Allison Fonte’s preferences in plants are as eclectic as her taste in furnishings. American creeping phlox thrives beneath Asian bamboo; there are Japanese painted ferns in one corner of her Manhattan rooftop oasis, European wild gingers in another. They’re all growing in an international array of containers — mottled black terra-cotta pots from Mexico, matte black Israeli urns, and dark brown Indonesian clay vessels — grouped around a tent that’s fitted out with objects from around the world: Guests sit on canoe seats from New Guinea or on an Indonesian bench, and Moroccan lanterns perch on a pair of Thai bronze rain drums that serve as side tables.
When Fonte moved in to her apartment in 1995, she says, “Obsession took hold.'' A business and marketing partner of Pompei A.D., a retail-design firm that has created stores for, among others, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and the Discovery Channel, Fonte felt a garden was “a necessity, not a luxury” in her life. She craved a place she could retreat to at the end of a busy day or after her frequent trips to the far corners of the Earth, seeking artifacts and ideas for the shops.
Before Fonte created her leafy refuge, she covered the ugly tar expanse with sweet-smelling cedar decking. Already an amateur gardener, she read everything she could find on plants and became a regular at the local nursery. There she bought mature perennials (“I didn’t bother with seeds or baby plants”), including six 12-foot-tall yellow groove bamboos. For a lush look, she stuffed each bamboo’s pot with trailing plants such as vinca and bacopa. Gold flame honeysuckle, Clematis montana, and other climbers scramble over trellises, while the grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Autumn Light’ adds its feathery texture to the mix. The nursery delivered the largest plants. Fonte hailed taxis to transport the others, as well as dozens of bags of potting soil, and lugged all of it up four flights of stairs to the roof.
In spring 1997, Fonte brought in artist and design consultant Lillian Maurer to help make the terrace work better for outdoor living. The issue of privacy came up right away: Some 50 apartments have a view of the plot.The pair wired low-cost reed screening (spending just $100 for the entire area) to the inside of the perimeter’s wrought-iron railing. A tent, they decided, would provide a cozy haven while anchoring the garden as a whole; Maurer drew up a design and took it to a commercial tentmaker. She draped the resulting 7- by 7-foot claret-colored canopy with ready-made cotton curtains. The weatherproof shelter, set up off-center on the rooftop, divides the space into three outdoor rooms: a sitting area under the 9-foot-high pinnacle, a sunbathing area, and a shade garden. The red hue of the covering inspired Fonte to add plants with scarlet and orange flowers — including bee balm, sedum, and crocosmia — to her containers.
An inexpensive plastic fountain filled with Japanese jade stones and draped with variegated ivy, adds the sound of burbling water to the delicious scents, textured greenery, and bright blooms. “This garden,” says Fonte, “is the best investment I’ve made in my health and happiness.”