Have you ever driven through the suburbs and been frustrated by neighborhoods that look exactly the same? A whole row of condos or houses, all in white or gray, and they stand solemnly looking like Mr. Potato Head without any of his appendages. Do you wish you could just drive by and stick on a nose, ears and a pair of blue glasses, to give them a unique face? In contrast, maybe you have driven through a neighborhood that enthralled you. Take for instance, the frequently admired and photographed southern city of Charleston. One can wander through the romantic streets and feast on the eye candy of the colored houses and fabulous porticos, the varied shutters and the abundantly flowered porches and windows. The style is reminiscent of our European heritage, where flowers and vines on houses, stairs and windows are often used to give a visual hello to passer-bys. Why don’t we make an effort to transform our potato head housing and inspire ourselves and others? We may not be able to repaint or remodel, but merely adding some foliage and flowers could be as significant as Mr. Potato Head’s eyes. An uncomplicated way to do this is
to revive in America an ancient custom that the Europeans borrowed and have not forgotten—the simple idea of
Transport your vision back to 100 years before the birth of Christ. Roman writings describe the lovely art of window boxes in literature dating to at least the first century
B.C. Apparently, Romans commonly cultivated their own small gardens for daily vegetables, herbs and flowers used for medicine, cooking and religious events. Lower class Romans, who had no substantial growing space around the yard used window boxes to grow their needed plants. The floral displays from the windows spiced up the streets, and the upper classes adopted the design, eventually expanding it to include rooftop and balcony gardens created purely for aesthetics. Some references in literature reveal that trees and hanging gardens adorned the aristocratic roof tops in Rome. Of course, as the Roman Empire expanded, carrying its culture across Europe, the practice of window boxes traveled as far north as England. Europe perpetuates this custom today. In colonial America, window boxes were widespread thanks to our European roots, but the practice faded as wider lawns and shrubberies became popular.
Yet the charm of window boxes is clearly timeless. We still smile at a photo of a window-box covered house boasting red geraniums in Switzerland, yet frown at our drab subdivisions. Why not do something new by bringing back something old to your home’s face this summer? Borrowing this tried and true idea can deliver a historical collage of beautiful scenes to your home. Technology has come a long way since ancient Rome, and so your new project can be simple to create and long-lasting, with endless possibilities for artistic liberty and statement.
The first decision that faces you is the style and material of the actual box. Romans traditionally used terra cotta pottery for window boxes. Centuries later, the English used wire hay baskets and the French wrought iron ones (imagine the black lace iron balconies in New Orleans). Vive innovation: we now have the options of cellular PVC, wood, iron, vinyl, and aluminum, and fiberglass, among others. Cellular PVC is an interesting material; it is a new blend of PVC which looks extremely close to wood, without the maintenance requirements of wood. Cellular PVC is easy to clean and can be painted using 100% acrylic exterior paint. If you are going green, wood is still frequently used for window boxes and is an easy do-it-yourself material. If you would like to copy the lace balcony look of New Orleans, you can find window boxes of a similar style, but made of aluminum. Copper is a very distinct and formal look. Be careful with metal window boxes, however, as they can conduct heat and may overheat the soil. Fiberglass boxes are exceptionally easy to maintain, but can be complicated to paint yourself. Buying a pre-painted box fiberglass box is recommended.
The size of a window box must be an intentional decision as the box needs to be attached to the window or outside wall, and fit with the size of your windows. Too big or too small, and you may kill the flowers or have falling window boxes, and we Americans do not need any more lawsuits. 8–12 inches is a good measure for the depth and width of the box. The length will be determined by your window size. Generally, boxes should be about 3 or 4 feet long, but not more than 6 feet, as the weight of the box will make it difficult to attach effectually. If you become inspired by the
Romans and want to plant orange trees along with the flowers, perhaps a rooftop garden is your best bet.
A limitless combination of flowers and color presents itself for the blueprint of a window box. Perhaps your house is blue—you could drape white window boxes and set in variations of one color, such as pink or yellow. With a white house, you could choose any color for the boxes—pink, red, blue, lavender, green, etc., and coordinating flowers. If your house is a bright or dark color, limiting the flower colors to one is a first-class suggestion. In Beacon Hill, Boston, where the houses are traditional New England architecture from the 19th century, the window boxes are a conservative black or darker green. In New Orleans, one finds black iron or aluminum. Try a Google® search for window box photos and skim through the results to see examples of global window art.
Though a box constitutes a small space with not much room for error, one could produce a non-artful window box by not arranging the flowers correctly. Think of a window box as a tiered theater. The tallest flowers are placed in the back row. Smaller, bushier flowers work best in the middle, and in the front, trailing plants which lusciously fall over the edge are fabulous. The plants should be placed in a staggered manner, like in a theater, so that from the front view, one does not see straight rows of flowers. Flowers and plants suitable for the back row seating are geraniums, petunias, nasturtiums, snapdragons, supertunias, dracaena, Dusty Miller and coleus. In the center section, try impatiens, pansies, begonias, Johnny jump-ups, or verbenas. In the lucky front row use trailing plants, such as vinca vine, lotus, asparagus fern, creeping Jenny “goldilocks,” or even ivy. As the flowers bloom in their staggered rows, the box will blossom into a full symphony of flowers. Your neighborhood will be calling for an encore.
Miniature roses are an intriguing possibility for your project. These small buds burst with beauty, character and fragrance. Their mere names would inspire a new sitcom or hours of conversation over sangria. What images disembark into your thoughts with these names: Little Vegas, Live Wire, Cupcake, Sweet Fairy or Salmon Sunblaze? And those are only names for pink ones. Among the miniature roses, hanging varieties exist which would tumble marvelously from the front of a window box. These are no tom-boy flowers, however, as their maintenance is a bit trickier than the average joe’s. They must not be planted too closely together to allow for proper air circulation; they crave full sun; and they have need of rich, moist soil. Despite their pickiness, miniatures have a reputation for hardiness.
If you are a bit more utilitarian than caring for finicky miniature roses with elaborate names, or you are trying to save some pennies for an exotic vacation, a window box need not only grow flowers. A box near the kitchen is a model spot for a personal herb garden. Herbs are reputed to be easy to grow, and then fresh basil will be at your disposal when a recipe calls for it. Smaller pots of various herbs can be placed side by side into the liner of a window box. Some thoughts for promising members of your herb community: parsley, sage, mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. If you have the herbs standing by, why not go all the way and grow tomatoes for caprizzi? Species such as cherry tomatoes, a variety of Roma called “Window Box” and Tiny Tim work well in container gardens. The investment in window boxes can save you some greenbacks, and probably your manicure.
Thinking outside the box by putting some boxes outside this summer may be the very creative venue your instincts have been calling for. Somewhere in your family’s history, an ancestor may have already ceded to the Roman window boxes during Rome’s conquest. Rejuvenate the call of the Old World, and claim it as a fresh trend in the New World.
By Rebekah Spraitzar Madren—contributing writer