen-like nuances.