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The window box dilemma: A gardener without a garden

Beth Hopper, Press & Marketing Manager

“Do you miss having a garden?”

Since moving house four months ago, people keep asking me this question. It’s well-intentioned small talk, but still guts me every time. Because after years of quite arrogantly proclaiming that I would never live in a garden-less home, that gardening is far too important to me, the 2023 London rental market had other ideas. And now I am a reluctant window box gardener. 

Prior to my window box plight, I spent the past six years living in a shared house with an unjustifiably large garden. It was a long south-facing, uphill plot at the back of a 1960s terrace, partially shaded in the summer by the canopy of a gnarly old oak tree. It had a wonky concrete slabbed patio with weeds sprouting from every crevice, an obligatory lawn, a couple of square beds framed with rotting wood, hard, dry soil, and an uncontrollable ivy problem. I loved it. 

My training ground (and Newton)

My four housemates had no interest in using the space for anything other than barbecues and sunbathing, so I had free reign over the horticulture of our home. And it was the perfect training ground for a young gardener with none of the gear, idea, or budget, but more than enough enthusiasm. After fevered trips to the local garden centre (RIP Shannon’s of Forest Hill, a family-run nursery in south east London which closed in 2022 after 33 years of business), I would plop random plants in the ground at a whim, rarely a consideration at first of ‘right plant, right place’. If it died, I’d chalk it up to a lesson learned, and there was no judgement from my even less knowledgeable housemates. And as the years went by, my success rate went up. I learned to consider the conditions of my garden, and guess what? More plants survived.

My successes: dahlias, tomatoes, strawberries, tulips and daffodils, euphorbia, tagetes cinnabar (seeds from Great Dixter, of course), campanula, hydrangea, crocosmia, cosmos, Japanese anemone, clematis, tanacetum. Herbs aplenty: mint, sage, Thai basil, oregano, even a few Bahraini herbs for my partner (bagal, a spring onion-adjacent plant with long pleated leaves, was the biggest hit). Lots of leafy foliage in ferns, grasses, hostas, cannas.

My failures: sweet peas, nasturtium (still a mystery), astrantia, garlic, onions, carrots, cucumbers, aubergines. I soon decided that neither I nor the garden were cut out for producing vegetables. 

My beloved mess and the many plants left behind

When the time came this spring to leave my garden, I dug out and potted up as many plants as I could to transfer to their new home. The living room of our new flat has a wide ledge outside the bay window begging to be filled with plant life, but there were brutal decisions to be made as I assessed what might survive the move from ground to pot. Any gardener who has moved house will be familiar with the heartbreak. Goodbye, dahlias. 

The result was a motley crew of plants in sad plastic pots, deposited on the windowsill and largely forgotten as I sulked about my lost garden. There were a few immediate casualties as those unsuitable for windowsill life rejected the constraints of their new environment, and my attempt at transferring the strawberry plant rewarded me with a harvest of three sour little misshapen fruits.

This year’s windowsill strawberry harvest vs. 2020 in the garden

Four months in, the surviving plants can be split into two categories:

Barely alive, begging to be put out of their misery: lavender, wallflowers, pulmonaria, erigeron.

A bit more alive, but I wouldn’t say healthy: sage, a couple of grasses, ferns. That’s about it. 

My underwhelming pot collection not doing justice to the lovely bay window (first storey)
Equally underwhelming inside view

And I miss gardening. I miss the meditation of coming home from work and tending to my plants, watching them grow through the seasons. Even if I don’t have a garden of my own, I’m lucky enough to have this windowsill at my fingertips. So perhaps it’s time to redefine what it means to me to be a gardener. No more clinging to the dying plants of my lost garden, it’s time for a fresh approach. 

But I’m a little stumped for window box inspiration, and don’t want to settle for the typical pellies and petunias (as cheerful as they may look adorning the Barbican balconies). Luckily, I work at the Garden Museum! So I’m turning to the resources and experts around me for tips and ideas.

First stop: the Garden Museum Collection

The oldest example of a window box in the museum collection is this 17th century illustration of a girl in a window. We don’t know much about it, only that the engraving is 17th century and it appears to be northern European, with echoes of Flemish and Dutch art of that period. Like me, her windowsill houses a slightly mismatched collection of pot sizes, and the flowers on the left (carnations?) have flopped over, possibly too top heavy for their small vessel. The girl is making use of every inch of space, cramming in a bird cage, corn, herbs, vines, citrus fruit and flowers. It’s a whole world around a window.

Window boxes have existed since at least ancient Rome, where city dwellers without access to their own land and gardens grew culinary and medicinal plants out of their windows. Over time this evolved into decorative floral displays. In the first-century Pliny the Elder (Roman philosopher and author of Naturalis Historia) wrote of villas with blossom-filled window sills where ‘every day the eyes might feast on this copy of a garden as though it were a work of nature.’

This phrase copy of a garden is sticking with me on my window box quest. I want my windowsill to feel like a miniature garden, layered with texture and interest throughout the seasons.

In the early 19th century window boxes really started thriving in Britain, and the Garden Museum Collection is brimming with photographic evidence. The introduction of mass production meant pots and planters were more widely available, and the emergence of a new middle class in Victorian England meant an influx of people moving to cities who could afford to decorate their homes with a garnish of flowers.

