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Green Acre #102: Dead Plants Should Look Good

One of the eggplant-purple window boxes affixed to the front of LittleBird Stephanie’s house. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

THE FIRST RULE of window-box gardening is that most, if not all, of your plants should look good dead.

Once they go belly-up from whatever mishap happens—and they will happen—the departed should assume a grandly feathery wilt or be rigor-mortis stiff, making them easily spray-paintable, should you elect to do so.

Consider dried flowers, which are essentially the same thing: dead as door knobs, or is it door nails? Doesn’t matter, in either event they’re dead. People spend money on dried lavender and strawflowers and baby’s breath, fluffy pampas grass, eucalyptus  and various reeds. They snap up dried hydrangeas and little pink roses. Any of these would look lovely living in your boxes. Why not have them simply die in situ?

The feng shui of living with the dead may be questionable, but needs must, as the Brits say.

At the moment I’m admiring my window boxes. They’re freshly planted for summer, with things I can name and things I cannot because I lost the tags. Everything is still quite lively.

As always, there’s a centerpiece, something that will grow tall, reflected in the window glass. This year I’m attempting asparagus fern. In front of that is acid-green sweet potato vine, which will drift down in a flurry of ruffles as the centerpiece (hopefully) lofts up and out. On either side are pink geraniums, purple wandering jew and bits of this and that I’m attempting to root. Small-leafed ivy drapes over the ends.

The deep purple paint on the window boxes needs a bit of a touch-up, but they’re still handsome enough that passersby lurch their baby buggies and bikes to a stop: “I love your window boxes,” they’ll sigh if they see me, and don’t I preen at the attention.

This is now, in earliest spring, when it’s all so fresh and the rains are pressing the flowers into a tropical growth spurt. Soon enough something will go kaput. No doubt that will happen late in June, when there’s little left at the garden centers. And so, one punts. Boxwood, I’ve found, can be sprayed green with remarkable verisimilitude.

Boxwood was the first of many centerpieces I tried. That was more than 20 years ago, after a trip to London, where the Prince and I had wandered dank dark March streets amazed at the spilling over of geraniums and ivy—punctuated with such lovely boxwood—from windows and rooflines. It was stunning against the gloomy sky of late winter, or early spring, however you want to call it. And I wanted them.

In an unusual turn, the Prince wanted them as much as I did, for he quickly set to with hammer and boards and made lovely deep and wide boxes for each of the five windows on the front of the house, then painted them eggplant to match the front door.

The scale of the boxes is Rule No. 2: Go as big as you possibly can. Those attractive clay planters that neatly rest on the windowsill with little support dry out within hours, making it impossible for normal people with normal things to do with their lives to maintain. When the weather grows hot, one has to hover above them with a watering can.

Ours are a decent size, measuring 31 inches across, 10 inches in height and 8 inches deep. While our windowsills are substantial, the boxes still need to be firmly attached to the bricks with iron supports, otherwise . . . not a pretty picture.  This is not a project for amateurs.

Even given their largish scale, there are always plant casualties. Although, if I were, perhaps, more modest in my ambitions, not filling every iota of space with something, and managed to keep them watered and fed . . . I might have a better survival rate.  

Watering happens to be Rule No. 3. No matter how big they are, these suckers dry out fast when the weather hits the 90s. Rule of thumb: Stick your finger in the soil every day and, if it’s dry, water.  

Feeding them every so often doesn’t hurt either.

Not really a rule, just an aside: Always plant something sweet-smelling. There’s a particular purple petunia that’s glorious, but needs too much water for me to bother. Sniff the petunias, most have no scent. But those purples? Mmmm. I have better luck with moonflowers. I just poked in seed, though already-started plants are easy to come by. As they grow, they’ll tangle with the sweet potato vine and scent the evening air most delightfully, drifting through the house when the windows are open.

Sadly, moonflowers are not attractive when dead.  

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

—LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” cultivates her garden and reports back every Thursday.



2 thoughts on “Green Acre #102: Dead Plants Should Look Good

  1. Stephanie, as always, I love your commentary, and your references to what the Prince and you do together.
    I have a suggestion for the plants drying out and dying: use special potting mix which is designed to be moisture-holding. They now make such a thing, for potted plants, especially. Also,you can take one of those synthetic baby diapers, which is filled with microfiber beads which really soak up moisture. Go ahead and soak one of these diapers in water, and place it at the base of your window box. It now has a reserve of moisture, and will continue to soak up water and provide it to the plants, through the summer. Enjoy!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Wow!!! Thanks!

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