High-Rises and Hydrangeas: The Landscape Designers of Harrison Green on Creating Elegant Urban Gardens

Photos courtesy of Harrison Green

Thanks to places like the High Line and NYBG, thanks to community gardens and all those parks, New York is — in our opinion — one of the most exciting places to commune with plants.

Maybe horticulture pops more when it’s unexpected. The age and culture of the city just does something extra for a building covered in ivy. Thistles are more energetic and begonias look better with a skyline view. There are eight million astilbes in the naked city.

A 765-square-foot terrace on Jane Street designed by Harrison Green. (Photo by Evan Joseph.)

Needless to say, we were happy to make the acquaintance of Jacqueline and Damien Harrison, NYC-based landscape designers and co-founders of landscape design firm Harrison Green. Ryan and I admire the work they do for private and commercial gardens alike, all over the world and throughout New York, from enchanted rooftop forests to graceful backyard edens. Their work includes the new Baccarat Hotel and Residencies, city condos, and an installation on the roof of the Museum of Modern Art. And in progress: the 1 Hotel Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge and Miami Beach.

We recently caught up with Jacqueline and Damien by email to learn more! Below, we chat about their terrace teamwork, a custom herringbone deck (!) on Fifth Avenue, and their favorite plants to work with. What toughies will withstand the high winds of Downtown Brooklyn? What beauties elevate spring in the city? Read on to learn the answer.

Jacqueline and Damien Harrison, principals and co-founders of landscape design firm Harrison Green. (Photo courtesy of Harrison Green/photographer Nicholas Calcott.)

Damien and Jacqueline at work indoors and out.

How would you describe your aesthetic? What emotions do you want people to experience when they enter a space you have designed?

Structured, elegant, simple, green. Our gardens are not reliant on a flower show to provide the beauty. We rely more on forms, textures, and volumes of plants.

In all of our gardens, we strive for people to feel a complete sense of relaxation. Our clients are hardworking people, and New York is chaotic, so we like to think that our gardens provide them and their families a place to relax and spend time together.

Another view of that Jane Street terrace. (Photo by Evan Joseph.)

We dig your work. What inspired you to found Harrison Green? And where did the “Green” in Harrison Green come from?

Thanks so much! From our experience in the industry in New York, we saw the need for the traditional landscaping company to be able to offer more of a sophisticated and professional design service. On the flip side, we saw the benefit of the designer controlling the installation and ongoing maintenance of the gardens, rather than relying on a contractor less familiar with the project.

We wanted a business name that felt appropriate for what we did, but also represented both of us. After much debate, it was actually our first client who came up with the name shortly after we were married. He said, ‘Jackie gets the name Harrison, Damien gets the green card! How about Harrison Green!?’

Photo courtesy of Harrison Green/photographer Nicholas Calcott.

How did you each get into landscape design? 

Jacqueline: I have to credit my mom with the selection of Landscape Architecture as my college major. She read a description of the profession from a career book, I loved the sound of it and that was that.

Damien: After an excruciatingly dull year studying Economics at University in Australia, I changed to Landscape Architecture and loved it immediately. I was always pretty creative and really interested in plants and the environment, so it was the perfect choice.

Our clients are people who see the value in design and who don’t want to sacrifice quality and professionalism. We pride ourselves on being a design studio first and foremost, as we believe that design is also an important part of the installation and ongoing maintenance of the garden.

We’re also for people who only want to deal with one landscape company for the entire process. In New York, the spaces we work in are typically small. So it is kind of crazy to have so many different teams involved: a designer, an installer, a maintenance person, an irrigation contractor, a lighting contractor. We make it easy for our clients by handling everything.

The firm also handles the horticulture and maintenance for their clients. Get a glimpse behind the scenes (and fall in love with their goldendoodle Scratchley), on the firm’s Instagram.

Where do you hail from? And did you grow up around plants?

Jacqueline: Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I grew up around plants of every shape, size, color and texture. Every summer I went to a ‘nature camp’ called Laughing Brook where we spent each day in a pond, in a stream, in a meadow, or in the woods. It was magical.

I did garden. My mother and grandmother are avid gardeners and I was granted a small plot in the backyard. I decided lupine was the ultimate plant. The first season it was in my little garden, the second season it had seeded all over the neighborhood!

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Damien: Newcastle, Australia. It’s a city right on the beach about two hours north of Sydney.

I knew pretty early that I wanted to be a landscape architect. My grandfather was a professional gardener for some large estates and parks in my hometown in Australia and I remember visiting him as a child when he was working and being intrigued with plants and nature. When I was in high school I worked at a nursery and this is when my interest really peaked. I would do displays with plants and furniture and I enjoyed being creative. (Though I didn’t like it when people wanted to buy the plants I had used in the display! Ha!) Around the same time my parents bought a large property outside of town with next to no garden at all, so I told them that I wanted to design the landscape. Fifteen years later it has matured into a really amazing garden and is probably my favorite.

How did you meet? And how do you harmonize while working together?

We met at a firm in New York City where we were both landscape designers. We were drawn to each other (in a professional sense) very quickly because we had complementary skills. We never ‘formally’ worked together on a project, but we were always at each other’s desk talking about ideas. That’s never really changed.

Damien: I had just come from Australia and was trying to get my head around so many new plants. Jacqueline’s real strength is her plant knowledge and knowing what works together. She is a master when it comes to grouping plants together. She is also a really great gardener, and has a real finesse when it comes to training plants to grow exactly the way we had imagined.

