The Man Behind the Gardens at Some of NYC's Best Restaurants
Take enough culinary trips through New York City, and you’re likely to end up, at some point, waiting for a table at The Spotted Pig, chef April Bloomfield’s legendary West Village restaurant. Known for its burgers, most people will be focused on studying the menu when they arrive at the restaurant, but if you happen to be wandering through the neighborhood or enjoying a coffee on the bench out front, your might also notice the garden out front—a lush concentration of green plants, overflowing from their boxes and pots, a mismatched collections of flowers and trees invading the New York sidewalk giving the restaurant a cozy atmosphere, as though you had been transported to a farm house in the country, away from the bustle of the city. Thomas Little, owner, and operator of Urban Green City Gardens created the Spotted Pig’s oasis of greenery—and he’s done the same for some of the most celebrated restaurants in the city.
“Ken [Friedman] and April reached out to me—they found me on Craigslist,” Little recalls. “They’re very down to earth. I didn’t know this place would be something that would be interesting to people.”
Friedman, who co-owns The Spotted Pig, asked Little to design a garden along the north and western façade of the building. Little says that Friedman saw in him managed chaos.
“Ken likes to say ‘visual anarchy.’ I am not a minimalist, I am as far from that as you can get. I like a lot of detail and nuance,” Little explains of his gardening style.
Little ended up planting castor bean plants at The Spotted Pig, which are illegal if they end up being allowed to seed because the seeds can be used to make a poison called ricin.
Little started his artistic career working as an assistant to the sculptor Jeff Koons. The two worked together for about a decade before Little decided to venture out on his own. He had grown up on a farm in Westchester—one of seven kids—where his father taught him the basics of farming and gardening. Little left Koons in 2000, started Urban Green City Gardens, and by 2004, was working with Ken Friedman at The Spotted Pig.
“Ken is always referencing upstate New York and this idea of farm to table. Sometimes he will say ‘I want to go back toward that,’” Little says of The Spotted Pig’s atmosphere. “The Spotted Pig is a radical, young, messy kind of do-it-yourself environment. There’s a picture of a pig on the wall, next to a doodle by Bono. [It’s] very radical, a clashing of high and low.”
Friedman liked Little’s work so much that he eventually connected him with the Noho Hospitality Group, the collection of restaurants owned and operated by Chef Andrew Carmellini, Luke Ostrom & Josh Pickard. Little started with Locanda Verde. Their partnership proved to a be a success, and Little went on to work on the gardens at Bar Primi, The Dutch, and Lafayette.
In New York City, a garden can mean window boxes or trees lining the sidewalk. At Bar Primi, for instance, Little describes the vibe of the gardens as “a 20-something girl who lives in the East Village, and she’s a little bit of a mess, and she’s been out drinking all night, but she’s still so pretty.”
For The Dutch, Little worked with Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, the founders of the design firm Roman and Williams. Their vision for the restaurant ended up challenging Little’s style.
“Robin and Stephen asked if there could be ‘a little less hillbilly in it,’” he recalls with a self-deprecating laugh. “Robin [wanted] something like when you walk up to a town house on the Upper East Side, and there is this group of plants, and they are tight, and groomed and pretty.”
Little is usually not that conservative. He prefers a situation like he found working on Le Coucou, where he was allowed to push gardening boundaries a bit more.
“I like my plantings to look like they are breaking into the city, the grid. The vines interrupt that and aggressively break into that feeling. I try to get them up onto the buildings and up on to the street. There’s the world of buildings and concrete, but there’s another world, and I want to bring that in fully in these very narrow tight spaces,” he says.
As a former visual artist himself, Little finds that his vision as a gardener is best suited to restaurants because he sees chefs and restaurant owners as artists in their own right.
“Restaurant people, they are sort of art directors. The food would be at the core of that, but the surroundings, and then hopefully my garden, and the bathroom, and the kind of soap you use, it’s all extremely thought out,” he explains.
Even in New York City, where there isn’t much greenery, or space for expansive, dense gardens, Little has found a way to recreate those environments even in the cramped, confined corners where restaurants make their homes. He uses evergreens, which can handle “people touching them and banging into them.” Little also likes stacked logs, and bundles of sticks, “like peasants used,” and sees beauty in not just what is green, but what other people might see as garbage.
“Deterioration and death, that’s a big part of what’s beautiful in gardening,” he remarks.
Right now, Little is working on an installation for Chelsea Market, and he also works with the home décor company John Derian. Most of his work, though, is always on display, on the street and in public, a reminder of New York City’s potential to be a home to natural, as well as industrial, beauty.