Lucy and Frank Hart did not consider window boxes for their Charleston-style home when they were building it seven years ago in Forest Acres. The home was bricked up and the finishing touches were in process when their builder, Dwight Williams, suggested the second story window boxes as an aesthetic. He then contacted a company specializing in cast stone.
To enhance the ambiance of the home’s exterior architecture, just any old wooden boxes would not work. Since the stately home possesses a traditional Charleston style, the boxes, custom-made for the Harts’ home by Classic Stone Creations of Charlotte, are constructed of cast stone and weigh at least 600 pounds each. There are four of them, and each extend the length of the windows’ bases: 7 feet. Each is also approximately 1 foot in depth. According to Classic Stone Creations’ South Carolina representative, Jon Poston, who resides in Columbia, the dimensions resulted in the production of a mold that was used to cast the Old World stone look. To secure the boxes, some of the bricks had to be removed around the windows and a special steel bracketed base was built. The heavy boxes were then put in place by a cherry picker, necessary for lifting the boxes to the second floor. Bricks were replaced, and the home was completed.
Each of the boxes is equipped with a special irrigation system rigged to a water source below that is hooked up to an electric timer. The black tubing that brings the water up from below is hidden within the boxes and behind downspouts on the house. Water is dripped into the boxes for 10 minutes every other day to keep the soil moist so that the Harts do not have to lean out of the windows to water the plants. Excess water drips underneath the boxes and onto the ground below.
“I don’t even have a green thumb,” says Frank, who took on the bi-annual task of planting the boxes.
He gained insight into the various plants to choose for spring and fall from Joseph McDougall, owner of Forest Lake Gardens in Forest Acres. “Joseph said that instead of removing the thin plastic containers that the plants come in, crush them up with the plants still inside and plant them that way. This keeps more moisture in the dirt around the roots so that the water doesn’t just go right through,” explains Frank. Periodically, he mixes a fertilizer solution in a gallon jug and sprinkles fertilizer in each box.
Each season Frank chooses around 10 different plants — various colors, textures and bloom sizes. He also makes sure there are plants that drape over the edges of the boxes as well as taller upright plants. He makes certain there are white blooms interspersed with the varying hues. Since he has had seven years of trial and error, he has learned what he and Lucy like and what works best. Mary White Cotton, a former employee at his dental practice, once asked if she could oversee the planting of the window boxes at the dental practice he owned and operated. (Currently, Frank practices part time.) “Whatever Mary did in those boxes worked, so I did the same in my boxes.”
He adds: “Mostly, I want to plant them and not have to fuss with them. I don’t want to have to deadhead a lot of plants. I don’t particularly like to garden, but I really like the result, and these boxes are not difficult.” He tried his hand at container gardening in pots on their walkway and patio and had less success due to limited direct sun.
In the spring and then again in the fall, he opens his French casement windows and spends time planting and arranging with Lucy below making sure the presentation is appealing. Neighbors often comment on the beauty of the windows each season.
Some of the plants Frank recommends are mostly annuals; some are: small butterfly bushes, petunias, pansies, snapdragons, geraniums, creeping jenny, phlox, ivy, cabbages and violas. He also plants some herbs that they use when cooking: parsley, basil and thyme, for example.
Although the Harts’ window boxes are made of cast stone, boxes come in — or can be made from — a variety of materials, including wood, plastic, copper, iron, tin, terracotta, wire and fiberglass. The architectural style of the house will often dictate the material needed for the boxes. A shingle-style house, for example, is accented by wood, tin or wire, whereas a more traditional brick house requires the ambiance of copper or iron. Mediterranean-style homes are accented by terra cotta and stone boxes. And then, if the boxes are to get direct intense heat, it is best not to choose a dark material as the sun will be absorbed intensely and could burn the plants. In contrast, if the house is primarily shaded, darker boxes will absorb necessary heat.
Drainage, depth and width are also considerations. Window boxes need to have enough depth so the roots are not too crowded. Without proper drainage, roots can become waterlogged and rot.
Just as in container gardening or bed gardening, the amount of sunlight needs to be evaluated. Window boxes in complete shade work as long as only shade plants are chosen. After paying attention to the amount of sunlight the window box area receives, consult an expert at a gardening center for advice about the types of plants to choose.
Window boxes can be constructed by a window box specialist, sometimes by landscape architects or contractors, or as a home project. Gardening centers occasionally have free onsite workshops.
Boxes can be filled with a soil mixture available at most gardening centers. Some horticulturists suggest moistening the soil with warm water before planting and allowing about an inch of space between the soil and the top edges of the box.
Watering is key; once plants dry out, it is often impossible to revive them. Sometimes the right mulch will keep moisture in boxes that are in direct sunlight. Again, a gardening expert can help choose the right mulch.
Besides flowers and herbs, some vegetables can be planted in window boxes. Lettuce, Swiss chard and spinach are ideal for fall plantings, while cherry tomatoes and peppers work well for the spring and summer months.
“I enjoy these boxes so much because it’s productive, and I’ve got something nice to show for my labor,” says Frank. “Plus, these boxes really complement our house.”