What to plant in your window box

Tips and ideas on designing a home window box, including what to plant and how to grow a colorful garden.

Few design elements can so quickly and easily transform a home's exterior like the addition of lush and colorful window boxes, filled to overflowing with charming flora and fauna in all four seasons.

This is especially true in city apartments and urban yards where space is at a premium, and there's just no room for a spreading perennial garden.

But hung from a porch railing, attached to the base (or top!) of windows, even lined up alongside the porch, traditional window boxes can bring sunny spring and summer right into even the most crowded urban spaces.

And with their trailing tendrils and profusion of perpetual blooms, they can lend an old-fashioned diversity of color, texture and fragrance to any home or apartment, urban, suburban or rural.

What To Plant

What to plant in your window boxes is only a difficult choice because you have so many wonderful choices! All you really have to decide is what looks and feel right for you.

Some flowers and herbs are window box naturals, because they thrive without attention and can go days without for food and water. Many ivies, the colorful portulaca (Portulaca grandiflora), dwarf marigolds (Tagetas 'Lemon Gem') and nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus 'Alaska Dwarf') fall into that category, and are themselves a great window box blended family, with their lush greens, bright pinks, sunny yellows and brilliant oranges.

But what window box can resist the sweet, pansy-like faces of the johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), who wear their silky purple bonnets atop a cheerful golden and white center? They're an edible, colorful surprise in salads, and will wander happily all over your window box when the weather's not too warm.

The violas will look carefree and lovely sharing space with masses of deep purple and purple and white striped petunias (Petunia x hybrida), which give a gloriously lush and old-fashioned look to any window.

But since violas and pansies, and even petunias to some extent, tend to sleep and straggle rather than flower in the warmer weather, interplant the box with a dwarf purple basil (Ocimum basilicum 'Dark Purple') which will reward your attention with tiny pink florets in summer.

For height and all-summer flowering, give your royal, purple-themed window box a planting of three or four evenly spaced white geraniums (Pelargonium domesticum).

Round it all off with a curly background green of the lacy Ivy 'Wilsonii,' and you've got a delightful flower box to carry you through the summer and fall.

Culinary Herbs in the Box

A sunny window box is a great place to nestle a miniature kitchen garden, complete with an assortment of fragrant herbs that you might pick at will to liven up your spices, sauces and sandwiches.

Besides the various types of basil, some likely candidates for your herbal line-up include the ever-faithful chives (Allium schoenoprasum), pungent oregano (Origanum), parsley (Petroselinum), thymes (Thymus) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalus).

For all-around color, you can interplant your herbs with sun-loving annuals, such as the nasturtiums and marigolds. Also consider mixing in the trailing, cherry-red ivy geranium (Pelargonium peltatum) for dirt-level flashes of brilliant red. The gray, felt-like, fragrant foliage of the Helichrysum ivy offers a gorgeous contrast and gives this herbal box a lushly exotic appeal.

Old-Fashioned Pastels

For nostalgia, you might choose a window box of sweet pastels. Start with the lovely blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus), sure to come tumbling and trailing out of the box in gay profusion. The lobelia looks grand against a sweeping carpet of sweet white and pale lavender alyssum. For the taller background, plant a mass of multicolored, pale dwarf snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus 'Floral Carpet').

You can provide some easy, surprising deep color for contrast in your pale-faced window box by reaching for the dramatically patterned coleus (Coleus hybridus) instead of the standard creeping ivy. Coleus likes a little shade, and will reward you for it with rich foliage hues of reds, whites, greens and yellows in delicious variegation.

For the Shady Spots

There's no need to forego window boxes just because your windows spend most of the day in the shade.

For you, the tender impatiens (Impatiens) will provide all the color and texture your shade can bear. Choose especially the big-faced, compact 'Super Elfin' impatiens, and plant them in snug masses side-by-side in the flower box. You may choose all one color for dramatic effect -- they produce an abundance of petals in a range from bright white to deep fuscia, with pinks, reds, oranges and salmons filling in the palette.

Or mix and match the entire impatiens color range for a casual, carefree window box look.

For an interesting spill-over effect, plant the impatiens in multiple rows in the window box, with the back rows packed higher than the front rows. A trailing English ivy or the gray-green Helichrysum will give this heavily floral box a balanced look.

And don't forget that your windows have tops as well as sills. Any home, old or new, takes on an immediate sense of permanence with a lush, thick box of curling ivy crowning its window-tops and falling like ancient fringe along the window-sides!

So whether your summer abode is in the hot city, cool seashore or rural countryside, give your residence a colorful and fragrant lift this year with an assortment of window boxes. They'll cheer you every time you catch a glimpse of them through the window -- even on dreary, sunless days -- and they say to the folks walking or diving by that this is a home where someone cares!

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