After tackling the renovation of their four-story Greek Revival town house in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, tastemaker and designer Athena Calderone and her husband, Victor, were understandably fatigued—and, not to mention, at the end of their budget. Though they had the rare advantage of a 25-foot-wide plot, the backyard was “a tangled mess of so many vines, weeds, and overgrown trees,” Athena says. “It [had] untapped potential and remained that way for a good couple of years.”
It wasn’t until COVID shut down the city that Athena, Victor, and their son, Jivan, now 19, decided to tame the unruly garden. For a week, the three of them hacked away with saws, uprooted tree stumps, and tore down old wire fencing until they were left with bare dirt. “It wasn’t a menagerie of weeds anymore, but there was no plant life,” Athena says. “There was no soul to it; there was no creativity.” That’s when she turned to the expertise of landscape designer Brook Klausing, who leads the Brook Landscape studio.
But life had one more curveball to lob: During an early design meeting with Klausing, Victor experienced a health scare that would lead to a cancer diagnosis and put the project on pause. Today, Victor is healthy, and the reimagined garden—a start-and-stop process spanning nearly three years—is thriving.
For inspiration, Athena and Klausing drew from a Mediterranean palette. “I had just come back from Spain and was inspired by Mediterranean gardens, the texture of Mexican feather grass, olive trees and their silvery, sage tones,” Athena says. Gravel blankets the yard, which is wrapped by a cedar fence with a hoary patina and strategically populated with trees, ivies, and other plants to form nooks that hug two seating areas. “I wanted the space to feel like it shrunk and swelled and had movement,” Klausing says, “like you were in something organic with volumes that were up and down.”
To that end, Klausing situated the dining table and patio at a 45-degree angle instead of parallel to the back edge. “I was inspired by the angle on the back terrace,” says Klausing, referencing the rear deck that extends from the home’s parlor floor. “It was a way to tie that language into the lower section and focus on balance versus symmetricality.” A monolithic river rock table sits on a quadrangle of Renaissance Dolomite stone. Brook Landscape hand-selected aggregate stones to fit between the pavers, creating a more even plane, and planted thyme to create an elegant bed of green. Klausing and Athena, who is relaunching her beloved site, EyeSwoon, as an e-commerce marketplace this winter, collaborated on the design of the chunky cedar stools that flank the table, which Brook Landscape fabricated in a week.
Another casual seating area centers a coffee table made out of bluestone excavated from the original yard and wood planks salvaged from the old boardwalk at the Rockaways. “As a designer, I’m very into the 360-degree experience,” Klausing says. “We positioned key vines and trees, so that no matter where you’re sitting in the space, you have something romantic.” A fringe tree in the back corner, for example, blocks sight lines to a telephone pole and will sprout delicate white blossoms come spring. A deodar cedar will grow to mask the neighboring brownstones. And wisteria shields a gutter at the back of the house.
The resulting garden is measured, but far from glossy. As Athena puts it, “Everything has a grit and patina, and an element of imperfection.”