Flower Power

‘Tis the season…almost?!

It’s still dreary and cold here in New England, but I’m dreaming of warm weather and flowers. So although this first post isn’t quite about finding that one-of-a-kind piece for your home, it is about helping you add a little pizazz to your own patio this spring. So read on for tips on how to make your home stand out from the crowd…with flowers!

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Photo by Jen Dulac (trailing begonias)

We all know those homes where the window boxes are pure magic. Flowers and plants of different colors, shapes, and textures overflow, mixing in harmony to create a unique design that seems to sing out when you walk past. Each spring you think (maybe a little enviously, maybe your mouth just the tiniest bit agape): “They did it again. They managed to pick the perfect flowers,” or “They definitely had that done professionally!”  (If you’re like me, there may even be a bit of an eye roll right about now!) You shake your head and wonder, “How in the world do they do that?” 

Then you force yourself to keep moving so you’re not standing outside their house staring too long.

Been there, done that. And now I’m here to help. Not that I don’t still admire all the amazing window boxes I see around town (in fact, there are so many beautiful ones where I live that I still think there’s a little hocus-pocus going on!). But now, instead of feeling defeated when I walk past, I get inspired. And I hope you do, too.

Sunlight

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Photo by Becky Dulac (and I know, this is a rose and not an annual, but I love my mother-in-law’s photo!)

I hate to admit it, but I suffer from serious sun envy. Every year when May rolls around, I kid myself into thinking that maybe this will be the year that I will be able to grow sun-loving flowers. Bring on the geraniums! Bring on the Dahlias! But this is all just wishful thinking.

My house faces north and we have quite a bit of tree cover.  The sun that seems to hit my window boxes in May quickly shifts, and by the time June rolls around I’m back to mainly shade. My shade situation has been a tough pill to swallow. When I go to the garden store in the spring, it’s difficult to pull myself away from the sun plants and head instead to the canopy of tents sheltering the shade-lovers. But, I’m learning to love the shade plants that thrive at my home. And my wallet is certainly happy about it. Because there’s no doubt about it:  Buying annuals is an investment, and it’s pretty painful when you spend good money on varieties that will never, ever do well in your environment. So lesson number one: Know thy sun!

A good rule of thumb is that if your window boxes or containers face south or west, you’re likely going to get enough sun for sun-loving plants. If your boxes face north or east, not so much. And of course tree cover plays a big role in all of this as well. Once you’ve determined your level of sun exposure, you can select plants that will thrive.  And I promise, there’s beauty to be had at every sun level.

  • Full sun: at least 6 hours of sunlight
  • Partial sun/partial shade: 4-6 hours of sun
  • Full shade: less than 4 hours of sun

Filler, Thriller, and Spiller

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Photo by Jen Dulac (licorice plant, trailing fuchsia, verbena, spike plant, salvia)

You may have already heard these three words used to help guide window box design, and guide they do! So let’s dig in a little deeper to see how this recipe of filler, thriller and spiller works. And here’s a disclaimer: some of these plants and flowers overlap into more than one category, and some will tolerate both sun and shade. So use my ideas as a jumping off point.

Filler: Consider this the meat and potatoes of your design (hmmm…that’s kind of an odd metaphor when we’re talking plants, but oh well!). Fillers should have lots of blooms, providing a powerful punch of color to your window boxes or planters. They may be plants that grow a bit more upright or they may have mounds of blossoms, but you don’t want to choose fillers that grow too tall (10” or more) or they will compete with the diva of your window box, the Thriller (see next section). 

Fillers To Consider:

Sun Worshippers (in no particular order!):

  • Geraniums
  • Petunias (also a spiller)
  • Cosmos
  • Verbena
  • Lobelia (can mound or can trail and become a “spiller.” Lobelia can be a bit of a water hog, so be vigilant when it’s planted with other flower varieties!)
  • Firecracker plant (cigar plant)
  • Sweet Alyssum (also spiller)
  • Calibrachoa 
  • Nasturtium
  • Ornamental peppers
  • Heliotrope
  • Dahlias
  • Dianthus (a perennial, but works in containers)

Shade Lovers:

If you’re like me and need to work with shade, you’ll soon fall in love with the often under-appreciated coleus!  It comes in so many amazing varieties and hues that it adds wonderful color to even the shadiest of spaces.

When the coleus plant begins to flower, it looks more weed than bloom, so pinch back growth to keep flowering at bay. Pinching also encourages it to spread outward instead of growing tall and spiky.

