Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Wintery Window Boxes

The following article first appeared in the Home section of the Washington Post. It was published in March of 1997, when I was deluded enough to believe I could keep my window boxes thriving winter after winter...

When I took my husband to London last year for his 50th birthday the last thing I expected was to be bowled over by window boxes. It was March after all, hardly peak garden season, but it was the only time of year when we could get away by ourselves. As expected, the gardens wouldn’t be in bloom for weeks, which made me weepy at the show I was going to miss. But if the earth was just beginning to come alive, nearly every building was a mass of color. Whole rooflines were dripping with foliage, iron railed balconies were massed with geraniums, stony terraces were draped in ivy. The window boxes, though, were the dazzlers. Most centered around neatly shaped boxwood, their fronts and sides lavished with ivy or vinca. Topping the green sprawl were marigolds, salvia, coleus, and fuscia.

Not only were these boxes lush, it was March, and they’d obviously been lush all winter.

Since I’ve been struggling with window boxes for the last ten years, I did pause to consider if I was being a dreamer. My terra cotta planters were purchased on a jaunt to the country, and each year the mission has not been to get plants to do something splendid, but just to keep them alive. This was difficult since the planting area was about 6”x12”. But who knew? They fit the requirement of the day, being both cute and cheap. What I didn’t realize was how quickly soil dries out in small containers, and particularly in terra cotta. To do well they required constant watering, which in our house means daily acrobatics with the upstairs screens, something I’m far too lazy to do. Beyond the water issue, I’d been sticking my fingers in my ears whenever I heard that plants need room to spread their roots and grow and thrive.

The result of installing these stingy boxes and giving inadequate care was that most of my plants went belly up pretty regularly. The rest were generally sickly. And I could kiss the lot goodbye come August and the family vacation. Our trusty roof that overhangs the front, keeping the windows shaded and the rain away, also keep the sills dry as a bone. There’s not a prayer that the rain might help with the watering. Nothing was ever alive on our return. Now if I weren’t such a slug this might have worked out. But I am, so it didn’t.

These London boxes though, completely turned my thinking around. Happily, my husband the genius carpenter, was just as entranced. The proof was that was that the wood to build them was purchased and not left warping away in the basement for five years. He had them hammered together, installed and painted within a week. Gloriously deep, and window width, the boxes are painted blackish purple to match the front door. Disobeying the rules about drainage (given my conditions, when do window boxes get a chance to drain? They dry out too fast. The trick is to keep the water in, not let it out) each box was lined with heavy plastic then filled with ordinary potting soil.

We got real lucky with plants that spring  but the hardy material can be installed in fall as well. The weekend the boxes were completed, Home Depot had a sale on miniature boxwood. They were, and are, the best price I’ve seen. Beautifully pinecone shaped, 12 inches tall, healthy and green, each plant was something like $6. Drawing on my wonderful collection of photographs from London, I added small leafed ivy along the front, and packed each corner with some of the oversupply of candytuft from the back yard. The annuals were added next, deep purple petunias for their fragrance, pale pink begonias for their drought resistance, and geraniums for a little aerial interest. The whole was instantly charming, and a tourist attraction by mid-summer. And miracle of miracles the boxes required watering no more than twice a week.

In the autumn I lifted the annuals to drop in miniature tulips and narcissus, then I put the annuals back on top to die when they would. By Christmas the boxes were still splendid with greenery and instead of the usual spare window display of a single white candle lamp, each wee tree was decked with a short strand of white lights. For a little more interest I poked baby’s breath in the gaps left after the annuals died. By late February, the bulbs were poking through and, given our absurdly mild winter, the candytuft was already beginning to bloom.

This spring I bought myself a little treat, Window Boxes by Tovah Martin, a slender $12.95 paperback in Houghton Mifflin’s Taylor’s Weekend Gardening Guides series. Martin’s packed her book with gorgeous photographs of the most spectacular window boxes, and filled it with tips on planting and maintenance. Her suggestions include tuberous begonias, fuschias and the splendid leaves of caladiums for shaded spaces, combining verbena and petunias in sunny spots to attract butterflies, and unusual combinations like brilliant red ‘honeysuckle’ fuscia, white daisy leafed chrysanthemums, and trailing blue scarvola. My favorite, given the deep shade of my late summer backyard, is using the boxes for vegetables and fruits. Martin includes in her suggestions ornamental strawberries, chives, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and peppers. I’d think cherry tomatoes might take to the boxes as well.

One thing Martin neglects, perhaps it’s because she lives so far north that any somesuch wouldn’t have a chance, is the year ‘round window box. Hers are filled with bulbs for the spring then wintered over in the garage. Given our climate, and my test run, there’s no reason to do this here. Even if you live where the hot air doesn’t blow quite so strongly, with a little energy most boxes can be moved inside for the few bitter weeks we see each year, or kept safe for a couple of nights with a cover of black plastic.

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