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.”