Monday, May 18, 2015

What to plant in semi-shade, urban-style

The Harlem terrace has begun to grow. A lot died this winter: three beautiful boxwoods, and every rose. The pots froze, of course, then were buried in feet of snow, and then the tops melted in our overhead noonday sun, and the roots sat in water while the bottom of the pots remained iceblocks, unable to drain. I think they just drowned. 

So my semi shade is not horticulture's semi shade. It is complicated. We have the shadow cast by tall buildings that sandwich each side of our townhouse. It lasts till about noon (at this time of year), when a few hours of intense overhead direct sun begin. Then more shade. Choosing a plant to cope with that kind of stress is not simple; most semi shade plants evolved in woodlands, and like gentle sun, or filtered sunlight. Under high noon they wilt. And I've realized that some full sun lovers can survive here, but others not - in early spring and late fall the sun cannot clear the building to our south. So it's always an experiment. Welcome to 2015.

Japanese forest grass - Hakonechloa macra 'Aurea' (now that the kitty is no longer around it will be able to grow full without having its ends nibbled off - I miss him very much) - a good foil for: Cimicifuga  'Hillside Black Beauty,' a very dark-leafed bugbane cultivar bred in Connecticut and grown by Jim Glover on the North Fork of Long Island. Cimicifuga - now classified as Actaea - is native to the eastern US. I am hoping that it will be happy and reach its 4'- 5' height. And last, very exciting - to me - a foxglove: Digitalis 'Gold Crest.' Reputed not only to re-bloom but to attract hummingbirds. Sold. I have planted three in various spots.

In Brooklyn a week ago I picked up two specimens, from GRDN, the wonderful little garden shop on Hoyt Street, of Corydalis lutea, an exceptionally long-blooming perennial (most flower for between 1-3 weeks, and this Corydalis keeps going till cold weather). It used to grow in the gravel on the floor of our Brooklyn terrace - it does not need a lot of space.

Jim Glover also grows these white Corydalis, and when a friend offered to bring me some plants, I jumped. Yes, please. Corydalis ochroleuca. I think it is gorgeous.

Below - after seeing it in bloom in high forest shade in Central Park, I have wanted to grow swamp milkweed - Asclepias incarnata subs. pulchra. I considered  A. syriaca (common milkweed, which I like to eat), but I think it would need more sun. Maybe some monarch butterflies will find my plant. If you can, grow some milkweeds for the butterflies - their larvae depend on it.

Also spotted at GRDN, this lovely little Heuchera, a cultivar called 'Snow Queen.' I think she's a bit hot. I may have to shuffle pots around again. Heucheras are troopers, and there are dozens to choose from.

The fava beans I have not mown down for salad leaves are in bloom. They handle the light situation very well.

The lilies are up, with annual, self-seeded jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) to keep them company. Along the edges in the wooden planters the herbs are herbing. All the herbs I like - except chives - do well here, which has surprised me. There are also a million volunteering seedlings, from last year. It is fun sorting out the Verbena bonariensis from the quickweed, from the lambs quarters (I am farming the last two in their own pot), from the thyme, from the Nicotiana...

And the empty jar? It is a solar lamp - I bought three in South Africa and we love them.

Light for the nights to come.


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