Sunflower Mandala

Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

Hocus Crocus

Celebrating the magic of springtime 


After this endlessly woeful winter, seeing a long-forgotten piece of sidewalk emerge from the snow was a welcome first sign of spring. Even patches of plain old New York dirt were starting to look pretty darn festive.

Here on the East Coast, the season has finally taken a firm hold. Not only can we see veritable expanses of cement, but flowers–that quaint, old-fashioned sign of spring–are beginning to bloom. In our front yard, dainty golden and purple crocuses are showing their true colors, while tulips are preparing to follow the lead of their little buddies. 

Already the slim crocus stirs the snow,

And soon yon blanched fields will bloom again

                                                           – Oscar Wilde

At our feeders, year-round backyard regulars, including cardinals and black-capped chickadees, are increasing in both number and cheery sounds. Some of the birds we haven’t seen much of this winter–robins, house finches, and white-breasted nuthatches–are making more regular appearances. For our pet kitties, this means nonstop windowsill entertainment, with “Cat TV” airing on all channels, all day long.

A time of renewal in both physical and spiritual realms, the season of life and light can inspire us to rejuvenate inside and out.  To freshen our homes, we open windows and invite the fresh air in. We spruce up weather-beaten yards, planting new flowers and purging fallen branches.  To perk up our aching winter-weary bodies, we might carve out more time for walking and other outdoor exercise, or renew our commitment to our yoga practice. 

How do you spell springtime? I am fortunate to be married to a constant gardener. Mike recently returned from a local nursery with boxed crops of baby lettuce that he’ll plant when the weather is a bit warmer. In the meantime, while I taught yoga this morning, Mike planted a small tree in our front yard. An Eastern redbud, it will offer a springtime crown of pretty-in-pink blooms when it grows up. (And if we’re lucky, it might attract some hummingbirds.)

Farmer Mike and his baby tree

As you go through the days ahead, take some time to savor the sights and sounds of the season. Admire a flower, listen to (and maybe learn) the cardinal’s sweet song or the chickadee’s cheeky call. Just a few minutes of quiet contemplation can help freshen the mind and make your day–and your outlook–a bit brighter. 


Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Restoring Life to Westchester’s Home Gardens

The author helps area residents rejuvenate their yards after Hurricane Sandy

by Alana Cohen

 Flowering crepe myrtle

After the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in our area last year, I was contacted by several Westchester homeowners who needed a gardening rebirth. Their requests were different from the design projects I’ve received in the past: these clients had just lost mature, exquisite trees (often damaging their homes as they fell) that had offered both beauty and privacy. They were left feeling wide open to the world, and were mourning the loss of their statuesque anchors.

Sandy’s Sobering Statistics

Hurricane Sandy was the second costliest hurricane in US history and the largest storm of its kind to hit the East Coast, where it took over 150 lives and destroyed or damaged 650,000 homes. Next to these tragedies, the loss of trees may seem trifling. Yet trees graciously offer us humans shade in the summertime, shelter during the rain, and solace and beauty all year long. For animals and insects, trees provide sustenance, protection, and a place to build a home.

In Westchester County, Hurricane Sandy was as cruel to our leafy friends as she was to us. Thousands of trees were toppled in our streets, yards, and parks. Rye Nature Center and Franklin D. Roosevelt Park in Yorktown lost over 100 trees each. In Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Sandy’s wicked winds destroyed an entire pine forest of 1,000 trees.

The loss of a tree cannot be compared to the loss of a human life, yet our trees are some of our oldest friends, and we  miss them when they’ve gone.

                  -Louise Fecher

I was struck by my own sadness over their losses, knowing that the magnificent and mature specimens that were destroyed by Sandy can never be replaced in our lifetime. But the challenge to me as a garden designer is to provide my clients with new and exciting opportunities. Loss can open up possibilities. In the garden, that can mean beautiful flowering ornamentals–deciduous trees with stately presence and exciting autumnal color–as well as evergreens to provide privacy.

A lovely older couple who reside in Mamaroneck lost a magnificent mature hemlock during Hurricane Sandy. The tree was a work of art, and so large that it took up a big piece of their backyard. As wide as it was tall, the tree was defining to the property. For years, it had buffered the couple from noise and turned their yard into a private sanctuary.

“Loss can open up possibilities. In the garden, that can mean beautiful flowering ornamentals  .  .  . as well as evergreens to provide privacy.”

Leyland cypress trees

As sad as the loss of this stately evergreen was (the tree had also fallen on the house), I began to see it as an opportunity to offer my clients some fun alternatives. Instead of replacing the hemlock, I suggested we plant a different evergreen: a leyland cypress.

I explained to the couple that this tree would grow, but not get as large–nor eat up as much property space–as a hemlock. (Fully grown examples of the leyland cypress are shown at left.) With this tree, the homeowners would have less shade in their yard, and their vegetable garden would no longer have to struggle for sunlight. 

One of my longtime clients, a resident of Edgemont, was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. He has a large property with many mature, majestic trees. Some of the trees in his front yard came down in the storm, with one humongous tree crashing right on the center of his house.

Winter crepe myrtle

His refurbished front yard now includes a fantastic flowering ornamental tree–the crepe myrtle–which I placed at the corner of the house. The crepe myrtle has an interesting, spotty bark and tiny crepe paper-like flowers in pink and purple. (The image at right shows the beauty of the crepe myrtle’s bark in wintertime; in contrast, the tree’s flowers are shown in the picture at the top of the page.) One of the many great things about this tree is that it blooms in late summer when nothing else is blooming. 

The crepe myrtle is an extension of my Edgemont’s client’s new front foundation plantings, which I had to replenish after Hurricane Sandy. Keeping in mind that foundation plants need to look good year-round–and that this homeowner’s front yard is a low-light area–I blended evergreen shrubs of varying shapes to provide both interest and a neat structure to the house, as shown below.

 Flower bed in Edgemont

The foundation bed, which is very long, begins with a weeping English repandens yew, followed by two layers of flowering evergreen shrubs (including the cherry laurel) as the bed gets wider. This is all mixed with white azalea for spring flowering. As he bed widens further, I added olga mezzit–which is a small-leaved rhododendron with deep pink flowers–and the crepe myrtle with its multi-season interest. The foundation bed will provide a succession of bloom from the spring through the end of summer, and who doesn’t like that?

Despite their losses, the homeowners I worked with post-Sandy were fortunate to be able to replace and rebuild. I marvel at their resilience and their ability to “weather the storm.”

Tips for a Garden Reboot

Does your garden needs rejuvenating? Think first about your available lighting–that will

Cherry laurel leaves

guide you to picking plants that will thrive. Remember to consider the tree or shrub’s ultimate growth so that your new plantings have the full ability to spread gloriously. And keep in mind the tree or shrub’s special qualities throughout the seasons: will it produce color in the fall or interesting bark in the winter months?

Water regularly for the first year of growth to help establish roots. Happy planting!

-Alana Cohen

Alana Cohen received her certification in garden design at The New York Botanical Garden. She has enjoyed creating and rejuvenating gardens in Westchester for the past 15 years, and believes in the healing powers of both gardening and yoga. You can reach Alana Cohen Garden Design at (914) 589-2345.


Photo  credits: flowering crepe myrtle © Sergio Schnitzler |; leyland cypress © Anthony Baggett | Dreamstime.comflower bed  © Alana Cohen; winter crepe myrtle © Darryl Brooks |; leaves of cherry laurel © Moniphoto |



Thursday, September 26th, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow?

A New York yogini finds her focus in the beauty of plants and flowers

by Alana Cohen

 One of the author’s garden designs

Summer is the perfect season to embrace the beauty of the great outdoors. Plants and flowers are abundant, delighting our eyes with color, shape, and texture. Whether you have a deck dotted with planters or a backyard garden to view, now is the time to drink in the beauty.

