Home & Design

Green Acre #407: Plug-in Plants

A transitional Manhattan window box. / Photo by Kristen Hartke.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

WINTER WINDOW BOXES, or planters, can be even more splendid in the cold than in full summer bloom, and they’re easier to care for with a wide variety of cold-comfortable branches and greens—most readily available, and often free. 

Freelance food writer and artist Kristen Hartke* spied the beauty above near her Manhattan home.

Growing outdoor plants in the city is not that easy, and New York City is probably a pretty tough place in particular for such endeavors, she said. I would personally love to have a window box but am not allowed to in my building, so I have to content myself with those that I see while I’m out and about. 

Figuring out what to grow in these spaces is tricky because there might only be a scant couple of hours of direct sunlight or maybe only indirect light—there is actually a courtyard in our building where we tenants grow a wide variety of shade plants for all to enjoy, and they are absolutely lovely, so I have had to learn a lot more about shade plants over the past several months.

I love the plants, which aren’t always necessarily that lovely but still offer a little bit of natural texture and color and shape, which is always welcome when living in a concrete jungle. And I happen to also love the old wrought-iron window grates and how the window boxes nestle inside them and the plants snake up the vertical wrought-iron bars. A lot of the time, the flowers—often it’s vinca or something similar—have gotten quite leggy and look a bit anemic, but there’s something about how they keep reaching up toward the sunlight, even on a narrow, dark street, that seems to tell a story about what it’s like to live in New York!

The stunning box she captured in the photo, is a rare success, perfectly straddling the fall and winter seasons with sunny mums splashing against a backdrop of boxwood, eucalyptus draping the front border, and branches of red berries and papery balls of orange Chinese lantern providing punctuation. 

When the mums fade into a dismal blackish bog, as they do, they can be easily yanked and replaced by shrubbish more attuned to the frigid winter winds. The frame is there for quick seasonal updates.  

The trick is creating that frame. Something tall and lush in the rear, something dripping in the front and sides, and a free center space for a mixed mass of color and texture. 

Note that none of the plant materials I’m suggesting are alive. Their stalks can simply be jammed into existing soil.  Even if you live in a cellar with trash-can views, you can create exciting arrangements. If you already have plants—pansies, cabbages—consider some of these as filler or enhancements.  

Consider branches of magnolia with their big glossy leaves in the background and more along the front edge. Fill the center with masses of baby’s breath and white lights and you’re holiday ready. Tuck in a handful of crocus, snowdrop, and grape hyacinth bulbs (no, it’s not too late) and they’ll spring up in late January and early February, just as the baby’s breath grows as tired as you are of winter. 

Instead of baby’s breath, try pinecones, spray-painted silver or gold. Voilà! A glitzy holiday box. Those pinecones will last for decades, so the spray painting is a one-shot deal. 

It’s been a gorgeous fall for a walk, and often the best trimmings are free: feathery tops of ornamental grasses, branches of red berries, curly willow, red-twig dogwood—and pinecones—are all fine fillers for planter or window box. 

Garden centers are usually delighted to give you scraps of tree and swag trimmings, saving them the disposal, and fake berries look perfectly real and can be reused year after year. 

Slap on a beret, and stuff those planters: If you feel artistically challenged, crank up the Piaf and talk to yourself with a French accent as you work. That sometimes helps. 


*Kristen’s recipe for strawberry champagne soup appeared in the Washington Post on November 18, 2022. It’s a deliciously refreshing first course, served chilled, before a heavy holiday meal. 


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