Jacqueline: Damien is a true master of utilizing space. He never designs two gardens the same, but you can always tell they are his. He pushes materials (and me) to always do new things. I have always been amazed at how quickly he can pick up on someone’s personal style, interior, or even a piece of furniture and translate that into the perfect garden.

What are some of your favorite plants to work with in landscape design and why?

Boxwood (Buxus x ‘Green Mountain’) for its versatility and perfect green foliage color.

Mariesii viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) — The long graceful branches laden with lacy pure white spring flowers are only surpassed by the perfect green of the summer foliage.

Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) — It is one of the most gorgeous trees year round. They are slow growing but totally worth having the patience for. Each tree is always unique in their form, and always gives a garden a sense of being established and mature. Their bark and flowers are a real feature.

Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) — These are one of the most elegant and toughest trees we’ve found. When we have a difficult site condition with anything from a small planting area to high winds or poor soil, this is our go-to tree. Typically the only decision we have to make is which variety of snowbell to use.

In this Bethune Street garden, young Japanese snowbell trees rise up against brick. The designers call the species ‘one of the most elegant and toughest trees we’ve found.’

Limelight & Annabelle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ & Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) – It depends on the lighting and wind conditions of the garden. Limelights are long season showstoppers in a roof garden while Annabelles are a welcome pop of pure white in our NYC back gardens.

Blue Point junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Blue Point’) — We like to use them as a hedge, not solo. They create our garden walls and do the hard work of protecting the perennials and flowering shrubs from high winds. They’re incredibly hardy.

English ivy (Hedera helix) — We know the use of English ivy is somewhat controversial because in some areas it may be considered invasive, but with the right training we can create lush ivy walls in a single growing season. It is the ultimate year-round backdrop for the rest of the garden.

Some of the duo’s favorite plants to work with: Clockwise from top left, Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’; Hydrangea ‘Limelight’; Blue Point juniper; English ivy. Photos via Instagram.

What roles do the horticulturists on your team play?

We are very fortunate to have an amazing team of landscape architects, designers and horticulturalists who all contribute to the success of our gardens. Our horticulturalists in particular are the ones who are ultimately responsible for bringing the garden to life. They install our new projects as well as maintain our gardens over the long term. The NYC environment is quite harsh — in winter and summer — so our maintenance team is responsible for keeping the plants happy and ensuring that the garden matures as we had planned!

What are some trends you’ve been noticing?

We try to stay away from trends; for us it’s more about what’s timeless. From a design perspective, something that never goes out of style for New Yorkers is the concept of maximizing space. If someone is lucky enough to have their own outdoor space, regardless of the size, they want it to be flexible and useable. A lot of the time, this can be achieved with appropriately scaled plantings and the right furniture choices.

We also find our clients like the idea of a plant palette that provides year-round interest. Looking out the window to see some green in winter, for some clients, is just as important as what it looks like in summer. If we can use plants that have something to offer for more than one season, even better.

Your recent projects include the new Baccarat Hotel and MoMA. How did they come about? What are some features that you’re really excited about? Likewise your projects under construction?

We have been extremely fortunate to establish some wonderful relationships with some very gracious and talented architects and interior designers. Often, they will invite us onto a project team in the early stages so that there is a real harmony between the interior and exterior spaces. It’s also a fun and collaborative experience.

One project we are particularly excited about is a terrace on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where we’ve designed a custom herringbone deck to coordinate with the interior floors. It has been painstakingly tedious to install this on a pedestal system (a requirement for many NYC terraces) but it is already looking amazing. We can’t wait to complete this terrace!

A custom herringbone deck in progress on Fifth Avenue.

We’re also extremely thrilled to be part of the 1 Hotel Central Park and 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. This is a really exciting brand for the hospitality industry as they are genuinely focused on providing a sustainability-focused option for people with an environmental conscience. Further to this — they’re just beautiful hotels.

Why is it important to have plants in our living and working areas?

We love the idea of using plants both outside and inside! Using interior plants has been proven to reduce carbon dioxide levels as well as the levels of certain pollutants, such as benzene and nitrogen dioxide that many machines and appliances expel. They also help to reduce the amount of airborne dust and keep air temperatures down.

At 1 Brooklyn Bridge, we’re using an extensive amount of interior plants in a number of ways throughout the hotel, from a large green wall in the foyer to individual plants in each of the suites.

Do you think New York living is getting more garden-y/greener? If so, where is this movement coming from?

We do think that there is more of an awareness of people wanting to extend the footprint of their apartments to the outdoors. We have a few clients where the terrace is larger than their interior living space, so there is a real need to make the garden part of the living space. Clients are more willing to invest in their gardens because it not only adds value to their property but also to the quality of life.

Another trend we’ve noticed is more and more of our clients requesting we allocate some of our ‘seasonal’ plants to veggies and herbs. This is really fun, especially for our clients with children. We have found a few herbs and veggies that can [be] reliably harvested whilst also looking beautiful.

Examples? 

The best herbs and veggies that we have found [for] containers in NY: rosemary, thyme, mint, cilantro, fennel (goes to seed beautifully), strawberries, cherry tomatoes, arugula.

If someone wants to bring more plants into their small urban space, what’s your advice?

Damien: Less is more! One large gorgeous tree or shrub in a pot usually gives a better impact than 10 smaller plants scattered everywhere. Particularly if the space is small, having less will also provide greater flexibility for how the space can function and will mean less plants to look after! And be sure to choose a species appropriate for the location — i.e., does it need full sun all day?

—TH

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