Home & Design

Green Acre #217: Ticking the (Window) Boxes

Ivy, sedum, pansies (and whatever that stuff in back is) will keep window boxes lively all winter. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

IS THERE ANYTHING more cheerful on a cold and dreary day than a window box stuffed with sunny flowers and greenery? I think not, which is why I have six: three in the upstairs windows, two in the lower windows, plus a hot pink camellia beside the front door. 

There’s no reason why, in any moderate climate—where the colder days don’t go below 32 degrees for any great stretch—window boxes should not be blooming their heads off throughout, shall we say, the foul-weather season. This does depend on a little advance thought—mainly having boxes high, wide and deep enough to provide plenty of soil for the plants to wriggle about in; made of wood, not terracotta, which can crack in the cold. That, and regular watering should keep them perky.

Which means you can still do it now.  

I’ve just finished the fall refresh, lifting the asparagus fern and the Mexican heather, which will be held over in pots since I have the luxury of a little greenhouse. I also pulled the pothos, my only disappointment. I can’t remember why I put them in the box fronts, where I usually put sweet potato vines. Pothos is green and well behaved, which is fine if you’re not me. If you happen to be me, as I am, you want a lot more flamboyance for the buck, or in this case 25 bucks, the cost of six that did nothing much more than perform a pathetic dribble over the box fronts. Pah. 

By now the sweet potato vines, had I planted them, would have exploded, ruffling down the flat front of the house from the upper boxes, the ones below spilling onto the porch floor. A grand sight. Ah well, there’s always next year, if next year arrives. Please can we speed that up?

Better yet, let’s just cancel this year entirely. Having gone nowhere, done nothing, for how many months, it seems as if we should be entitled to a redo.  I refuse to be another year older, shortly. How swiftly does my dotage come. Oh, the unfairness. That was an aside. 

Getting back to the story at hand. I pulled the summer stuffs, leaving the ivy to soften the ends of the boxes, and the sedum, which manages to put on a nice show most of the year, and planted winter mainstays: pansies, violas, ornamental cabbages, and fat balls of thyme. All of these do very well in this Washington DC climate and will remain charming and lovely and so forth right through spring.

Also left in place, at least until they completely defy all weather logic, are a few stems of fake pink geranium, which add a jolly touch of color. 

As an experiment, I’ve clipped branches of a mystery plant that’s been around for 30-some years and I’ve yet to identify and stuffed them in the back of the boxes to give the boxes, one hopes, some height and majesty. 

It’s an evergreen with sturdy branches and small leaves. Last month, I clipped a branch for a front hall arrangement and it quickly rooted in water, a surprising event that gives me hope that they’ll do well in the boxes as well, letting down roots before frost. 

I doubt that we bought this plant; there’s something about it that says “yanked from the side of the road,” which does happen. However it got here, it spent several decades in the pot by the front door, where it sat doing nothing much in most boring—if perennially green—fashion. 

Maybe five years ago I told my Prince to plant it out by the curb—equivalent to sending the plant to Siberia. And lo! It grew. And grew. And grew. It is now easily 15 feet tall and was heavy with buds last June. By early July it was covered with white flowers of an unfortunate scent, a rotten sort of sweetness, like decomposing lilies in stagnant water, or worse. It made one thankful for masks.  

One might ask why I would plant them in the window boxes (dipped in rooting hormone and well watered). 

If this plant were 40 or so feet from the house the scent would be charming. Just a little wifty on the breeze would make one go mmmmm.  So I’m thinking of Baby and her Personal Prince Pete, who have just such a stretch, and a road behind the house that could do with some obscuring.  

Come spring I’ll yank them and, Covid permitting, will truck them to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they’ll make a terrific border.

As long as you don’t get too close. 

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” 


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