Click to Print

Relief for Elevator Shaft Syndrome

Horticulturist Maureen Gilmer tells how to cure this common city problem.

Elevator Shaft Syndrome. It afflicts urban gardeners. Its causes are environmental. The symptoms: tiny plots of earth surrounded by multi-story buildings. Prognosis: Little grows, and even less will bloom.

What defines the syndrome is shade. And this is not the friendly filtered shade of tree canopies, but the daunting solid shadows cast by tall buildings. It can be fatal. But help is on the way.

Yards in the grip of this syndrome pose a particular problem for gardeners. In summer the spaces are in full exposure during a short time at midday when the sun is directly overhead. During the winter months, when the sun is low in the southern sky, they may remain in full shade all day long if adjacent buildings are exceptionally tall. It's an all-or-nothing situation.

The chief drawback in trying to design gardens to fit these circumstances is lack of color. The gardens tend to become a single green monochromatic palette, offering little visual relief. The truth, of course, is that very few plants will bloom well in deep shade. And even those adaptable for this exposure, such as the Ajuga reptans hybrids, Acanthus and Aspidistra, may thrive as greenery but fail to bloom or to bloom insignificantly.

The syndrome may be cured with a prescription of plants that produce a variety of foliage colors and textures. This palette allows for a brightening of the monochromatic green garden by incorporating whites, purples, yellows, deep bronze and occasional pinks. The ability to play these leaves off one another by exploiting contrast is powerful medicine.

In these gardens the goal is to make every plant jump out fully visible, not let it fall back as part of the whole. Contrast does just that. It divides, separates and calls attention to these variations.

The work of breeder Dan Heims has elevated genus Heuchera from the lowly shade-garden flower popularly called coral bells into an incredible group of shade garden problem-solvers. While other Heuchera breeders have concentrated on size or flowers, Dan's work at Terra Nova Nurseries has concentrated of foliage.

This makes terrific sense for urban gardeners because the plant offers spectacular leaf colors regardless of whether it blooms robustly or not at all. And, as a bonus, Heucheras are conveniently small for tight city spaces, giving urban gardeners lots of options for bold contrast effects.

Bring vivid sunset colors into heavily shaded gardens with award-winning Heuchera 'Amber Waves.' This bolt from the blue is an automatic attention-getter that stands out in the height of contrast against the greens. Its close cousin 'Marmalade' features more of a pink range, with the backs of the leaves a virtually Day-Glo hue. A new 2005 introduction, 'Peach Flambe' is just the color its name suggests: peachy hot and vibrant.

You can bounce lighter-hued plants against the purple blue of 'Amethyst Myst.' Rich and dark, this Heuchera gives a sense of bottomless murky depths that has caught the eye of haute designers from coast to coast. Take silver and let it flow over the purple, and you have 'Geisha' with its dark veins and high contrast that more suggests an exotic large-leaf begonia than a rugged Heuchera.

To really make these dark ones sing, play them with Heuchera 'Lime Rickey' with its ruffled leaves and vibrant, multiple shades of lime-green foliage.

These are just a few of the many high color Heucheras available at garden centers. For a preview of what's available, and a retailer locator, log on to Website: If plants are not in stock locally, just ask for a special order. It's definitely worth it.

Whether urban or suburban, if your yard has Elevator Shaft Syndrome don't turn to your HMO; write yourself a prescription with lots of refills for long-term Heuchera color therapy.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at For more information, visit: or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

Advertisement will not be printed