Create Window Boxes like the Brits

By Stella Veraduccia

The English are known for their love of gardening and can be said to have invented the “cottage style” in design and landscaping long before the rest of the world even knew that was a thing. The charming look of abundant, colorful window boxes with a riot of flowers and cascading greens is easy to achieve if you follow a few simple guidelines. 

  1. First, consider the container

If it’s not already attached to the house, make sure that the one you select is compatible with the architecture and that it’s installed securely enough to support the final weight when filled and watered. The top edge should be level with the bottom of the window and it should be roughly the same width. If the box is already mounted, especially under a second story window, you can do your planting in a plastic liner designed to fit inside the box, and then just drop it in. Whether you’re planting in a liner or directly in the box, there are three critical things to remember, and they are a) drainage, b) drainage, and c) drainage

Did I mention drainage? Your window box is a large oblong flower pot and, like any other flower pot, it needs holes at the bottom for drainage – if yours doesn’t have them, fire up the drill. In addition to drainage holes, you should also place a very thin layer of packing peanuts or crushed Styrofoam cups across the bottom – this is a light-weight alternative to the traditional gravel base. Then fill the box up to about three-quarters full with fresh potting mix, not heavy garden dirt or topsoil, making sure to reserve enough to fill in the spaces after you get the plants in.  Now comes the fun part. 

“Some plants are delicate teetotalers that like to dry out between waterings while others are thirsty lushes one drink away from a major intervention; combine them, and you risk damaging both.”

  1. Thriller, filler, spiller

This is a popular formula for arranging plants in a window box (or any container), and it all but guarantees success. Put in girly terms, the thriller is the diva in the arrangement: a showy, high-impact specimen which serves as a dramatic focal point; it’s usually a taller, upright plant which commands attention, and it goes smack in the middle. The fillers are the diva’s BFFs:  they surround the thriller, making up the main body of the planting and forming a happy, dense-looking mass of color; these babies help create the look of abundance that’s typical of cottage style.  Finally, the spillers are the hangers-on:  low, trailing plants placed at the front and sides of the box which flow over the edges and hang down; these can be green or flowering vines or any plant with a trailing habit, in colors that complement the fillers. Once you get the plants in the box all nice and cozy, fill any gaps with the remaining potting mix, add a little plant food, and water it well. For an extra touch of English whimsy, add a small ornament like a tiny teapot, decorative birdhouse, or miniature garden gnome.   

  1. As with girlfriends, an important issue in plant selection is compatibility

Depending on the exposure of the window box, the plants you select must have the same requirements for sun or shade. Similarly, some plants are delicate teetotalers that like to dry out between waterings while others are thirsty lushes one drink away from a major intervention; if you combine them, you risk damaging both. Different plants also have different feeding requirements; read the care instructions or ask the staff at the garden center to be sure you’re combining selections that not only look good together but also thrive in the same environment.  

Done right, your mini cottage garden provides charming views from two distinct vantage points:  when standing outside and looking at the house, and when sitting inside and looking out the open window (added bonus:  gentle floral fragrance wafting into the room.)  

If you can’t get away to England this year, you can certainly bring a bit of the Cotswolds right to your windowsill.  

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