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The Urban Garden: Canyons in the City

by Vince Bushell

Gardening keeps me in contact with the earth and my local environment. My neighborhood: the sights, the sounds, the people, the animals, wild and would-be wild, are all out there for me to experience as I turn the soil, pick the weed, or plant the seed. March may seem early to think about gardening in Wisconsin, but soon Tulips and Daffodils will be blooming. It is a good time to plan for planting your yard. What follows is a story about an area that most folks do not consider garden space — that unusual space in the city landscape: the canyons in the city. I am talking about the space between homes. That narrow corridor, separating one multi-story domicile from the next, is one of my favorite garden spaces. The space leading from the front yard to the back of my home between the buildings is less than eight feet wide. The tops of the roofs tower 30 feet above. The physical dimensions create an unusual environment. The light levels are low so the lawn grasses do not thrive. Some folks pave the entire path. Too bad for lawn freaks and concrete addicts, because this shady lane can be a daily delight from spring to fall when planted properly. This is a green and inviting corridor to the backyard of your life. If you stop and watch the light as the days and seasons change, you will see opportunities to plant a wonderful garden in this city canyon. The city blocks are longer north-south than east-west, so most of us have north and south-facing walls in our canyons. The south facing walls will be much warmer and receive more light than the north. The width between and the height of the homes also controls the light levels. Most of these corridors are very shady, but there are many plants, some native and some exotic, that thrive under such conditions. I have over 30 different species growing between my home and my neighbor’s. For the south-facing wall, pick plants that flower during part of the season. Many of these plants will be woodland plants that flower in the early spring. Virginia bluebells, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Lily of the Valley (smells great), Hepatica, Trillium, Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Meadow Rue (Thallictrum), Violets, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, and Columbine are all perennials that do well with some sun but can handle the shade between homes. After the spring show, it is always nice to add the color of annuals that do well in the shade. None does better than Impatiens, but check out some of the other shade-loving plants at the garden center. Your houseplants also may like a trip outdoors in the summer and the shade is often the best spot for them, as direct sun can cause burns on plants grown indoors. Try starting some annuals indoors from seeds in March. It saves money and is a great experience for young and old. As far as your particular landscape goes, a little experimentation will show what works best in your situation. Sometimes moving a plant a few feet to a slightly brighter location makes a big difference in growth. In the deep shade of a north-facing wall, try ferns. Lady Fern and Stag Fern are both hardy in our climate. The lacy fronds of these plants are a great addition to any walkway. Some other deep-shade tolerant plants are Hosta varieties and Wild Ginger (Asarum canadensis), a deep-shade loving, low ground cover which is native to Wisconsin and does great in our soils. English Ivy (Hedera helix) will crawl along the ground and attempt to scale the walls. The leaves of all these plants have interesting shapes and colors. They require little care and will slowly spread. The Hostas will eventually become large clumps that may be divided and replanted in the early fall. But in planning your garden, do not forget to look up. Those walls can become vertical garden space. Mount planters on your wall and fill them with impatiens or trailing annuals. The elevation on the south facing wall will be sunnier than the ground level. Plant vines, Boston Ivy, or Virginia Creeper to cover your building with green if you can handle that. They also can be kept trimmed back with regular pruning. These two vines have holdfasts that attach to almost any surface. If you don’t want that, a simple twine trellis from the upper floor will provide a path to grow into the sun for Clematis. A south facing wall in your canyon provides a cool root base for Clematis, which they prefer, and the soils near the foundation tend to be alkaline, which this group of vines can handle. Clematis vines do not attach to the building but twine on a line or trellis. Five varieties of Clematis grow on my building. Spring and fall flowering, large-flowered and small, they are sure to please. Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis maximowiciana) grows up to thirty feet and produces thousands of fragrant white flowers outside my second story kitchen window in October. There are even some shrubs that can handle shade. The Japanese Yew, which comes in varieties with different growth habits, is an evergreen that will handle moderate shade. The large flowering Hydrangea, variety Annabelle, thrives in shady conditions. The flowers open green, turn white and then back to green again — quite a trick. My walkway is informal. It resembles a forest floor. I like that. There are many different plants in a random arrangement. If you like the formal look, many of these plants would also work well in that type of planting. Several varieties of Hosta and some ferns planted in rows or patterns along with plantings of annuals, if you want color, would provide a delightfully formal walkway. Shade slows down growth and limits weeds. This results in a garden that is easier to maintain than a lawn. I hope I have inspired some of you to get in touch with the ground around you. I originally wrote this piece in 1994 but the plants are the same. I have to report that in this example the English Ivy has prospered far beyond my expectations for a plant on the north edge of its range. Our winters have been mild, and this ivy is thriving. I have Boxwood (Buxus sempivirens) at the end of my path, and without any winter protection, they have grown from a row of skinny sticks to a plump evergreen hedge. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 4 – April 2003
by Vince Bushell