Home & Design

Green Acre #67: Green Grows My Garden

AT LAST we have come to a time and place where we can grow little other than ferns.

Don’t get me wrong. I like ferns. There is such a surprising variety. Some grow frilly, others straight as swords, some are sprawling. The aptly named Equisetum giganteum ‘El Tabacal‘ grows 10 feet tall. There are different shades of green, from bright to blackish. There’s the occasional burgundy and sometimes a bicolor, green and white.
There are more than 11,000 varieties, give or take a Hymenophyllales or Gleicheniales. The oldest of them, they say, is the Osmunda claytoniana, which has remained virtually unchanged for 180 million years.


But at some point one would love to see, perhaps, a zinnia. Vividly red or hot pink or chrome yellow or a batch of them mixed, standing tall and big-flowered in the . . . sunshine.

Aye, there’s the rub.

When one has boldly gone and planted a Kwanzan cherry tree in a two-bit yard—what did I think? That 10 years on we would actually have moved to that tropical beach? That I’d be now sitting on a terrace overlooking turquoise water, shaking sand out of my towel and dosing my burnt shoulders with aloe? Did I?

Yes. And that is how we have arrived at a time when The Cherry, planted to obscure some obnoxious town homes that arose in the once-empty lot behind our house, in air space we considered to be our own, has grown to such a size that it forms a vast umbrella over the entire back yard. A place where ferns, and little else, flourish.

It is exquisite, this tree, for the two or three days, maybe a week, when it is in full flower. If the weather is cool maybe we get two. The blossoms are glorious as they fall on the garden path and the theoretical flower borders that flank it are drifted with ballerina-pink snow.

And then we are left with ferns. And mulch. And house plants that summer in the shade, doing not much of anything besides growing larger, as in a horror film. The philodendron leaves have grown this summer to such prehistoric size that one expects a dinosaur to part the foliage and stare out balefully.

Is it possible, I pathetically whisper, to create a patch of sustained light, where a little clump of something bright will flourish?
The other day I planted that question with Adrian Higgins, garden impresario for the Washington Post. He was having an online Q & A and I took advantage of a far bigger gardening brain than mine:

Me: My Kwanzan cherry has grown like Godzilla, threatening to eat the entire garden. I want roses! Zinnias! Just a few sun-loving plants . . . even a little patch of cosmos. Can I use a grow light outdoors? How about a full-spectrum flood?

Adrian Higgins: “We have a full-spectrum outdoor lamp already, it’s called the sun. This cherry can be denser than Yoshino, but could be carefully pruned to allow more light into the tree and the plantings beneath it. I have found California poppies, by the way, will take some shade and make a great annual display.”

To this I say: Yeah, yeah, I know about the sun. Highly unreliable. It’s subject to an eclipse on average every 375 years, depending on where you’re standing. *

But the thought of poppies makes me weak-kneed. “Poppies!” cries the Wicked Witch of the West. “Poppies!” she repeats, waving her wand above the field leading to Oz, and one by one the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion and Dorothy fall asleep.

And then there’s opium. Oh, there’s a story to tell there, but not here.
Poppies make me happy, but they will not grow in my garden, and if they did it would be in springtime before the bloody tree leafs out and the tulips nod and so forth. In other words, not when I need a splotch of color, like now, when we’re heading into late summer and I see nothing but the Emerald City out there.

I gave the question another go with Thomas Kapfer, lead landscape designer at Washington’s Ginkgo Gardens, who said he’d never been asked such a question. While he too suggested calling in a professional arborist for some judicious pruning, he thought full-spectrum lighting might do the trick.

“Flood lights should work,” he said, “if the bulb is full-spectrum and put on a timer to mimic daytime—as you would an indoor grow light.”

But, he cautioned, make sure it can go in an exterior fixture. “Path or accent lights won’t allow for a strong bulb.”

Using the proper outdoor fixture is essential, agreed Jess Sears, head of field operations for Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of DC Metro, which specializes in lighting everything from swimming pools to gardens. The bulb need not be outdoor-rated, but the fixture must be. “The top of the bulb must be fully enclosed and facing downwards,” he said. “The neck must be watertight.”

Yes and yes,  says our go-to lighting guru, Randall Whitehead: “You want ‘grow lights.’ Now, grow-light fixtures are made for indoor use. They are not wet- or damp-location rated, so you can’t use them outside. You can get grow-light bulbs, though, that will screw into wet-locatio-rated fixtures.”

One such bulb is GrowLED PAR38 LED grow lights from Thinklux Lighting, recommended for “Cannabis, Flowers, Vegetables & Fruits,” and available (of course) from Amazon for $14.90.

You know what else those full-spectrum bulbs are good for? Seasonal depression, which in the past was limited to the winter months . . . but seems now to be a year-round phenomenon. I suggest you sit under yours while watching the nightly news.

* Solar eclipse frequency explained.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie clearly suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder in summer, when her garden doesn’t do what she wants it to. You can read earlier columns by typing Green Acre into the Search box at the top of the screen.

2 thoughts on “Green Acre #67: Green Grows My Garden

  1. Thanks Michelle! I just now saw your comment. I have a couple of pathetic coleus grown from seed this year — probably a mistake. And, yes, impatiens do fairly well. But I always want what I cannot have, a state of being I never seem to outgrow.

  2. Michele P. says:

    Dear Stephanie,
    I do feel your pain, and I used to feel the same craving for color in the shade. And I, too, do love ferns. What I have learned to do is add perennial Hostas, and annual Coleus, to add lots of color. Hostas come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and if you’re lucky, some tall purple or white stalks of flowers will emerge. But the Coleus really do the job quite well, supplying colors ranging from burgundy/black, to chartreuse green. And are you sure you can’t even grow Impatiens, with their bright array of colors? Granted, they are annuals, but they will give you a bright drifts of color – I have never seen them refuse to bloom. Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *