Home & Garden
nothing will grow in the hard, cracked clay in your backyard,
take heart—and take up the art of garden restoration
you’re like most homeowners in down town Albany, Troy or just
about any other Capital Region city, you bought your historic
house because you loved the architectural details, the neighborhood
and the convenience of the urban setting. The backyard? Whoever
looks at the backyard?
Well, you might, especially if your first spring in your new
home comes and goes and you realize that nothing is growing
spontaneously out there, and nothing you’ve planted has survived.
It’s time to go out and squeeze a handful of damp dirt.
The “squeeze test” will tell you what any gardening expert
in the area already knows: Your backyard is mostly clay. When
you squeeze a fistful of dirt and it holds its shape after
you open your fingers, you’ve got clay.
Malleable and dense, taffy-like in consistency when wet, and
solid as a brick when dry (in fact, clay is the main component
of bricks), clay soil is a sign of the Hudson River’s proximity.
It’s also largely impermeable to water. And then, when it
finally dies, your backyard looks like the Salt Flats of Utah,
cracked and hard as a rock. Very few vegetables or ornamental
plants can survive in such conditions.
that soil, the only way you’re going to actually grow vegetables,
or even a flower crop, is you’re going to have to incorporate
a lot of organic material,” said David Diligent, a Delmar
resident and longtime gardener who has taught classes on composting.
Take heart. You can get good dirt in an urban backyard. Fragrant,
rich loam—thick with organic matter, as crumbly as chocolate
cake, and bursting with earthworms—is a beautiful sight. But
it’s going to take some work.
Diligent recommends testing the soil before you start trying
to restore it, to make sure it doesn’t contain lead from old
paint flaking off the house into the yard. If your property
is contaminated with lead, then raised, enclosed flower beds
that don’t touch the existing soil are an option, as long
as you’ve addressed the source of the contamination, and are
satisfied that paint won’t continue to flake into the raised
If you do decide to enrich your soil, consider your setting.
Backing a truck up to your property and dumping a load of
dirt probably won’t work in a city because so many urban backyards
are landlocked. That means you’ll either have to make your
own soil by composting on-site, hand-carry bags of topsoil
through your house and into the backyard, or use a combination
of both approaches.
Again, with mulch or compost that you buy or carry in, make
sure you know what you’re putting on the ground.
a real problem with contaminated topsoils and mulches,” says
Judy Stacey, Albany’s city gardener. Compost made from sewage
sludge can contain heavy metals that get into sewer systems
Albany provides free compost to city residents willing to
cart it home in their own containers. The compost contains
pulverized leaves, brush and trees, mixed with horse manure
and sand. Residents can collect it from the compost pile at
the end of Erie Boulevard, near the Albany Department of General
Services headquarters, during regular business hours. The
compost pile operates on the honor system; the city asks that
residents take no more than two five-gallon containers per
If you choose to do your own composting, you don’t need fancy
equipment. You can get a compost pile going by simply marking
off a space in your backyard, throwing down some vegetable
scraps, and topping off the pile with good-quality dirt. Manure,
leftover salad, coffee grounds, grass cuttings, tea bags—all
are fair game for the compost pile. Avoid bones or meat scraps,
Stacey advises; they attract rodents.
Key to making the compost pile work is the periodic addition
of soil. The compost needs the microbes in the dirt to break
down the organic matter, says Susan Pezzola, who runs the
Master Gardener program at the Cornell University Cooperative
Extension of Albany County.
Keep the compost moist, and repeat the process of adding and
turning every few days. If you start in the spring, you’ll
have rich, black compost before the end of the summer.
Once you’re ready to begin working the compost into your yard,
consider how this confined urban space has been used and abused
for the past century. Certainly, plants are capable of growing
in the soil Mother Nature provided in the Capital Region;
witness the lush trees in the unmanicured fringes of Albany’s
But backyards in the late 1800s were functional, not decorative,
notes Bill Bouchard, project manager at Hartgen Archeological
Associates, Inc., in Albany. Nineteenth-century homeowners
and their servants used the backyard to hang the laundry,
dump the coal cinders, and collect the rainwater. (Countless
brick or wooden cisterns are still buried in downtown Albany
backyards, Bouchard says, having survived so well because
they are embedded in water-resistant clay.) The compacted
surface soil became almost impenetrable.
