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Green Acre #24: Thinking Outside the (Window) Box

A lush Georgetown display that inspired LittleBird Stephanie's Capitol Hill window boxes . . . for a while. Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

A lush Georgetown display that inspired LittleBird Stephanie’s Capitol Hill window boxes . . . for a while. Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE FIVE WINDOW boxes that ornament our front windows are among a handful of home improvements that happened the moment I uttered the words “I want.”  This is not a happenstance to be sneezed at, as various other wishes of mine are now celebrating 30 years of partial completion.

This time my inspiration happened to conveniently collide with that of My Prince, who was as taken as I was with the window boxes that bedeck the ledges and rooflines of London. We noticed these on a visit some 20 years ago and we were both struck not only by the fabulous displays but their fantastic scale. While we installed boxes our very first summer on Capitol Hill, the charming terracotta numbers that we selected needed watering morning and night or whatever was in them frizzled. To get Britishy about it, the planters were too bloody small. Perhaps one or the other of us should have noticed this early on, but some of our flaws are unfortunately similar, such as looking things up before beginning a project and reading instructions and then not following them.

Immediately on our return, the Prince cobbled together lovely large boxes that filled the window ledges. Painted deep purple to match the front door and anchored securely to the sills (do I need to repeat that for you?), they were then filled with approximately 10 tons of potting soil.

Since we (meaning I, but I’m feeling kindly and inclusive this morning) wanted an even bigger bang from the boxes than mere size could provide, the ends were filled with small-leafed ivy to cascade down the sides, and pale green sweet-potato vine was installed front and center; it has such a lovely ruffly drape—like a Galliano gown. From summer to summer the background was filled in with a mix of not terribly imaginative but colorful stuffs, some more successful than others. Alyssum, so white and frothy and sweet-smelling, seemed a lovely idea but never did well, I can’t say why. Impatiens, begonias, petunias and coleus (after seeing a wow of a box in Georgetown; see picture at top) all had an unexciting turn. There was a dalliance with cherry tomatoes, another with iris.

Eventually I settled on pink geraniums, which seemed perky, easy to care for, colorful and an audience favorite—the  stroller bunch strolling by gave them the nod, the way one does with people who paint five shades of gray on the house walls and strangers feel called upon to vote—the one on the left, or the right or the middle or whatnot.

The remaining issue was, and continues to be, the centerpiece. First there were real boxwood, London-inspired and clipped into perky balls. These looked particularly wonderful at Christmas, covered in tiny white lights. But they died.

I tried again the next year and worse happened: Two of them dropped dead in late October, too late to be replaced and making a mess of the holiday display, though it did inspire an interesting and since oft-repeated use of stray branches of this and that.

Then there was the year of the dwarf azalea, which seemed like a brilliant concept but wasn’t, which was followed by several years that featured spikes, which they say should weather our weather but don’t.

The annual disasters were expensive and thoroughly irritating, though often my fault. I’m good with watering and feeding for the first few months and then get lazy, particularly with the upstairs boxes that are sheltered from rain and therefore dry out and, well, die.

So I went online and hunted up fake boxwood, ordering five faux balls from a wedding-supply vendor. (Who uses fake flowers in wedding displays, I ask you? And then I answer, That would be me bedecking the gazebo at the Raleigh North Carolina Arboretum with fake dogwood and hydrangea for Baby’s wedding—but that’s another story).

Back to this story. The boxwood balls were large enough, but a little squat for the hovering above the frontal shrubbish impact that I was going for, so I wired them onto chopsticks, which helped. I kept them for a season or two: Plastic plants do quite well in this climate, you can quote me on that.

But then I grew frustrated with the geraniums, which flourished most pinkly in spring and fall but had a season of boredom in between when they did nothing but sit there looking smugly green. So last year I yanked them and planted fakes, not silk but some Chinese replication from the too frequently mentioned (by me) Michaels. This meant, of course, that the fake boxwood had to go.

I have various personal rules about how much fakery is tolerable in my various planted situations.


An Old Town Alexandria impostor: fake peonies in a silvery serving dome. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Firstly, they should not dominate the box, occupying no more than one quarter of the available space. I present to you here  (see photo) a skin-crawler I had the misfortune of coming across in Old Town, Alexandria. Stuffed with an extravagant display of peonies, and perched at eye level, it demanded a sniff. Alas, going nose to blossom exposed their counterfeit souls, which was plain depressing. If, however, a blossom or two were mixed in with real greenery I would have enjoyed the tromp l’oeil joke.

Secondly, they should look as realistic as possible—or be completely, ridiculously, over-the-top unnatural. Anything glitter-dusted will do.

Anyway, this winter I’m attempting a rosemary centerpiece, having bought five nice tall ones from a tomato and mushroom vendor at Eastern Market. Rosemary appears to be hardy around here, but if it dies at least I can use it in a stew.

By the way, there were totally inadvertent additional benefits to fake geraniums. There are fewer actual roots jostling about for food and drink, which also mean less watering. I also don’t have the heartbreaking autumnal task of yanking the real ones which, with the advent of cooler weather, will have suddenly burst into robust and rather passive-aggressive bloom. These have to go at their peak, like around now, to make way for the pansies that need to be well established so they will carry us through spring. I can even stick the fake geraniums back in the boxes with the pansies and leave them be until their presence becomes entirely unnatural and then toss them under the back porch to loiter until warm weather returns.

If you’re looking for window box inspiration, the most luscious guide I’ve found is Window Boxes, by Tovah Martin.  Though apparently out of print, used copies can be had for cheap via Amazon and it’s guaranteed to give you palpitations.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie is working on a book about city gardening. Until she gets it out of her system she will continue to write the Green Acre column.

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