Elke’s Terrace: Made in the Shade


THIS SPRING, IF YOU SPOT A WOMAN in a flower-covered hat pushing a red shopping cart full of plants around downtown Brooklyn, it’s probably my friend Elke.


A true gardener like Elke, whose outdoor space is a 15’x25′ terrace behind her second-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, doesn’t let a few obstacles stop her.

No car? No worries. She does her plant-shopping on foot at the Borough Hall Greenmarket and local stores like GRDN on Hoyt Street, takes the bus to Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook, and relies on Bruno’s Housewares on Court Street to deliver clay pots (never plastic), soil, and other heavy supplies. (The cast iron urns came from Restoration Hardware.)

No direct sun? Elke makes the most of every ray that penetrates the ailanthus canopy around her north-facing terrace: a single hour in the morning and a couple more at midday. By choosing the right plants and coddling them — even shifting them around from time to time to give each a piece of the limited sun — she has wrought a lush green miracle, don’t you agree? (These pictures were taken last June.)


Among Elke’s shade-lovers: vines and climbers like moonflower and morning glory on tuteurs, rosemary topiaries (in the sunniest corner), jasmine, hibiscus, ferns, caladiums, an amazing purple and white ‘corkscrew’ plant (below), coleus, hostas, spotted begonias, passionflower.  “I don’t do impatiens,” she says.


Here are Elke’s tips for terrace-garden design and healthy container plants, even if you don’t have a ton of sun:

  • Use 4’x8′ sheets of wood lattice to obscure an unattractive fence but still let in light and air
  • Make the terrace feel like an outdoor living room with chair cushions, mirrors on the exterior wall (also good for capturing extra rays), chandeliers and sconces
  • Completely change the soil in each container every season, don’t just ‘top off’ with a fresh inch or two. “Nutrients in containers get used up very quickly, and roots completely fill the pot” by the end of the growing season, she says. She doesn’t have room for a compost heap, so she tosses it all and starts anew each spring.
  • Feed with fish emulsion; it’s better for the environment, the cats (who sometimes nibble on the plants), and it seems to work wonders on the plants themselves
  • Don’t set out plants before Memorial Day; these are mostly tender, heat-loving plants
  • Water daily
  • If you go away for a weekend, pull pots into even deeper shade so they don’t dry out in the heat

What makes Elke’s terrace garden so out-of-the-ordinary?  I think it has something to do with exotic foliage and unusual color combinations. A multi-disciplinary artist/designer, her favorites are gray/silver (e.g. dusty miller) with chartreuse and burgundy (e.g. sweet potato vine) — and splashes of pink from “as many flowers as I can get.”


6 thoughts on “Elke’s Terrace: Made in the Shade

  1. Hey Cara,
    Another great (and timely) topic! Do you or your horticultural friend have any tips on the beautiful corkscrew plant? I’ve tried a couple of times to grow one but it never sets in. I’m dealing with very sandy soil out on the East End, so I’m thinking of maybe trying again in a big pot..Any thoughts? Thanks.

  2. MMMM — thanks for reminding us lately that it is almost time to start getting our fingernails dirty. (Note to self – buy new gardening gloves.) I am a big fan of Dusty Miller (and all things silvery!), Sweet Potato Vines (especially that lime color, though the dark purple ain’t bad either), and all kinds of coleus, especially when they show off in my sandy beachy soil on the north side of the street! Come visit and I’ll take you to some of our wonderful nurseries. Suggestions are welcome. Hey – what is this? Do all Ellen’s have sandy soil??? …..Ellen Rae

  3. Ellen,
    Sorry for the delay in responding to your CORKSCREW plant question.
    Mine worked fine in a large pot…approx. 18″Dia.x18″H,(too cold to go on the terrace and get an accurate measurement. I used soil by SCHULTZ. Put it in my SUNNIEST SPOT in mid June. By mid July I was beginning to wander if it would ever BLOOM?
    Finally, it came into FULL BLOOM IN MID AUGUST…the blooms lasted about a month. The wait was well worth it!!! I was originally told it was a part shade plant….I believe it really needs FULL SUN! Hope this helps.

  4. I forgot to mention…I laced the original growth (as it came from Gowanus nursery) thru and around a tall metal cone shape topiary form. By end of summer it had developed fronds with the gorgeous blossoms on HARD wood.

  5. Was wondering where I can get some lattice just like this – would love to add this to my deck railing. Thanks

  6. Caroline…
    I have been very happy with this solution to have a bit more privacy, gives a nice background to the plants. I found this lattice at my local large hardware store named SID’S on Jay Street, downtown Brooklyn. Perhaps even Home Depot or Lowes might have something like it. Good luck.

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