For contemporary gardeners, this means it’s going to take
effort and patience to break through the hard exterior and
get the soil to a workable texture. Different models of manual
or power-driven tillers abound in gardening stores and catalogues;
at the very least, you’ll need a long-handled spade with a
good edge to break up the soil.
You’ll also need patience. Building up the soil in a backyard
can take a few seasons. When you’re ready to plant, Pezzola
advises getting the soil tested to determine if it needs to
be more acidic or alkaline. Most county cooperative extensions,
including Albany’s, charge $2 to test a soil sample, and they
will tell a gardener what needs to be added, in what proportions,
to achieve the correct chemical balance, Pezzola says. (Contact
the Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Albany County
at 765-3500 for more information.)
Composting advocates speak ardently of the rewards of restoring
soil slowly and carefully.
Organic compounds, added back to the soil by composting, “encourage
building up the soil, aerating it and helping heal it,” says
Brian Caldwell, the farm-education coordinator for the Northeast
Organic Farming Association of New York, and a farmer in West
Danby, just south of Ithaca. “You don’t get that with Miracle
Gro, or any other chemical fertilizers.”
Townhouse, Big Yard
in Albany’s Center Square tear down fences and build up community
the street, you can’t tell that anything connects the three
townhouses on Hudson Avenue besides their shared walls. But
if you’re lucky enough to stand on the back deck of 307, 305,
or 303, you get a different perspective. Unlike much of the
internal blocks of neighborhoods like this, which are generally
carved up into small, well-fenced yards, each bearing little
relation to its neighbors, these three homes, plus two on
the Jay Street side of the block, have done away with fences,
leaving a relatively spacious lot with flagstone paths, brick-bordered
flower beds, and lots of neighborly interaction. “It’s almost
big enough to take a stroll in,” jokes Nate Buccieri, whose
yard is a relative newcomer to the shared situation.
There wasn’t a fence between 305 and 303 when Mark Johnson
and his partner moved into the middle of the three houses.
Originally, “I had no intention of putting my hands in dirt,”
says Johnson. 305’s yard was barren, but their neighbors,
Cathy and Dan, had some flagstone paving and a few small bushes
out back, and Johnson liked what he saw. He started working
on his own yard, and getting to know Cathy and Dan. He began
weeding their yard too when he was out. Then he began taking
clippings from overgrown plants in their yard and transplanting
them in his, and returning the favor by planting some flowers
in their beds.
Eventually it got to the point where “every Christmas she
gives me a Home Depot card,” says Johnson, and he goes to
town on the whole space. “I have a membership in every garden
store from here to Clifton Park.”
But many of the yards around the double yard were still a
mess. Two Jay Street properties across the way had been empty
for 15 years. And the yard at 307 Hudson was a wreck, full
of garbage and the pieces of a rotting deck. “We would focus
down on our [shared] yard from our deck because it was so
depressing” to look any farther, says Johnson. “We were going
to get a big solid fence so we didn’t have to look at it.”
But then Buccieri moved into 307 in January 2004. “Nate said,
‘Oh your yard is so nice,’ ” recalls Johnson. “We like Nate.”
Yard sharing isn’t anything that would have occurred to Buccieri
before, but when the idea came up, it made perfect sense.
So the aging wire fence came down, and Buccieri’s yard is
starting take shape as part of the larger whole. “Now we have
a flow,” says Johnson.
The Jay Street properties have also been rehabbed, and the
mess in their yards cleaned up, but so far only one is occupied.
Johnson says they’re waiting to be sure who will be moving
into the second one and what their interest is before putting
any landscaping energy into those yards. It’s even possible
that the fences could go back up if a new occupant isn’t into
the idea. But they’re hoping not.
It’s not like the yard sharers think every yard should be
open. They are on good terms with the people who live in the
house right behind 305, for example. But that family has two
moderately large dogs, and wanted to keep a fence “to keep
the poop in their own yard,” says Buccieri. “We appreciate
Still, Johnson and Buccieri talk wistfully about opening up
larger swaths of the block’s interior—enough to “play kickball
in” perhaps. Across the country, some groups of neighbors
have done just that, usually co-housing groups like the N
Street Co-Housing in Davis, Calif., which intentionally bought
up the houses on a particular block, incrementally joining
yard after yard until they had room for communal hot tubs,
compost piles, playgrounds and fruit trees.
