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26 January 2021

A Garden in the Clouds: Abbie Zabar

Since the pandemic, our worlds have shrunk quite a bit ... to the confines of our walls, which could be trying in a street-life-focused city like Manhattan. But not for Abbie Zabar. Solitude is a state she cherishes, thanks to her upbringing as an only child when she “learned how to make do, how to live with and be by myself.” As a celebrated artist, Abbie’s teases out the wonder in the details, which has come in handy since the pandemic. She’s also learned Instagram and posts daily. Her tagline “🌿 Writes 🌿 Draws 🌿 Designs 🌿 But Gardens, when all else fails 🌿” speaks to her other love of gardening she continues from her Upper East Side penthouse, a small paradise with a plant-loving southern exposure. That pretty much sums up her days ... although it does omit one activity that she thoroughly enjoys:  “endless playtime with the kitties. Right now, they think I’m one of them.” 

Janet Mavec: What’s your favorite season?

Abbie Zabar: Spring for the greenery and for something new emerging every morning. But not just spring: the arrival of spring. Or as David Hockney said when describing Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, “It’s almost like when spring has an erection, and everything is standing up.”

JM:What’s your top 3 favorite plants and why?

AZ: I don’t play favorites. Something else steps up to the plate every day. Right now, it is Cyclamen hederifolium that plantsman Matt Mattus  brought when he visited in September 2018. We were curious to see if it would prove hardy in my garden. I also like the emerging leaves of the earliest snowdrops—from Ernie Cavallo, America’s own galanthophile expert and resource. They hold an excitement that cannot be contained, quite literally ... it’s said these bulbs cannot be container grown.

Abbie is all about the details.

JM: What plant gets no love (is underused) and why should we pay more attention to it?

AZ: I’m attracted to overlooked souls. My goal is to grow the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Just think of common Sansevieria, (mother-in-law’s tongue), soldiering on in every laundry storefront window, yet more elegant than any pampered prima donna houseplant.

A summer moment in her garden.

JM: What’s the aesthetic of your garden?

AZ: I just do what needs to be done, hopefully in a sympathetic way.

JM: What are some of your favorite moments that you have created in the garden?

AZ: When there is no wind it is heaven on earth in my garden. But the gusts can be furious. You cannot underestimate their velocity up here (Manhattan’s Upper East Side). It is not the soothing ‘Whispering Pines’ of the Adirondacks. I’ve been known to hide under the covers with my kitties, with pillows over my head.

JM: How much of your terrace is devoted to edibles?

AZ: I grow some herbs, often as topiaries and I have Mara des Bois strawberries; their lineup on my wall reminds me of the unsophisticated, haphazard charm of balconies all over  Rome. For edibles, I support the farmers who travel hours to reach our city’s Green Markets. Even during the early days of Covid, when pickins’ were small, I was not ordering online, delivered to your doorstep groceries. Since I’ve always shopped the Union Square Market, I actually considered it a civic duty during Covid to stand, masked up, on well-spaced lines and support the NYC’s Green Markets.

Abbie's tool wall

JM: What’s the one garden tool you can’t live without.

AZ: A long-handled carbon steel bonsai tweezers. Perfect for container gardening. They pinch out, they prune, they dig holes, they transplant the most delicate seedlings. I have several for when I misplace one, which inevitably happens.

JM: What gardens have you recently visited that you loved?

AZ: On my early morning walks up to Harlem and back, I began liberating unapologetic beauty growing in massive stone walls beneath the Metro North train tracks. I was botanizing with my bonsai tweezers, pricking out unidentified ferns from where the grout was missing and filling plastic bags of tenacious greenery, for me, and for my client’s gardens. If you can call that an influence (which I certainly do), because such determined vegetation reaffirms how much everything wants to live.

JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree? Or what’s a sign of respect that you give to nature’s green beings?

AZ: Hugging trees is not my thing. But I am brought to my knees every single year that my own garden and trees come through the winter. Rooftop gardening is unforgiving, a relentless challenge. I do not want to hear about deer problems.

A winter display of Abbie’s Italian frost free pots and NYC cobblestone troughs.

JM: What’s one of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening? or non-profits? or how we steward the land?

AZ: I’m very visual. I like picture books, especially when the pictures tell a story or encourage garden dreaming. But talk about inspiration: Just before Lockdown, I bought one of my favorite garden books, ever. “At West Dean, The Creation of an Exemplary Garden” by Sarah Wain and Jim Buckland. According to (author) Monty Don (no slouch himself), here is a book that “is a testament to inspired, uncompromising horticulture at its best.” The detailed pictures from cleaning terra cotta pots, tying in climbers, renovating flintwork walls and certainly the bird’s eye images of the Victorian glasshouses are enough to make me reverse my position on vegetable gardening in a nanosecond. If I could grow veggies in their style, maybe I’d really only want a glorious kitchen garden of which West Dean is a prime example.

JM: What’s new or coming up for you in 2021 that you’d like to mention?

AZ: I’ve been invited to rejoin the Board of Directors  of the Manhattan Chapter of North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS). I understand we finally have a competitive budget to hire speakers, so that should make it easier to wangle them in than the 10 years when I used to be the Speaker Chair.

I also hope to continue writing and illustrating my Instagram posts. I came late to the Instagram party. But visuals are a natural for me, and I adore the discipline of writing tight captions. It’s like working with the best editor ever. After I learned Instagram during lockdown, I made a vow to post every morning. Getting one thing under your belt is a fine way to start the day. If you're not swimming...

Abbie wearing Janet Mavec's Bluebell Bracelet