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than being surrounded by beautiful flowers. My passion for garden design was launched in the early 1990s during many visits to The New York Botanical Garden with my young children. My sense of color, composition, and scents were ignited, and I began to see suburban gardens and parks with new awareness. I started taking classes at the Botanical Garden, earning a certification in garden design. My studies further heightened my awareness, opening my world view to one of creating beauty.

When I’m planning a garden for one of my clients, my concentration is fully focused in the moment, as in my yoga practice. I look at each plant as a whole, considering its color, texture, and height. Does the color affect my mood? And if so, how? Do I like the shape of the leaves? How will one plant work in combination with another?

No distractions interrupt my train of thought when I’m creating a garden palette. It’s as if I’m on my yoga mat: my intent is all encompassing. Just as the individual poses in a yoga practice work together to help my body find its optimal balance, each plant that I choose contributes its unique qualities to a beautiful whole.

When you choose flowers for your own garden, think about the affect you want to achieve. Do you want the floral display to provide visual excitement, or would you prefer to be soothed? Do soft pastels relax you? Do jewel or hot tones excite, or irritate? There are no rights or wrongs when choosing a color palette that pleases you.

 Blue lacecap hydrangea

If you want your garden to be a soothing vision of soft pastels–and if your planting area is sun drenched–I recommend including pale-pink mallow, white phlox, and Russian sage, which has blueish/lavender flowers. Combine these perennials with light-pink Knock Out® roses for a constant show of color that will last until winter frost. (Knock Out roses are wonderful shrubs that I use often in my designs; they are beautiful, low-maintenance, and disease-resistant.)

Does your garden have more shade than sun? Then you can enjoy the beauty of long-blooming hydrangeas. There are many varieties: you might opt for the soft blues of Endless Summer hydrangea; lovely lacecap hydrangea, which comes in pink and blue shades; or the pure white blooms of Annabelle hydrangea. Compliment your hydrangea selections with pink or white astilbes and lemon-colored lady’s mantle.

If, like me, you enjoy rich, jewel tones in your garden, you can create that palette with the same plants I suggested above: except for the Russian sage and lady’s mantle, all of these plants are available in deep pink and red shades. (The side garden shown here, which I designed for one of my clients, includes bright pink/red Knock Out roses.)

No matter what kind of garden or plant grouping you put together, I hope you discover that creating beauty is both satisfying and uplifting. Gardening, like a yoga practice, poses challenges. I certainly have learned from my own yoga practice–and my garden designs–what works and what does not. Enjoy the learning process (if you’re new to gardening, see Green Thumb Basics, below) and Happy Planting!

Green Thumb Basics

Salute the sun When planning a garden, the most important question is how many hours of sunlight do you get in the area where you want to plant. Full sun? Partial sun? No sun? Choose plants accordingly.

It’s great to hydrate Planters dry out quickly, so give them regular attention. For the garden, I recommend a drip sprinkler system. Flowers thrive better if watered from the root.  A drip sprinkler system can also be put on a timer to ensure the plants get watered without the worry. If you don’t have a sprinkler system, you can purchase a hose with holes in it to use on the desired area.

alana planter Sun-loving annuals in an antique planter

Make annual resolutions Planting annuals when perennials are finished provides a continuous display of color. Some of the annuals that I enjoy with great success year after year are sun-loving lantana, cleome hassleriana, calibrachoa, angelonia, cosmos, and petunias. Shade-loving annuals include impatiens, tuberous and wax begonias, and the dramatic leaves of calladium, which come in a variety of colors.

Be a deadhead Remember to cut the spent flowers so your arrangement continues to provide a great show until frost.

Alana Cohen received her certification in garden design at The New York Botantical Garden. She has enjoyed creating and rejuvenating gardens in Westchester for the past 15 years, and believes in the healing powers of both gardening and yoga. You can reach Alana Cohen Garden Design at (914) 589-2345.

Garden and planter photos © Braeden Cohen; Blue lacecap hydrangea photo © Moonbloom |

Thursday, July 5th, 2012
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