Hudson Avenue may not be sporting an intentional co-housing
group any time soon, but yard sharing has definitely spawned
more than just some nice visuals and extra room to stretch.
“Without it we might be those neighbors who pass each other
and just go into the house,” says Johnson. But now they trade
keys, check on each other’s house when someone is away, spontaneously
share dinner on the back deck, and generally look out for
with fences, you’re not really going to have privacy,” says
Buccieri. “You might as well be family.”
because you’ve sacrificed space, it doesn’t mean you have
to sacrifice style
For many people, especially renters, living in an urban area
often means living in a small one-bedroom or studio apartment,
or having roommates to help cut down on costs. Living in a
small apartment can be challenging when it comes to transforming
it into a functional and practical living space. Here’s a
quick, common-sense guide to help you out when you tackle
the obstacles of decorating your small space.
1. Build up.
You probably don’t have too much floor space, so utilize your
wall space. Choose tall, slim bookshelves and hang paintings
high on the wall to draw the eye upward.
2. Choose only one large (central) piece of furniture for
In the bedroom, this piece of furniture would be the bed.
In the living room, it would be the sofa; in the kitchen,
the table, etc. Too much furniture makes rooms look cramped.
Often, a second sofa or futon can be replaced with a stylish
arrangement of small, space-saving chairs. Also, be reasonable:
Don’t try to fit a full-size sofa or a queen-size bed into
tiny living rooms and bedrooms. Always measure the space you
have before you try to fit something in.
3. Don’t acquire too much stuff.
For some people (especially those who love to shop, like me),
this is a challenge. When your apartment is outfitted in all
the necessities, steer clear of buying more furniture, or
anything else, for that matter, without getting rid of something.
(You want to replace your card table with an actual wooden
kitchen one? Go ahead, just remember to dispose of the previous
one.) So beware, because it’s very easy to obtain more stuff
than you need, and therefore, more stuff than will fit.
4. Make good use of the space you do have.
When you’re working with a very small amount of space, every
square inch counts. Buy rolling bins for under-the-bed storage
of linens, seasonal clothes, shoes, etc. Make the most out
of your closet by adding hooks, shelves, and/or plastic storage
bins. Your bookcases are not just for books anymore—add storage
for remotes, photos and more by fitting your bookcases with
baskets and tins.
5. Adhere to simplicity of design.
The Scandinavians have the right idea: clean lines, classic
colors and patterns, and practical design all contribute to
a more comfortable small-space dwelling. Use minimal drapery
(instead, plain Roman blinds are adequate window dressing)
and simple patterns (if you have a crazy floral motif on your
sofa, a pretty slipcover serves as an economical choice to
alter the look).
6. Use small electronics and appliances.
Don’t let electronics dominate your household! The smaller
the space, the smaller the things you use need to be to fit
into it. Instead of a huge stereo system, use a desk-top executive
unit. Not only do they look classy, they’re small and can
fit on a bookshelf. Use a TV that is an appropriate size for
the size of your living room. It’s absurd to have a television
that takes up half of the room, anyway. Anything you need
in the kitchen usually comes in smaller sizes, too—look for
small microwaves and coffemakers instead of standard-size—they
make all the difference when you have little to no counter
7. Incorporate related colors in all rooms.
Using variations of the same color scheme in all sections
or rooms of your apartment will make the space feel more consistent
and less choppy than if you were to use a different palette
in each room. Use light colors with darker accents instead
of one solid color to give the sense of more space. Try to
avoid stark white, though; it’s a cold, institutional color
(unless, of course, you’re going for that look).
8. Breathe some life into the place.
You can make a small space feel and look a lot less stifling
if you welcome stimulation from the outside. Choose light,
breathable fabrics for window treatments to let in natural
light. Place potted plants next to windows to for a touch
of the outdoors on the inside.
9. Trick the eye with mirrors.
It’s no secret that a big, well-placed mirror does wonders
for a room, big or small. Mirrors give the illusion of having
a bigger space, and a pretty frame can add to the décor as
10. And finally, be organized!
Here, the old adage comes in quite handy: A place for everything,
and everything in its place. Nothing makes a small space feel
smaller than clutter. Keep your papers filed, your clothes
folded, and your cabinets clean. Daily maintenance of these
and other sections of your space makes day-to-day small-space
living much, much easier.