Window boxes in unexpected places

The effect of window boxes filled with flowers on the rails of two wooden bridges is magical and unexpected.

Courtesy of Betty Earl
On a rural road, these rail window boxes filled with annuals are a charming sight, especially because passersby aren't expecting them..
Courtesy of Betty Earl
Repetition of plants is .one of the keys of the appeal of these rail window boxes

Sometimes it’s the small, unexpected surprises that truly make your day.

For example, seeing a large, shapely saucer magnolia tree (Magnolia x soulangeana) with intensely fragrant, very large, saucer-shaped blossoms -- pinkish-purple outside, white inside -- blooming so heavily that the flowers obscure the branches in early spring.

A front yard entryway with an arbor draped to overflowing in dainty pink roses and fuschia-colored climbing sweet peas.

Or, how about the delightful sight of a cluster of red-streaked golden tulips, echoing the rich, early-season hues of the surrounding blossoms, after a long and bitter winter season?

All, truly lasting impressions.

So it was several weeks back, when driving down a seldom used rural road I came across a couple of small wooden bridges spanning deeper ditches. There, in the middle of nowhere, someone had the wisdom, patience, and dedication to decorate (and maintain) the bridges with rail window boxes full of annuals.

Typically, we think of container – and window-box – gardening as “exterior decorating” with potted plants and flowers; a way of bringing fresh and, yes, fashionable looks to a deck, front entry, porch, patio, walkway, or balcony.

Yet here were a couple of bridges, for all practical purposes in the middle of nowhere, decorated with a simple grouping of plants that packed a floral punch by addingd a splash of color to the otherwise plain green surroundings.

To my eye, the effect was magical. More so, since it was unexpected.

Repetition with variety is key

I don’t know all the plant choices that were initially installed in these rail window boxes early in the season, for, as with all plants, some are more thuggish than others. So I’m sure the effect is different now than it was at the start of the season.

However, even this late in the season, there were great design factors in play here. With boxes so close together like these were, repetition was crucial for a cohesive design. However, making one bridge an exact duplicate of the other would have been boring. Instead, the designer/gardener gave each its own design – and punch. [See both photos above.]

Color is always an important factor. Red, yellow, orange, bright pink, and white look good from a distance, while purple, dark green, and blue show up best at close range.

these wide-open fields, the remarkable wine red leaves and stems of blood leaf (also known as beefsteak plant and chicken gizzard), Iresine herbstii, dazzled with its colorful foliage.

I suspect that blood leaf -- a bushy, fast-growing annual -- more than likely overpowered some of its neighbors. Still, in early October, it had star power, and that attribute alone made it a wise choice for these rail window boxes.

The other bridge was decorated with a far more diverse plant selection, a full symphony of color, texture, and form, chief among them, coleus. (They are now known as Solenostemon scutellarioides, but I still call them coleus.)

Currently, considered cutting-edge collector plants by some, coleus comes in a myriad of incredible varieties of brilliant colors as well as intricately delicate detailing. .

Foliage keeps the show going for months

Although flowers are the first thing most of us think of when considering plants for containers, the lesson learned here is that richly hued foliage can serve the same purpose. Maybe even more so, for foliage plants often stay attractive and colorful longer and with less care than flowering plants.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to drive down that same rural road. I passed the now barren rail window-boxes as big, fat snowflakes drifted silently thru nearby skeletal branches.

The magic was gone, but I promised myself I’d be back come spring for the next chapter in this amazing annual artistry.


Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.” She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty, click here.

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