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Photos via White flower Farm (coleus Peter’s Wonder and Wasabi)
  • Coleus (all varieties)
  • Begonias (My absolute favorite shade lover, but begonias can be temperamental. Try not over water and if possible, water the roots–don’t drench the leaves. Begonias are prone to mildew. Pinch back large leaves to promote flowering and to keep from getting too leggy). There are tons of fun begonias to experiment with:
    • Dragon wing begonias
    • Baby wing begonias
    • Non-stop begonias
    • Tuberous begonias
    • Trailing begonias (also spillers)
    • …and more!
  • Impatiens (and double impatiens, New Guinea impatiens)
  • Fuchsia
  • Polka-dot plant
  • Caladium

Thriller: Often this is THE star of the show, the centerpiece. But I’d like to argue that it doesn’t always have to be (more on this in a minute). Your thriller can be tall, bold, and beautiful. And your thriller might be something unexpected.

One year (when I was still convinced I had sunny window boxes), someone at the garden shop suggested I plant a batik orchid as my thriller. Orchids grow from bulbs, like tulips and daffodils, so they’re more typically seen in garden beds, not containers. The batik orchid has a gorgeous purple and dappled white bloom, and the thought was that when it bloomed it would be quite the eye catcher in my boxes. Once the bloom faded I could transplant it to my garden as a perennial that would multiply over the years. It was a wonderful idea. But my orchid just wasn’t getting the light it needed, and it looked like it would never bloom. I transplanted it behind the house where we get more sun, and it did eventually blossom into this beautiful flower shown here. 

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Photo by Jen Dulac (Batik Iris)

I don’t think thrillers need to be the full-on star of the show. I think any of the three players in your boxes can be the star. What I do think is that the the most important thing about the thriller is that it adds height. Selecting plants with a variety of heights draws your eye up and around, creating a sense of movement in your display. 

Thrillers for Sun:

  • Salvia
  • Zinnia
  • Amaranth
  • Angelonia (summer snapdragon)
  • Marguerite Daisy
  • Pentas (star cluster)
  • Spanish lavender
  • Spider flower

Thrillers for Shade:

  • Spike plant
  • Miscanthus
  • Red fountain grass
  • Japanese forest grass
  • Carex ‘Everillo’
  • Hellebore (perennial, but works in container)

Spiller: The spiller might very well be my favorite part of the whole window box display. There’s something almost delicious about seeing a profusion of blooms spilling over the side of a container garden! 

Sun Spillers:

  • Petunias (superbell, wave)
  • Lobelia
  • licorice plant
  • Blue star creeper
  • Cup and saucer vine
  • Iberis
  • Sweet Alyssum
  • Bidens
  • Swan river daisies

Shade Spillers:

  • wishbone flower
  • Bacopa
  • Potato Vine
  • Creeping Jenny
  • Creeping fig
  • Asparagus fern
  • Swedish Ivy
  • Dichondra ‘silver falls’
  • Loropetalum ‘purple pixie’

Planning your layout: With rectangular window boxes, I like to place the the thriller in the center back, the fillers spreading out from the middle, and the spillers in the front and at each end of the box to frame my display. For pots, I place the thriller in the center, and work outwards, next adding the fillers and finally the spillers.

Final Tips:

  • If you have a particularly deep container (like a whiskey barrel), you may want to fill the bottom with plastic seltzer bottles, crushed soda cans or even styrofoam packing peanuts. Use lightweight items that ensure good drainage and take up space. You’ll save on potting soil and your container will be much easier to move around!
  • Give your plants room to breathe. Even though they may look small when you get them home from the garden store, they’ll grow quickly. Give your plants space to spread and thrive.
  • In the winter, store terra cotta and ceramic planters somewhere where they won’t freeze, otherwise they may crack.
  • Don’t be afraid to start small. Experiment that first year and see what works and what doesn’t. Have fun trying out different combinations and colors!
  • At the same time, if you find a combination that works, feel free to stick with it…season after season. I have a neighbor who always puts lipstick pink geraniums and a spike plant in her whiskey barrel out front, year after year. And every year it looks fantastic! (I on the other hand, can’t stop tinkering (with varying degrees of success). I don’t think I’ve ever had the same window boxes twice!

So, this spring, let’s take our window boxes from this (which is the state mine are currently in–holiday greenery 5 months after the fact!):Winter_Window_Box

Photo by Jen Dulac

to this:

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Photo by Becky Dulac

If you have the time, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you and any ideas you might add. I’d also love to know what you’d like to see in future blog posts. Thank you for stopping by!

Until next week–

Jen

 

4 Comments

  1. This is such a comprehensive guide! I learned a lot about plants and I love that you shared your dead xmas greenery box to keep us all humble and grounded! Can’t wait for the next post!

  2. I love it! Our new house is on a corner (front faces south and side faces west), so I’m looking forward to using some of the flowers from your sun lover list! Now Michigan just needs the sun to actually come out…. ugh.

  3. Jen, Your window boxes are always the envy of the neighborhood! Beautiful. Now, I Can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt!

Would love to hear your thoughts!