MAURA WHALEN IS living the dream — literally. She’s a lifelong gardener and avid lover of the natural world, and the idea of working with plants kept coming back to haunt her all through her adult life. “I fought it for years and years,” she says, remembering her favorite job: working at an urban flower shop on Broadway Avenue in the 1990s. “I had artistic license and freedom to create.”
Over the years, the idea of owning her own flower shop never went away. One of her friends told her, “Just open the damn flower shop, already. Don’t think; just do it!”
And now, what used to be a tree fort and picnic table under a massive cedar in her small Seward Park backyard is a professional floral studio. Whalen opened her subscription-based floral business, Casablanca Floral, in 2014, after years of growing bouquet-worthy flowers and plants in her landscape.
“The yard has grown up with me,” Whalen says of the long relationship she and her husband have with the property. They bought the 1903 farmhouse more than 20 years ago, and since have altered every inch of the growing space — only a few original trees remain. “My husband, Mike, and I did it all ourselves, and we’re very proud of the evolution,” she says.
Originally, Whalen had the idea to plant a “friends garden,” tucking in whatever plants came her way through plant-swaps with other gardeners. Later, she went to nurseries and allowed herself to be inspired. This resulted in a landscape that was overplanted and busy. These days, things have changed.
“My goal is to source most of what I use for the business from my own garden,” says Whalen. With the studio at home surrounded by plants, she walks the property for inspiration. “I believe floral design is an art form, and I can walk through the garden and pick that little something extra that one wouldn’t find in a flower shop.”
Outside the studio, timber bamboo shields the south edge of the yard from the alley and neighbors. Around a small circular lawn, Whalen has planted in layers, using heuchera as a consistent border — she uses them in her arrangements as a collar. Interwoven among the heuchera are creeping geranium, poppies, peonies and fritillaria growing under a tall, open-branched Norfolk Island pine.
The yard is peppered with artwork — sculpture, masks and a collection of birdhouses hanging from an old, graceful lilac tree along the back fence. The back garden is overseen by a fierce-looking wood sculpture, “Lulu the Protector” — a gift named after and from a garden friend and artist — who is surrounded by neighboring ‘Limelight’ hydrangea, Solomon’s seal, astilbe, Japanese anemone and clematis climbing over the back fence.
Along the back of the house is a narrow pathway to the front, an area Whalen calls the “plant cemetery,” thanks to the ailing plants that end up here and the smattering of herbs she adds each year. She has a kiddie pool covered in a green carpet of moss — a brilliant, thrifty container garden.
The north side of the yard was full of blackberries when they moved in, and slopes steeply to the sidewalk below. Over the years, they have ameliorated this slowly — adding a hedge of tall, pruned-up camellias and anchoring a corner of the property with a large raised bed for her cutting garden. Here, Whalen’s husband has helped immensely. “He has a design sense, and he’s a day laborer. I’m not allowed to prune trees — he’s the pruner,” says Whalen.
The Whalens also have surrendered where the landscape demands, allowing the north edge of the property line to grow naturally. When the kids were little, they would grow forts in the thick, now affectionately dubbed the “permaculture dumping ground,” where they toss felled branches and blooms.
The front yard is made of a shade garden on one side, and a sunny bed on the other. On the shady side off the guest room, hostas, sweet woodruff, hydrangea, euphorbia and ferns — a garden bed full of easy natives — run all the way to the porch stairs at the front of the house, where Whalen is training a climbing Sasanqua camellia — white, fragrant and winter-blooming.
On the opposite side of the “bowling alley lawn,” she has planted a long, narrow bed of many plants, including spirea, dahlias, herbaceous peonies and a vine of white table grapes (Whalen uses the vines and fruit in her arrangements). This garden strip terminates at a raised bed used exclusively for tomatoes planted by Mike, before the property bends into the front yard.
The front yard is shaped by a gentle, cascading hill to the street and centered by a wide staircase that was here when they moved in. Whalen has planted the front yard with color, and filled the pathways with scented blooms that show throughout the year. She wants to walk out her front door and see blooms and smell fragrance. At the top of the stairs, there are sweet box bushes, mahonia, a tall beautyberry, sweet alyssum, a star magnolia and Casablanca lilies — her business’ namesake bloom. “When people come to the studio or the house, I want them to be bowled over by the fragrance,” says Whalen.
There are several heirloom roses from David Austin at the top of the hill — Mister Lincoln Rose is a favorite. The front yard is planted in a consistent ring of flowers — a new style that Whalen recently incorporated that mimics the circular shape of the farmhouse interior. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, arbutus, Sedum ‘Autumn joy’, muscari, tulips, alliums and more cover the hill to the sidewalk.
With all the blooms and greens she grows, is Whalen feeling as if her yard is done? Not likely. “I have an addiction,” she says. “I can’t stop.”