Friday, July 21, 2017  

Mad about Mailboxes
Creating a Welcoming Entryway to Your Home

If you’ve worked hard to create a lovely landscape that reflects your home’s character don’t let a ramshackle mailbox teetering atop a splintered wood post be the first thing anyone visiting you sees as they pull up to your driveway. First impressions are powerful after all. A well-cared for mailbox on the other hand, surrounded by a bed of fresh plantings or eclectic garden art suggests a home well-loved and creates a welcoming entryway to the rest of your landscape.

But how do you go from bleak to beautiful? Begin with the box of course.

While there are many types of mailboxes out there—think steel, cast aluminum, cedar, copper-wrapped, or plastic—they all have one thing in common; they must be approved by the United States Post Office. So before you buy be sure to look for a stamp—usually on the front flap—that says “Approved by the Postmaster General.” If you don’t see it ask the manufacturer if they’re a USPS approved vendor. If not, avoid a costly mistake by finding one who is.

The USPS also requires that mailboxes stand between 42” and 48” from the road surface and be accessible to your mail carrier from the curb. Letters and numbers must be at least 1” high and clearly visible. Wall-mounted mailboxes with locks must have slots large enough to accommodate your mail volume.

Most mailboxes are mounted on posts that may be buried in the ground or bolted to a concrete slab and are often sold as sets at hardware or big-box retailers. Specialty and online retailers also offer wide selections of mailboxes to choose from. Whether they’re classic black or personalized, whimsical or sleek and modern, prices can range from under $100 for a basic mailbox to well over $500 for higher quality mailbox and post sets. Before you install or replace anything though, check with your local post office to be sure it meets their standards for size, strength, and durability.

Keeping your mailbox and post clean and neat is the first step toward creating an attractive entryway to your home. Periodically wipe away spider webs and replace loose hinges on the door. Sand off peeling paint and touch up dings and scratches. For black metal boxes and posts a black marking pen works wonders in a pinch. Each spring the USPS sponsors Mailbox Improvement Week and offers postal customers tips for keeping this hard-working feature of any home in good shape. Check out the USPS website for ideas and make this part of your annual home maintenance.

But to maximize the potential of your mailbox area think of it as an extension of your overall landscape. And besides, says Landscape Designer Mike Turkovich of Berkeley Design Group in Richmond, “It’s one of those spots you visit everyday —why not make it something pleasing to look at.”

He suggests thinking outside of the box by using hardscape materials as the anchor for your mailbox area. Hardscape refers to any material that’s not a plant or mulch and includes things like stones, pavers, blocks, boulders, retaining walls, and slate. For Turkovich, using the same material in a mailbox area that’s been used in a patio or retaining wall joins the different areas of your property together and creates a feeling of continuity that says, “Wow, this is meant to be here!” Try building a custom mailbox column out of stone, brick, or even wood that reflects your home’s architecture and color. A mailbox can either be placed on top of the column or can be built into the structure. The price tag for custom mailboxes is quite a bit higher than standard post-mounted mailboxes and can reach into the thousands of dollars depending on the material used, but their curb appeal may be worth the cost depending on your taste.

Homeowners needn’t go custom though to maximize curb appeal and integrate their mailbox area into the rest of their landscape. If you have a traditional post-mounted mailbox paint it the same color as your front door or shutters. Then paint the post a contrasting color and plant a garden around it that repeats colors from your home’s exterior. For a house with a red front door use plants with red flowers or branches like Zinnias or Impatiens. A mailbox garden for a sunny yellow house with black shutters could include wildflowers with yellow petals like Black-Eyed Susans.

Turkovich says if you enjoy color, have fun with it in your mailbox garden. Annuals offer the opportunity for creativity because they must be replaced from year to year. If you try out a plant that you don’t end up liking just pull it out and start over he says. In exchange for having to replant annuals you get the flexibility to try new color combinations every season.

“It’s always nice to have something blooming—mix perennials with flowering shrubs and annuals,” says Turkovich, “and combine things like evergreen shrubs with smaller hollies or Dwarf Azaleas.” Some flowers like Pansies will bloom through the winter. Plant them at the beginning to middle of October depending on the temperature and they’ll flower through April or May. Though they may wither in a hard frost they can survive and will come back as the temperature rises.

Master Gardener Judy Ripley, a landscape design consultant in Lancaster, believes the area around mailboxes is a place with a lot of room for improvement in most landscapes. She says, “The mailbox area should carry through your home’s sense of style and color.”

