Gardeners are forever looking for something to wrap a flower bed around. There has to be a bed along the front of the porch, and others might be carved out around a garden shed, a birdbath or the trunks of shade trees. For many people, there's another opportunity right out by the curb: the mailbox.
A garden bed around a mailbox gives gardeners a chance to put their horticultural stamp where it's sure to show. In the midst of handsome shrubs, interesting ornamental grasses or hard-working annual and perennial flowers, a standard-issue mailbox on a post becomes a piece of functional art.
When there's a flower bed to visit, the trip out to the mailbox is much more interesting, even if the postman brings nothing but bills. If there's disturbing news, you can always deadhead the flowers and pull a few weeds while you mull it over.
Jack Blandy, of Stoney Bank Nurseries in Glen Mills, Pa., works with clients to develop garden designs. Whenever the property includes a mailbox on a post, "we have the mailbox discussion: Do we want to put anything around it, or don't we? It will be up for debate forever," he says.
Among passionate gardeners, there's not much debate. Free-standing mailboxes deserve a garden. So does the area around a flagpole or a lamppost. Some gardeners even landscape around fire hydrants.
"A good design principle is to repeat what you do around the mailbox back toward the house, so it has some continuity," says Blandy, whose work has included award-winning gardens for the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show.
The size and shape of a mailbox garden is up to you, although the location of a mailbox will normally place some constraints on the layout. The mail carrier has to be able to get to it easily, and driveways, walks and curbs usually limit your freedom somewhat.
Plants in a mailbox garden may have to be able to withstand road salt in winter, reflected heat from the street in summer, exhaust fumes in all seasons, and the occasional trampling and curiosity of passers-by. Drought-tolerant plants are a good choice, since the bed may not get as much attention as flowers close to the house.
Start by planting an evergreen, Blandy says. A planting of yew, boxwood, holly or other evergreen shrubs will anchor the garden through the seasons and make a good backdrop for flowers. Choose a variety with a mature size of 2 to 3 feet tall, and place it so it will not block your view as you back out of the driveway.
Clematis, sometimes called the queen of flowering vines, is the most popular mailbox bloom. These perennial vines can be relied upon to brighten your mailbox with dozens of stunning, star-shaped flowers in the course of their bloom season every year, without threatening to take over the box.
Annual vines (morning glory and cypress vine are two good choices) will produce even more flowers all summer long. You'll have to replant them every year, but it's little trouble. The experts at local garden shops can help you choose the right plants.
The mailbox garden is not really a good place for a small pond or fountain, Blandy says, and thorny roses can cause problems. He suggests ornamental grasses of small stature, asters and goldenrods.
Daffodils and tulips will bring the garden to life in early spring. Cannas and other heat-loving tropical plants provide bright splashes of color through the summer. Lots of rock-garden plants and hardy cactus (be careful where you place plants with sharp spines) will thrive around rocks set in a mailbox garden bed.
"Some people want lots of color out there, and others are conservative," Blandy says. "In a lot of ways, what's near that mailbox lets you know the style or personality of the owner -- so do what you like."
A well-planned and -planted mailbox garden makes a good impression from the street and from the house. Carefully chosen plants will thrive with little care, once they are established, and will not outgrow their places. Here are some ideas for mailbox gardens.
* Blooms of Bressing-ham, which markets perennial plants at garden shops across the country, suggests a blue, yellow and pink palette with blue-flowered clematis 'Alan Bloom,' blue-violet blooms of hardy geranium 'Rozanne,' creamy yellow daylily 'Miss Amelia,' pale yellow yarrow 'Anthea' and the rosy flowers of sedum 'Autumn Joy.'
* The garden section of the Better Homes & Gardens Web site (www.bhg.com) includes a versatile plan for a mailbox garden that can be printed out and adapted to your own space. The design specifies 10 different perennial plants and tells you how many of each variety to buy.
* Gardenplans.com, part of the Web site of Garden Gate magazine, sells plans for a mailbox garden for $4.95. The 36-square-foot garden includes plants for sun and shade, and two shrubs, yew and beautyberry.
* Where space is tight, a flowerpot by the mailbox will provide a cheerful touch. Lillian Vernon, Virginia Beach, VA 23479 (800-545-5426 or www.lillianvernon. com) sells a "split pot" planter ($50). The two halves fit around a standard 4-inch by 4-inch post.