GARDEN VOYEUR: Foolproof Plants for Brooklyn Backyards

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THIS IS WHERE I cut my gardening teeth: the 21’x35′ backyard on Verandah Place in Cobble Hill where we lived for twenty years, above, as it looked in May/ June.

We inherited a graceful Japanese maple, a stand of honeysuckle (abelia ‘Francis Mason,’ I later learned), and climbing hydrangea that served to disguise a rusted chain-link fence. There were a few slabs of slate on the ground, which we gradually expanded to a good-sized patio, with pieces salvaged from vacant lots in Red Hook and contributions from friends (I remember one summer night being surprised by a delivery of bluestone slabs from a friend who saw them going begging someplace).

We added a small wrought iron balcony and steps going down into the garden from the parlor floor, and had some old-school masons build steps and a landing with bricks and railroad ties — nothing elaborate — leading down to the well area.

Little by little, through trial and error, I learned how to create a garden. The main challenge: excessive shade. Though south-facing, sun was limited by gargantuan ailanthus trees in the neighboring yards.

A couple of the principles that served me well:

  • Use variegated foliage – that is, shade-tolerant plants that don’t flower showily but have green and white foliage to bring light to dark corners of the garden, e.g. ‘striped’ hosta, caladium bulbs, variegated lirope (the festive-looking silver stuff in the left foreground below), vinca and ivy – anything at all that comes ‘variegated.’

Below: The white feathery plumes on the right (there’s a purple one too) are astilbe — shade-tolerant, reliable, ironclad.

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  • Limit color for cohesiveness. I stuck to a palette of blue, purple, pink and white. Very little orange, red or yellow, a situation partially dictated by circumstances; most hot-colored flowers require a lot of sun.

Most satisfying: oak leaf hydrangea along the back line of the property. Three plants (expensive at the time; about $50 each) grew in a couple of years to create three-season glory, with huge, neat, colorful leaves and massive white panicles from June until frost.

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See below for more plant suggestions. Any and all of these are recommended for Brooklyn backyards; they’re foolproof and readily available.

Below, left to right: chartreuse andromeda, Japanese fern, ‘money plant’ (those purplish flowers will turn to dry, translucent, coin-like things come fall), the blue spikes of ajuga, all under a climbing hydrangea, soon to flower white.

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Below, a deep shade corner, with (left to right) the round glossy leaves of European ginger, Japanese fern, small leaved ivy and small-leaved chartreuse hosta, and yellow-tipped houtonia — pretty, with white flowers, but invasive — you have to be prepared to pull it out where you don’t want it.  The cardboard is from a package of caladiums, to remind me where I planted them (they don’t show up till July).

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Below, my favorite afternoon reading spot. Left to right: pink creeping phlox; white ‘starry eyes,’ a sun-loving groundcover; the remainder of some pink bleeding heart (easy, showy, great for shade); small white flowering bulbs (the name escapes me  – anyone?); variegated hosta; blue wood hyacinth in the background.

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This last picture, below, is a bit earlier in the season — late April. The hostas are just coming in. The fuchsia azalea was too gaudy for me; I got rid of it. In the foreground, you can see brownish huechera (coral bells), more ‘starry eyes,’ yellow-flowering lamium or dead nettle, and some tiny hybrid tulips on long thin stems — ordered early on from a bulb catalogue, they came back year after year, providing great pleasure.

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Mind you, these are all perennials, not annuals. They don’t flower all season, just for a few weeks. But you plant them once and have them for years with no additional effort or expense. Perennials are the way to go if you’ll be staying put for any length of time. You can divide them in spring or fall to create more of the same, and take some with you if you move.

About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
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6 Responses to GARDEN VOYEUR: Foolproof Plants for Brooklyn Backyards

  1. Nancy says:

    What an inspiration for those of us with shade gardens!

  2. What a great tutorial for those of us that are green thumb challenged.

    Love how lush it is.

  3. Jim Howard says:

    The back yards of Verandah Place, with Cara’s a wonderful example, are something that I greatly miss living now in California, even though the flowers bloom year-round out here. The ability to create a world in a contained space, with enough room for beauty and for a table where one can gather in the evenings, is a real gift. Nice job, Cara; thanks for the photographs, and the memories.

  4. Gorgeous.

    My first garden in NYC was a shade garden: rear buildings and ginormous /Ailanthus/ trees. Like you, I gradually learned the tricks of the shade trade. I had a great collection of Hostas and ferns. It was a cool retreat from the busy avenue.

    I’m on my fourth NYC garden now, my third in Brooklyn. My wildflower garden is just coming into its peak. May is the magic month for that part of the garden.

  5. Shade gardens can be something wonderful. Thanks for showing what you did in this one.

  6. What a lovely posting. I will be getting many ideas from it. It’s funny that I consciously have been trying to grow “hot” colors to add some pizzazz to my shade. You have quite successfully done the opposite!

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