When I was 4, my father hooked a window box to the front window in our semi-detached house in Baltimore. It was a simple thing that he had hammered together one evening and painted to match the shutters as a gift to my mother. From then on, my mother filled it with pansies in spring, a riot of geraniums, petunias and creeping thyme in summer, and sprigs of berry-laden holly in fall and winter.
The display injected color and life into the paved no-man's-land between street and stoop, and showed me what a difference simple things can make.
In my mother's day, a window box was literally a rectangular wooden box attached to an outside window. Now, a window box can be made of wire, wood, clay, stone, iron and metal of every description, and show up in all kinds of places indoors and out. What's more, there are imaginative ways to incorporate it into holiday decorating.
What goes in it?
"As far as we're concerned, anything that grows is a candidate for a window box," says Dean Johnson, co-author with James Cramer of Window Boxes (Artisan, 1999, $27.50), a wonderfully illustrated collection of window box ideas and photos. "This time of year, pansies are good and they're easy to find. And our sweet potato vines -- the chartreuse and the black and the variegated -- look good in them until hard frost. You can also plant cabbages and kale and drape them with ivy or vines."
Johnson and Cramer don't limit themselves to things that grow for their sometimes fanciful concoctions. For harvest-time window boxes, they assemble a variety of materials grown and gathered -- gourds, small pumpkins, seed pods, dried stalks, vines and grasses.
"We do wheat and squash just for color," Johnson notes. "And we've cut yellow twig dogwood -- it's really, really pretty -- and stripped the leaves and stuck it into window boxes on either side of the door. You can use things with berries like cotoneaster, beauty berry and snowberry. Or you can go out and find anything wild like milkweed pods. They're very long-lasting."
Charlie Gloyd, proprietor of By Design, a garden and floral design business in Chestertown, agrees. "I cut anything and everything in the yard," he says. "Many of the junipers have a bronze or purplish fall color, which is nice. Then you can add a houseplant -- ferns or croton, which is a tropical plant that has multicolored foliage and is usually available in a small pot."
Betsey Herr, of Anthony's Florist in Kings Town, suggests a melange of flowering cabbages and kales, bittersweet, and gourds or mini-pumpkins.
"You can scatter the gourds and pumpkins among the cabbage and kale," she says, "then wrap some bittersweet, which is viny, up in it. The whole thing will last for quite a while."
Proven Winners, hybridized collections of plants designed for spring, summer and fall, offer new varieties of old favorites.
"For fall there are different kinds of sage," says Herr. "They're semi-evergreen and look good well into the winter. If you leave them outside, freezing won't kill them, and then they come back really flush in the early spring."
A window box is not just a lesson in the creative use of small spaces, it's a tiny, movable garden that can be shifted according to your mood or decorating scheme.
"They don't have to be at your windows," Johnson says. "It's a great way to personalize your home."
They can add color and flair to a dinner party or an evening by the fire. They are great for tiny apartments and small alleyways, and they can be bright focal points beside a bench or a chair on the lawn, like a painting hung on an otherwise uninterrupted expanse of green wall. Johnson and Cramer, who use window boxes year round at Seven Gates Farm in western Maryland, not only move them from place to place outdoors, but bring some in at the end of the season to enhance the winter decor.
"We brought our begonias inside in mid-October," says Johnson, "and we bring in ivies."
Once a box comes inside, it is then accessorized with seasonal accents. For example, the begonias are dressed with fir boughs, pine cones and clusters of red rose hips. Ivies are decorated with the bright red berries of cotoneaster.
One key to bringing window boxes inside is to find the right spot for them -- usually a cool bright room.
"Most things want good light," observes Herr. "For example, pansies like cool weather but still want sun."
"For a one- or two-week display, you can put anything anywhere," notes Gloyd. "And many things will do well for a month or so in bright indirect light, but long term you have to be more exacting about an individual plant's light requirements."
For long-term plant health, also consider temperature. If window boxes are beside a heat vent they may dry out; beside a drafty window, and they may be 15 degrees colder than the rest of the room.
Decorator ideas add to seasons
In window boxes, don't be afraid to mix living, cut and dried materials, add something from the produce aisle, or, for sparkle and drama, finish with glittering ornaments or a homemade treasure. The beauty of these boxes is their creative individuality.
1. A bed of straw filled with an arrangement of gourds, small pumpkins, bittersweet, and clusters of wheat tied with ribbon
2. Dried corn, brightly colored leaves, and burnished hydrangea blooms
3. Rosemary plants flanked with cut pyracantha and a white pumpkin
4. Ivy, artemisia, a few sunflower heads, with carix (leather leaf grass)
5. Coleus plants with decorative cabbage and kale with a few mini pumpkins and gourds
1. Living ivy enlivened with cut holly, boxwood, bittersweet or clusters of grapes
2. Curry plant standards with clumps of rose hips around their feet
3. Pine cones, creeping juniper, emerging snowdrops with a single germander standard
4. Small boxwoods with gilded seed pods from Rose of Sharon, teasel and heart nuts nestled among myrtle
5. Planted pair of dwarf cypresses surrounded with colored stones and three silver balls of different sizes at one end
* Great Stuff by Paul , 10 North Carroll St., Frederick, Md. 2170,1 301-631-0004, wire boxes, plant stands and English pots
* Nathan's Forge, 3476 Uniontown Road, Uniontown, Md. 21158, 410-848-7903, iron window boxes
* Restoration Hardware, The Mall in Columbia ,410-772-8070, galvanized boxes, wire window boxes
* Plow and Hearth catalog 800-627-1712, cedar deck railing boxes, cedar planter, plastic window boxes