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Green Acre #375: Boxing Days

The window box of March 2022, chez Cavanaugh. Purple pansies, sprigs of wintered-over geraniums and Rapunzel-length ivy swagged across the front. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

HOW MANY columns have I written about window boxes? 

Many, many . . . so many.  Yet there’s always something else to say.

There are the summer boxes dripping with ivy, sweet potato vine, colorful annuals (and many experiments—cherry tomatoes—often misguided), fall boxes with pansies and cabbages, winter boxes with bows, ornaments and boughs, late-winter boxes with ever more boughs and sprigs of this and that . . .

And spring boxes, which are just starting to take shape. There’s never a reason for window boxes to be empty—or worse: filled with a collection of browned and desiccated shrubbish. 

Certainly now, as the gardens begin their season of blossom, so too should the boxes. While tender annuals are still too early to plant out in weather that can go overnight from 70 degrees to 28, as it has done this past week, there are plenty of plants that can withstand the chill, particularly if your boxes, like mine, get afternoon sun, which warms the bricks (should you have them) and brings the temperatures just above freezing.

There are pansies and their charming, smaller siblings, the violas. These are cheap and plentiful in garden centers, with colors that range from shades of yellow and blue to purple, mauve, salmon and red. Geraniums can go in too, as long as the temperature near the house does not descend to brutal. Mix in ivy and you’ve an Ode to Spring. 

If you don’t mind spending for the ephemeral, places like Trader Joe’s have little pots of tulips, daffodils and other early bulbs, all of which rely on the chill to stay perky for more than a handful of days. Take them out of their little pots and water them well before planting so they have an opportunity to stretch and wriggle their spindly roots in the soil, then water again. 

On the downside, warm weather means they must be frequently replaced; on the upside their deaths mean an opportunity to try something else. 

On second thought, why bother with plants that expire so quickly? Get a bunch of cut tulips or drop a buck or two on daffs, stick stems in those wonderful plastic water holders with the pointy bottoms and rubber caps. No dirt under the nails and a quick makeover. 

A particular delight of window-box gardening is that transformations are as close to instant gratification as one can get.  

One morning last week I yanked the magnolia and fir branches that have been the mainstays of my late-winter display. In went purple pansies and sprigs of geranium—mine are wintered over in the greenhouse* so there’s always a big bush to pinch from. (Just cut a couple of inches of branch, dip the end in rooting powder, and poke it in the soil. In a week or so they’ll settle in and, if there were buds at the tips of the branches, start flowering.)

The ivy that mounds on each corner of the five boxes (two downstairs, three up) was looking scraggly, grown to Rapunzel lengths, so I swagged the vines to the front of the boxes, like ribbons. I do like the look and may keep it, even if I add sweet potato vines to the centers, as I usually do, and let the vines overlap and tangle. 

The puzzle of getting height at the rear, a backdrop of green to set off the colors, was easily solved by adding clipped branches of green from various yard plants. Some leftover baby’s breath from who knows what arrangement fluffs it all out. Like snowy punctuation. 

Next month some of this will get ditched and annuals will be raring to join in.

My boxes are more than 25 years old, as wide and deep as the windowsills, and heavily braced to take the weight of soil and plants without dropping on someone’s head. We’re insured, but still. That would be unpleasant, and the boxes would be expensive to replace.

The deeper and wider the box, the more room for play. A big box can be a complete garden in miniature, at a fraction of the cost of planting an entire plot of any size. 

They also provide instant curb appeal, a nice thing to have whether or not you’re selling your home. Not to mention they can distract from imperfections like a little peeling paint, less-than-shiny brasswork, a trash can or two in unsightly colors. Perhaps you have none of these? Lucky you. 

My window boxes regularly perform for an audience of strollers (This includes people pushing strollers. Where did all these babies come from? Must be Covid-related. That was an aside.) People stop and frequently take photos; sometimes I peek out the shutter slats at them as they’re pointing and talking. If My Prince or I happen to be outside, they’ll often call out their appreciation, and we gratefully take our bows. 

*Greenhouse sounds so very grand. It’s but a glassed-in porch My Prince created on the second floor, a room for the parakeets and the tropical plants that move to the garden in summer. It’s small. Too small for a photo or I’d show you. But it’s delightful. 


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