Bouncing Back In Brooklyn

Grateful for the spent fury of Jonas, our thoughts turn to that other superstorm, Sandy – and recall a vertical garden so tough, a historic hurricane couldn’t bring it down. In fact, for renowned New York restaurateurs Laurent Kalkotour and Leslie Affre, and acclaimed landscape designer FireDean Schilling, the logical thing was to build two more.

Florafelt Vertical Garden by FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes at Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.
Florafelt Vertical Garden by FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes at Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.

October 29, 2012: what is now Atrium DUMBO had been open just six months, following a year of pressure and preparation. The restaurant lies just a few feet from a waterside park in the eclectic and happening DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood in Brooklyn.

For the opening, FireDean designed and installed a gorgeous 16×5-foot living wall made with Florafelt. “Vertical gardens are ideal for hotels and restaurants because you need a memorable experience,” he says. “There is an undeniable energy that resonates – maybe it’s the higher level of oxygen!”

Florafelt Vertical Garden by FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes at Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.

A dark moment.

When Sandy hit, more than five feet of seawater barreled through the back door. Just about everything was demolished. The owners rang up one of their line cooks and then all went to the restaurant during the hurricane, but all measures to protect it were in vain. Closed for months, no federal assistance was provided to rebuild.

Ridiculously resilient.

FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes, Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.About the only thing that survived was FireDean’s green wall. “It was kind of an inspiration. It looked pretty good, but with a completely destroyed restaurant around it,” he says. The owners brought him back, thinking it also needed replacing, but FireDean said not necessarily.

“We took out most of the plants, cleaned them up, replaced them and fixed the irrigation system. We also kept the structure.” In addition, FireDean donated toward the rebuild, helped with the cleanup and promoted fundraising efforts.

To date, FireDean has created a second wall and is busy designing a third for Leslie and Chef Laurent’s newest restaurant as well. “Green walls make complete sense with their impact and beauty. They’re practical and they work. If you make it pretty, they will come.”

Florafelt Vertical Garden by FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes at Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.

With 20 years of experience, FireDean is an urban landscape guru, tackling tough spaces, rooftop gardens and living walls. He’s excited about the future, too. “There’s a huge cultural shift. Young people are growing up with this. Coupled with an architectural background, we have a generation of people who will incorporate this kind of design in urban planning,” he says. “Before building, planners and architects now ask: where will the plants go?”

Florafelt Vertical Garden by FireDean Schilling, Woodland Landscapes at Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn.

With New York City no stranger to sub-zero temps, FireDean takes care to help clients learn what works best in their climate. “I generally choose from a spectrum of plants that adapt to low light and feel like you’re walking in New York State. Look at the High Line (a public park built on an old rail line above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side). They chose scrub oaks and stuff that already grew there. We test growth habits, whether it’s a natural cascading effect or aggressive vine. And we emphasize maintenance to always look 100 percent.”

And hurricane-proof.