Ripley describes her own mailbox garden as the beginning point for her overall landscape plan in which the plants gradually increase in size from small shrubs to trees and vary in shape and texture. She suggests repeating colors in your mailbox garden not only from the exterior of your home but from your other plantings as well. “Anytime you plant a border it’s more effective if you see similar colors in other parts of the landscaping” she says. If you have lavender flowering Little Princess Spirea in front of your house repeat that color around your mailbox with a selection of annuals.

When it comes to planning the size and shape of your garden let scale be your guide. You don’t want it to be so large that it overwhelms your space, nor too small that it looks tiny. Ripley encourages homeowners to use curvilinear lines when deciding what shape to plant the garden. She notes that architectural lines are most often straight as are the lines of a traditional mailbox and post so adding curves to your planting beds and mailbox garden softens and adds visual interest while breaking up the block-effect.

Another thing Ripley says to think about is water. How far away will your mailbox garden be from a water source like a sprinkler? One way to overcome distance from water she says is to use drought resistant-plants like Artemisia and Sedum or any of the succulents or cactus. First establish a rock garden by laying down a base of round river rocks, gravel, or colorful lava rock. Plant your choice of drought-resistant plants in among the rocks and rain or no your garden will flourish. This kind of garden is especially well-suited for contemporary style homes. To maintain continuity with the rest of your landscape make sure you also use the same plants elsewhere on your property.

Another way to dress up a mailbox area that has little access to water is to place plants in containers around your post says Ripley. The downside of course is you’ll have to hand-water the plants, but you can create a striking —and flexible—garden of multi-color pots in varying heights and shapes. Combine larger terracotta pots filled with evergreens with smaller painted urns, or containers made of stone or concrete mounded with flowering annuals. Be creative when selecting containers and bring all the different elements together with color. Lay a bed of small stones down first and then arrange your containers according to height with the tallest closest to the post. The idea is to draw the eye up toward the box and ultimately the house and landscape behind.

Ripley says there’s no reason you have to have plants in a garden. Things like rocks, folk-art, painted metal chairs, and bottle-trees can reflect your personal style and the style of your home. “Gardens don’t have to be living plants, they can be whimsy and fun” she notes. Try collecting blue wine bottles and using sturdy wire to place them around your mailbox post for a funky rocket-like effect.

If you go for a whimsical garden decide first on the message you want to convey. Is this a fun place like a cottage on the water or is your home more formal? Ripley says pick a theme and let it guide you when choosing garden elements—both hardscapes and plants.

A mailbox garden needn’t be elaborate to create a welcoming entryway to your landscape. Even the simplest plants can connect your mailbox area with the rest of your landscape. Ripley recommends using a spray of tall flowing grasses for a minimalist effect. Though they’re at the height of their growing season in the fall, they’ll continue to grow in the Northern Neck for several more months. Plant a kidney-shape garden around your post and cluster the grasses close to the post and each other for a lush look.

Ripley also suggests growing a vine around your mailbox post. “What else do you use the post for?” she asks. Clematis is the ultimate all-weather, all-exposure vine that blooms through the fall and winter. It comes in many varieties and blooms in colors like violet, pink, white, red, and greenish-yellow. Since they grow so well you should count on them to require pruning. As with any flowering plant try to keep the blooms away from the front of the mailbox to protect your mail carrier from having to reach through buzzing bees, a natural by-product of flowers.

Another simple plant to surround your mailbox box with is Liriope. It makes a great ground cover, propagates easily and quickly, and survives in both wet and dry conditions. Its fluid grass-like look can soften any mailbox post but it can become invasive so it is best when planted by itself away from other plants. The same is true for ivy which can create a cottage-like feel when mounded around a mailbox but which can also quickly take over other areas of your garden. When using these quick-growing and tough ground covers do so with care.

As fall moves into winter avoid being left with a dead garden come January by using plants that will add color throughout the dull colder months. In winter, Willow shrubs lose their leaves and reveal lustrous yellow twigs. Red Twig Dogwoods—another shrub—also lose their leaves exposing bright red twigs that stand out against a wintry white landscape. Sparkleberry shrubs and Winter Berry hollies are covered in bright and cheerful berries throughout the winter says Ripley.

You can also plan ahead for spring by planting a ring of tulip bulbs around your post in the fall. Cluster them together and plant as many as you can afford. Tulips come in many colors and varieties and any combination of these beauties will delight you in April when they reach up through the cool spring ground and unfurl their soft petals.

Traditional or custom, elaborately planted or simply arranged, your mailbox area is worth an investment in time and money because of the dividends it pays in first impressions. For those of us who spend so much time in the care and keeping of our homes, a pleasant and well-tended mailbox area welcomes our guests and tells the world around us that our home is loved. And isn’t that what home-keeping is all about?