WELCOME TO The Outsider, Brownstoner’s weekly series exploring the various creative ways Brooklyn residents deal with their outdoor spaces. Written and produced by Cara Greenberg, you’ll find it here Sundays at 8AM.
A TRUE GARDENER like Elke Kuhn, whose outdoor space is a 15′x25′ terrace behind her second-floor apartment on Atlantic Avenue, doesn’t let a few obstacles get in the way. Hardly any direct sun? So be it. Kuhn makes the most of every ray that manages to penetrate 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 its place in the limited sun — she has wrought a lush miracle.
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 pots, soil, and other heavy supplies. (The cast iron urns are from Restoration Hardware.)
Among Kuhn’s shade-lovers: vines and climbers like moonflower and morning glory, hibiscus, ferns, caladiums, coleus, hostas, spotted begonias, passionflower. No ordinary impatiens here. Kuhn, an artist, goes in for exotic foliage and unusual color combinations. Her favorite combo: gray/silver (dusty miller, for example) with chartreuse and/or burgundy (sweet potato vine) —plus splashes of color from “as many flowers as I can get.”
As important as the plants are the pots. Her collection started in the 1970s with handmade English pots from Smith & Hawken. Others range from expensive pots by Campo di Fiori to a few picked up on the street. About half of Kuhn’s plant material comes indoors for the winter. Hardier perennials stay outside, moved close to the wall of the house. “I put them into cardboard boxes, and I may throw a blanket or sheet of plastic over them,” she says.
More, including Kuhn’s tips for container gardening, after the jump.
Photos: Cara Greenberg
Kuhn used 4′x8′ sheets of wood lattice to obscure an unattractive fence while still admitting light and air. There’s Dutch honeysuckle vine and passionflower on the trellis. The large white-leaved caladiums can theoretically be recycled from season to season, but, says Kuhn, “I just pitch them because I haven’t had any luck trying to bring them back.”
The plants are a mix, mainly, of cold-tolerant perennials (e.g. hostas, ferns, heuchera), tender perennials (caladiums), and tropical natives (begonias). Some over-winter outside; Kuhn relocates others in her south-facing studio .
Kuhn made the terrace feel like an outdoor living room with chair cushions, mirrors (also good for capturing extra rays), and a chandelier.
St. Johns wort, in foreground with pink berries, flowers yellow in late spring. There’s rosemary in the somewhat brighter northeast corner. The Japanese-looking trellis came from Bruno’s Housewares on Court Street.
The reddish clay pot, planted with balloon flower, was a street find.
Kuhn picked up the bird’s nest fern in the ‘woven’ clay pot “from Anthropologie’s garbage.”
Container Gardening Tips from Elke Kuhn
- 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 be in a hurry to set out heat-loving plants. Wait until Memorial Day.
- Water daily!
- If you go away for a weekend, pull pots into even deeper shade so they don’t dry out in the heat.
Miss any installments of The Outsider? The entire archive is right here.