Mar 19, 2014

Spring, Sun and Stars

Garden design and gardening are components of what I do for a living. It is the perfect career because I have a passion for plants, trees, ecological design and botany and because I enjoy being outdoors. I also design and garden for others partly because I do not personally own a space to garden. My apartment lies on the forth floor with windows that face east, west and north. Eleven altogether. Four narrow window boxes of herbs, ivy and and annuals can be called my own. However, there are other apartments with walls twenty feet away running parallel to my windows, limiting sunlight. If I am lucky I can see through my east-facing windows through the windows of the nearby apartment and possibly get a glimpse of a planetree (Platanus acerifolia) in the adjoining community garden area. Of course I do the gardening in that garden. Lots of dollars and countless hours go into making it a beautiful space that also serves as a plant laboratory. This space, while having enough light to enable a range of plants, shrubs and trees, has only limited sunlight since it is, like my apartment, cradled by nearby structures and erroneously planted with five London planetrees and three callary pears (Pyrus calleryana), each year growing wider canopies, scraping the sides of buildings and hogging the sun. How landscaping companies continue to get away with such obvious and inexcusable mistakes of crowding too many trees in tight spaces and too near to buildings is beyond me and a topic for a later post.

With some success (success is a relative word since I do get some floppers) I grow grasses: a few varieties of miscanthus, Calamagrostis brachytrica, chasmanthium and hakonechola. Struggling along are echinacheas, monarda, geraniums, buddleia and Salvia garanitica. Hydrangea macrophylla thrive in this garden and I grow many in shades of deep pink, soft pink and white to green. A red sand cherry and variegated red-twig dogwood are tall members of the group of plants along the north side. Polygonatum odoratum, autumn ferns, astilbe, ajuga and pachysandra cover the ground near the Japanese maple (Thank you Peggy), boxwoods, witchazels, laurels and pieris. The sunniest areas are home to roses, a star magnolia (to celebrate the life of super cat, Mr Nuit); a few floppy heleniums and panicum, almost-always-flowerfless baptisia and Aster frickartii 'Monch', which is a lovely and floriferous recent addition, despite the flopping. I've learned to treat eryginum, coreopsis and achellia as annuals and I cherish every leaf on my lamb's ear, protecting it from excess water and fussing about this and other plants each winter. I ferociously fight fungus and mildew. Like a photographer with slow film, no flash and limited light, who pushes his film and moves his subject to more available light, I push sun-loving plants by diligently supplying all their (other) growing conditions and tweak, coax and manipulate them to stand up or to produce flowers. I remove overhead branches, pinch and deadhead rigorously and rejoice when I am rewarded with color in the garden.

The dilemma of the city gardener is desiring to grow a range of plants that require more than the available pittance of sunlight found in many residential gardens. Of course if you grow on your rooftop or southwest facing balcony the chances are that you have more sunlight than most and while I envy you I know that I long for a space that affords both soil in the ground and an abundance of sunlight that can allow me to live out my fantasy of growing multitudes of fiery and fiercely colorful plants. My situation is not unique. Certainly other New York City gardeners get tired of plantings of boxwood, ivy, hostas, wax begonias, liriope and coleus. I want to grow burlesque dahlias, fat-faced sunflowers and a long list of sun-loving plants like Echinops ritro, Eyginum yuccifolia, a carnival of heleniums, bee-enticing agastache, Crocosmia lucifer, salvias galore, burgandy cotinus, feathery foeniculums, sultry Sedum matrona, tall rudbeckias and delicate but magnificent poppy. I never hesitate to take on a project that affords an opportunity to design with such plants and I feel extremely fortunate that a few sun garden projects have come my way lately.

                                                   Sunflowers at PS329 in Coney Island

One such design was for a British poet and his writer partner who live on the corner of West 123 Street in Harlem; "corner" being the key word. The small garden space faced the east side of a large re-purposed synagogue which sat cross the street from a public park on the east. I salivated at the thought of sunlight from the south and east for a chunk of the day and a bit of sun from the west on the southernmost corner to make a dramatic display of grasses, umbels and erect seed heads as the day ends. A carefully chosen list of plants was prepared while leaving room for spontaneity and last minute purchases like delphiniums, deep red euphorbias and the annual passionflower vines that caught my attention on my trips to nurseries. Robust red ricinus, brilliant nasturtiums, rosy dahlias and irises were included along with a varied palette of perennials and grasses like stipa, miscanthus, panicum, calamagrostis and molinia. I found Black and Blue Salvia guaranitica and a bright blue salvia. A pale blue version was impossible to find, but I had a patch in the garden near my apartment if I needed to pull some.

All were to create drama and pizazz without being garish in a garden that said "Here We Are", the phrase of the owners who were intent on making their presence felt amidst much struggle to secure community acceptance of the ownership of the building they were restoring and calling home, and what an extraordinary and beautiful home it would be.

Blue asters were to weave their way through the garden in fall along with monarda, sedum, croscosmia and eupatorium seed heads and late blooming heleniums. The design included three upright Euonymus "Manhattan", selected for their tried-and-true performance in other gardens I had installed in Harlem and for year-round greenery when frost turned plants to mush or were cut back. As with other garden designs I would have liked to keep the grasses uncut to create winter interest and contrast against the evergreen euonymus. The grasses would also create movement and with seed heads from flowering plants provide food for birds throughout the winter months, like the cardinal that sang beautifully in a leafless pear tree just a few feet from the garden while I measured in early spring. With about eighty-five percent of plants already in the humus-rich soil and labels in bare spots awaiting plants on the way, the owners informed me that they wanted to continue the planting themselves.

The result is this, or rather the result was this. I designed and installed the garden in spring 2013 and my enthusiasm never waned despite the fact that I knew the owners considered this first installation as an experiment, a temporary garden design; the first in possibly a series of gardens planted each year. One of the owners is the author of a book on growing a garden from seeds. I should mention that the soil was a mere twelve to fourteen inches deep and the garden sat on a roof of a "wet room" on the building's basement. There were plans to replant the space in the fall, so as far as I know, this garden, an opportunity to create an urban garden in the sun, may no longer exist.

Oh well, alright. It's alright. I keep dreaming. Here comes the sun, again and again; not a moment too soon.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...