This photo c.1905 shows a planting style fashionable in the Edwardian era.
A cabinet card photograph of a young woman posing by the back door of a terraced house, with a window box containing ferns and ivy, c.1900

The styles I see popping up repeatedly in the Victorian and Edwardian window boxes represented in the museum collection are more wild and untamed than you might expect from the buttoned-up era. There are hanging tendrils and creeping vines climbing around the window frames above, the plants are not contained to the box itself. They look like a chunk of a garden, and the overspill has the added advantage of hiding the container. 

Illustration from ‘The Fern Paradise: A Plea for the Culture of Ferns’ (1878) by Francis George Heath
Illustration from ‘The New Practical Window Gardener: Being Practical Directions for the Cultivation of Flowering and Foliage Plants in Windows and Glazed Cases’ (1877) by John R Mollison
Imperishable and cheap! Advert for window boxes made in Dalston, just down the road from my new flat. Garden Work Magazine, 3 April 1887

My next stop: advice from the experts.

It’s easy to stuff a window box full of flowers in the summer, but how do we keep them looking green and interesting through the colder months? I asked Garden Museum Head Gardener Matt Collins if we can find any inspiration in the lush leafy planting of the museum’s courtyard garden. 

“What makes the museum courtyard planting quite special,” Matt says, “is the way in which its designer Dan Pearson has put together little pockets of plant communities, where contrasting forms and foliage drift in and out together. People tend to think “flowers!” when they think of window boxes, but leaf forms can be equally striking, soothing and, probably most crucially, long-lasting if not evergreen.”

Dryopteris erythrosora in the Garden Museum courtyard garden, photo by Matt Collins

“Many of the courtyard plants would transfer well to a window box environment, for example the good sized, orange-tinged autumn fern Dryopteris erythrosora coupled with the shade and drought tolerant persicaria Persicaria filiformis, or the broad, hairy leaves of Bergenia ciliata – which also has early spring-blooming, prominent pink flowers – underplanted with spreading wild strawberry or the trailing Australian violet. Other plants suitable from the courtyard include Geranium ‘White Ness’, Uvularia grandiflora and the fantastic ornamental grass Chasmanthium latifolium.”

Geranium ‘White Ness’, photo by Matt Collins
Persicaria filiformis, photo by Matt Collins

Garden designer, founder of Hackney plant shop Linda, and curator of our Spring Plant Fair, Susanna Grant’s Instagram account is a great source of inspiration for window boxes and garden design in little urban spaces. Susanna’s view brings to mind Pliny’s description of window boxes as a copy of a garden.

“Traditionally window boxes were for seasonal plants”, she says, “you were meant to replant them each season, so there was no need for them to establish properly, which is not very sustainable. I like to treat window boxes more like a miniature garden with a mix of evergreen, herbaceous perennial, grasses and spring bulbs. That way you have some interest in all seasons but you also have all the rewards of watching it change over time, the pushing through of bulbs and the unfurling of leaves.”

But, first things first, you’ve got to get your container right. “The biggest tip I can give is make sure your window box is as tall and wide as you can fit on your sill – I would say 60-90cm long and 30cm tall and wide minimum. Shallow boxes dry out so quickly and there’s hardly any room for roots to grow… The other key thing is to notice how much light you get and whether the sill is very exposed. A terracotta planter on a sunny, exposed sill will need watering twice a day if it’s hot.” And don’t think you can slack on the watering when it rains, Susanna warns, “Even when it rains, it doesn’t always get to window boxes – and if the box is fully planted it won’t reach the soil.”

Like Matt, Susanna recommends a fern such as Dryopteris erythrosora for some colour, or “drought-tolerant plants with a lot of horticultural grit mixed into the compost to encourage free drainage. Salvias, rosemary, stipa tenuissima, sedums, artemisias and nasturtiums would work.”

Photo by Susanna Grant

Other suggestions include “euphorbia robbiae for a pop of early acid green, luzula nivea for movement, geranium phaeum, ligusticum scoticum, digitalis lutea and viola cornuta alba for pollinators. I love putting in valeriana officinalis for height and seeheads too. It’s definitely worth remembering that a window box is a vital pitstop for pollinators so always plant a range of flowers that they can use for food or shelter.” As someone whose camera roll boasts an embarrassing amount of bee-on-flower content, this is key. 

I’m only at the start of my window box gardening journey, but I hope that after six years experimenting in my old garden, and five years soaking up knowledge at the Garden Museum, I can tackle this challenge with a bit more intentionality than my haphazard gardening approach of the past. 

Here’s the plan:

  1. Pick a sunny day to watch the window, note the light conditions throughout the day
  2. Measure the windowsill, procure some suitable non-extortionate window box planters [if any readers have any leads in this area, hit me up bethany@gardenmuseum.org.uk]
  3. Make a plant list, categories include: drape and height; interesting textures, foliage, colour; something for all seasons; something for the pollinators; drought tolerant, visual interest when viewed inside and outside
  4. Get the correct compost and grit
  5. Buy multiples of each plant to create a natural flow across the windowsill
  6. Be patient, this might take a while. 

At this year’s Garden Museum Literary Festival at Parham House, garden writer Alice Vincent spoke with floral designer Hazel Gardiner and journalist Victoria Valentine about the all-too-common feeling of imposter syndrome that holds so many people back (women in particular) from confidently calling themselves a gardener. And now that I no longer have a garden, that’s something I resonate with. Can I be a gardener without a garden?

The panel were all in agreement on this matter: yes. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing on a windowsill, balcony, or lucky enough to have a garden of one’s own. If you grow, you’re a gardener.