The How-on-Earth Garden

David Kelly on the rooftop terrace he designed and planted for a $22.5 million duplex apartment in TriBeCa. Among the concepts: The trees look as if they were growing from the earth. Twenty tons of soil helped make that possible.

If there were a competition for tackling decidedly out-of-the-ordinary landscaping projects, David Kelly, a landscape designer, would be on auto-entry.

Seemingly float a swimming pool with an ipe-wood deck above a pond on an estate in Sagaponack, N.Y. ? He’s done it.

Levitate a small forest of 50-foot-tall honey locust trees as a second-story buffer between a luxury condominium and the High Line? He did that to the accompaniment of cheers from neighbors of 500 West 21st Street who turned out to watch the trees, imported from upstate New York, hoisted by crane into position in the heart of Chelsea.

“It was like a rally for these monster trees to make it in the big city,” said Mr. Kelly, himself a Canadian import with roots in Langley, a sports-centric city near Vancouver. His sympathies, he said, are with the transplants: “I cried the first day I came to New York, but I adjusted, and so will they.”

He designed a 30-foot-high indoor green wall for the conservatory of a Manhattan apartment. And he came up with an award-winning residential project near Capetown, South Africa, by eschewing status quo lawns and gardens and instead incorporating the rugged, drought-resistant native vegetation known as fynbos.

Mr. Kelly found out after the fact that fynbos is best nurtured not with fertilizer, but with controlled burnings every 10 to 20 years. “It’s a little tricky when you’ve got a house in the middle of what seems to be a forest fire,” he said. “I knew nothing about that plant palette when I took on the project, but now I love it. With gardening, you never stop learning.”

Mr. Kelly, 47, joined Rees Roberts and Partners, a firm specializing in interior and landscape design, nearly two decades ago and prefers that every project be a one-off, or close. “When a client asks me to show them a picture of what the finished product will look like, I usually have to tell them I can’t, because we’ve never done it before,” he said.

“With a landscape, you can’t come in and superimpose your ideas on a space. People may think of me as that guy who brings the plants in, but there’s way more to it. Landscaping is not an afterthought that you add in later.”

His latest experiment necessitated hauling 20 tons of soil to the top of 7 Harrison Street as the largely unseen underpinnings for the showstopping wraparound terrace of its $22.5 million duplex apartment. There, the star ingredients are a sunken reflecting pool, a dozen mature honey locust and Kwanzan cherry trees, and a hornbeam hedge that doubles “as an outdoor wall,” he said. The result: an urban garden that doesn’t seem as if it’s in the city at all.

To build the terrace and a new glass penthouse addition for the top-floor luxury apartment, Steven Harris and DXA Studio, the architects who collaborated with Mr. Kelly on the project, raised the roof of the original building by several feet. The raised floor permitted the creation of a wraparound trench, into which went the 20 tons of soil, a hidden irrigation system and the plantings. The penthouse is surrounded by and flush with the terrace, and the trees and other flora appear to be growing from the earth, just as they would in nature.

“In Manhattan, where there are height limitations and square footage is extremely expensive, it’s very rare for any developer-client to give over any space, particularly for soil and tree root balls,” Mr. Kelly said.

Transparent 20-foot glass panels are the only separation between the terrace and the interior; indoors and out, the floors are limestone. Although Mr. Kelly was wearing sneakers along with a blue-and-black ensemble that happened to match his eyeglass frames, he said limestone felt particularly “sensual” under bare feet.

Mr. Kelly divided the terrace into outdoor rooms. The lounge area next to the living room faces north toward the city; the shallow reflecting pool is outside the dining room, and at certain times of day it and the sky are reflected on the ceiling. To the south, where the views include the Woolworth Building and One World Trade Center, are the outdoor kitchen and dining area. Serenity and simplicity were Mr. Kelly’s goals, and it helped to receive carte blanche from the developer.

“Simplicity is very complicated, that’s something I learned on this project,” said Sean Zalka, a partner with Scott Sabbagh in Matrix Development, the team behind the luxury reboot of 7 Harrison, which was built at the turn of the last century.

“It’s expensive to look this natural,” added the developer, who estimated the terrace’s atypical infrastructure and seamless indoor/outdoor habitat added another three or four million dollars to the budget. “But we went the extra mile to deliver a turnkey interior, so it made sense to really go for it and do the exterior in a very unusual way. It frankly doesn’t feel like a city terrace. The guiding ethos here was to create alchemy between indoors and out.”

Mr. Kelly’s projects tend to be divided between the urban, where buildings dominate and impose restrictions, and the rural, where the challenge is creating a landscape that doesn’t fight with nature.

“Trying to imagine a landscape in the city is difficult, and city projects tend to be so radically different than country projects,” he said. “City projects are more theatrical. But even if all you have is a 7-by-4-foot terrace, you can add an evergreen, a Japanese maple, a few annuals, a piece of outdoor furniture and you’ll have yourself a green backdrop.”

Not that he does. Mr. Kelly lives in Chelsea at London Terrace Gardens with his husband, Robert Valin, and their dog, Benny, a mix of Cavalier King Charles spaniel and French bulldog. Improbably, they have no outdoor space.

“We have one orchid and a terrarium,” he said. “But I’m always looking for a townhouse with a garden, or a place upstate; my true love would be a house in Palm Springs.”

He has done imaginative work at the Adirondacks retreat owned by the actress Sigourney Weaver. “She asked me to design something that looked like Beatrix Potter on acid,” he said of the powerful mountain landscape, with its mosses, ferns, boulders and towering trees, that has now been “knitted” with colorful perennial gardens. Not quite as far upstate, he undertook the task of rehabilitating a 120-acre farm near Hudson, N.Y., an ongoing project that began eight years ago.

“The property was overgrown, unkempt for years and had a great deal of wet fields,” said Patrick Milling Smith, the owner of that farm, as well as a producer of film, theater, music and commercials whose Broadway credits include “Once,” which won eight Tonys.

Mr. Kelly thinned out the forest growth and added stone bridges, an acre pond, orchards and various gardens.

“He turned a rather sad old farm into a stunning property that feels like an English park, but is also a practical working farm,” Mr. Smith said. “Nothing feels precious and everything is very natural-looking.”

The gardens are organic and the source of the produce used at Fish & Game, a restaurant in Hudson co-owned by Mr. Smith .

Mr. Kelly, who is currently working on a suite of cliffside gardens cascading toward the Adriatic Sea for a hotel in Dubrovnik, Croatia, said his ideal New York project would be an immense rooftop garden at a public building that would have a double civic impact: cleaner and cooler air together with the calming effect of greenery.

“I love plants, but I love even more the architecture of site planning,” he said. “You can be the most genius horticulturalist in the world, but you can’t control how a plant is going to react. That’s what keeps it interesting.”

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