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Landscape Designer Brings Farmland Roots to Manhattan Rooftops

By DNAinfo Staff on October 25, 2010 7:37am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — High above the pavement of West Chelsea, a smattering of exotic pumpkins are settling into a new penthouse home.

Bumpy, white Yugoslavian Finger Pumpkins, jumbo-sized, mahogany-tinted Fairytale Pumpkins and vibrant orange mini Baby Bear Pumpkins are in the mix on a terrace garden created for a family of four moving into the top of a luxury high rise coop building.

The patch and surrounding plantings are the work of Jeffrey Erb, a young Hell's Kitchen-based entrepreneur striving to make his mark in the rarefied world of rooftop landscape design. It's an aspiration that the aptly-monikered Erb developed growing up on his family's produce farm in Lancaster, Penn., and further honed as a college of agriculture graduate at Pennsylvania State University.

"I knew I didn't want to wind up landscaping parking lots in the middle of Pennsylvania," said Erb, 25, who created his company in August 2009. Aside from his personal love of plants, Erb said he is motivated by helping Manhattanites develop "a sense of claiming the space and making it their own."

Prices for rooftop landscaping projects typically range from just a few thousand dollars to fifty or sixty grand. Creating a full rooftop lawn, which Erb called "the most luxurious thing you could possibly do," could run $200,000.

These high-altitude landscapes face a distinct set of challenges compared to backyard foliage, because the differences in sun, wind and light conditions create a distinct micro-climate around each corner, impacting which plants can survive and thrive each season. Moreover, apartment owners must also gain aesthetic approval from co-op boards.

"There's no such thing as a zero maintenance rooftop garden," Erb said.

For Manhattanites who want to make a small outdoor space distinctive but can't afford the help of a landscape designer, Erb said the key is to invest in one beautiful plant.

"If you try to do 10 little things, it can be scattered," he said. With one show plant, by contrast, "Your eyes are drawn to it, and everything else can be simple."

This time of year, Erb said arranging a patch of pumpkins and gourds, clustered into groups of three by breed, can be an effective way to herald the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasons. Adding a bit of lighting and Maiden or Fountain Grass (which add interest in the fall but will also grow well in the spring) can complete the look.

As to those pumpkins currently looking down upon the High Line and Hudson River, well, they came directly from Lancaster. The family farm, bought by Erb's grandparents in the 1930s, still host tractor rides to the pumpkin patch for area family's every autumn.

"I can't go back to Lancaster without bringing something back," Erb said. "It's not just that there's pretty pumpkins on this terrace, it's about sharing how they got there."