How to maximise greenery and colour, and minimise time and effort? It’s all in the choice of plants…
The simplest life: Geraniums & Pelargoniums
Geraniums – cranesbills – are hardy, colourful and in the main, very low-maintenance. They look nothing like the ‘standard’ geranium one imagines from pictures of holiday cottages, and for good cause: the plants we usually call geraniums are in fact pelargoniums. Pelargoniums are a bit more delicate than Geraniums, and normally have fuller, blowsier blossoms.
Both geraniums and pelargoniums are good at resisting disease and braving frosts as well as droughts. They usually require only modest watering.
Their appearance is also extremely varied – hundreds of different shapes and colours. If you are not afraid of almost infinite choice, check out the images on Fibrex’s website (see their details on the suppliers’ page) – they provide a phenomenal range of both geraniums and pelargoniums. They also provide descriptions of the different types of plants, and how to care for them.
Pelargoniums are less hardy than geraniums, but on my West-facing balcony they have survived snow, frost, hail and high winds, and have continued to flower all year round, even in January.
The trailing pelargoniums in my window-boxes (called ivy-leaf pelargoniums, as they seem to trail like ivy) include a type called ‘Surcouf’.
I’ve also been growing scented Pelargoniums, a type called ‘Attar of Roses’. The leaves are fragrant, and smell like slightly woody, smoky roses. Scented geraniums come in a profusion of scents – lemon, mint, rose, and even chocolate.
Next, I am trying out a Mountain Cranesbill (Geranium pyrenaicum ‘Bill Wallis’) – a hardy, self-seeding and undemanding perennial.
To keep geraniums and pelargoniums blooming, it helps to deadhead them from time to time – it’s a quick and easy job. Occasional trimming can also help them stay reasonably bushy – left entirely to their own devices, or if they are given too much fertiliser, they can become straggly and leggy.
To keep things as simple as possible, when buying online, it is worth ordering garden-ready plants rather than plug plants – if available. This means they can be planted straightaway outside into window boxes, rather than wait for the plug plants to grow strong enough to withstand the weather outside.
Daffodils and crocuses and tulips and all sorts of bulbs…
Planting a few bulbs in window-boxes is easy and fast – just put a few bulbs into soil sometime late in the Autumn, pointy bit up. Then forget you ever planted them, and enjoy a surprise a season later, or even sooner.
Bulbs are forgiving things. At worst some might not flower the first year you plant them, especially if your timing was really out – but then you might have a nice surprise the year after.
Early Spring bulbs include hyacinths, narcissi, tulips, and late Spring bulbs are alliums and lilies, and later in the Summer, lilies again.
Squirrels seem to love eating bulbs. I’ve been told that steeping bulbs in tonic water before planting makes them less appetising. Some of my neighbours protect the bulbs by laying netting held in place with skewers (careful – risk of injuries).
If you leave bulbs outside, unplanted, even in a box, chances are they’ll be promptly eaten by nimble visitors.
Winter and Winter’s End
Here are some other plants to help brighten up grey winter days – snowdrops, aconites, cyclamen, hellebores – the latter also known as Christmas or Lenten roses – but they are not roses…
All sorts of daisies
Daisies – Osteospermum, another great window-box plant. Reasonably hardy – they don’t mind too much wind and a bit of drought, and come in all sorts of types and colours.
Daisies are great for bees, and come as annuals and perennials. The lowest maintenance solution would be to opt for perennials, of course.
Daisies will need deadheading from time to time, and a trim in the winter. They are more work than pelargoniums and geraniums because they carry many more individual flowers, each of which needs to be snipped with scissors. By contrast, pelargoniums are so easy – as long as they are sufficiently hydrated, it is easy to just snap back the stem in one easy gesture. Geraniums are more likely to require deadheading by scissor, but as each stem carries several flowers, it is still quicker than dealing with daisies.
A Mini-Kitchen Garden: Herbs and Salads
Herbs: the fast and easy way is simply to buy a few potted herbs from your local shop. Don’t water too much, pinch out or trim (depending on what kind of herb it is) regularly and they’ll thrive.
Salads: some supermarkets also sell ‘living salads’ – a tray of salads still rooted in soil, easy to transplant into a larger pot or window boxes. A piece of guttering is a great container for growing salad, since these plants have shallow roots and don’t require much soil.
If you do have time to spare, then growing herbs and salads from seed or plug plants is an option.
A note on visual appearance: if you want to preserve the visual continuity and attractiveness of your window-boxes, it might be better to grow herbs, salads and veg in separate containers rather than your window-boxes.
Herbs and salads have shorter life cycles, of course, than your perennials, and will demand far more attention than your ‘easy and lush’ window-boxes. They will also require different patterns of watering, and might attract different kinds of pests. So planting segregation can work in your favour here.
Asking for trouble – beautiful plants that make the fast and easy life a tiny bit more complicated
I experimented, and added extra plants to the geraniums and pelargoniums – planted daffodil and tulip bulbs for extra interest. This went well.
I thought lavender would be a great idea. It wasn’t – it went sad and straggly quite quickly. I realised later that because it needs even less water than geraniums, it became over-watered. Lavender really needs to be segregated from other plants, and kept pretty dry, in order to thrive. One solution is to first put it into a separate pot, before placing inside a window box.
Other plants succumbed to pests quite quickly. Planting nasturtiums and roses led to a pest invasion: blackfly, greenfly; a juicy caterpillar nestled within one of the loveliest roses. Other plants only attracted pests when they were ailing – reaching the end of their life cycle, or over-watered.
Pests can be managed, but it does mean more work, and possibly the use of pesticides (the dishwashing liquid remedy doesn’t work for everything). The spread of bugs will not be fair on your neighbours, and pesticides might also be unfair, depending on what you use – there are organic pesticides – and how far the product spreads: some of my neighbours grow salads and vegetables, often organically.
In the spirit of low-maintenance and neighbourliness, the nasturtiums and the roses had to go – but you might have better luck with pests than I did.
Other great plants
Here are some other plants recommended by friendly neighbours and window-box gardeners.
Tumbling wallflowers, tumbling rosemary, periwinkle, campanula, cape daisy, alchemilla (lady’s mantle), helichrysum, thunbergia (black-eyed susan), sweetpea, argyranthemum (marguerite daisies), bacopa cordata snowtopia, potentilla, rock rose, daphne odorata…
Last but not least, succulents! Those are great plants, visually interesting, and ideal in terms of low maintenance – the more neglect, the better… almost. It’s worth adding a bit of sand to the soil – unless the planting area is already very dry. Adding a bit of sand to the compost can help with drainage.
Some of succulents trail beautifully, like crassulas. Others, like cordylines, offer height. There’s helpful guidance on the RHS website; a quick online search will reveal dozen of sellers.
There are even specialised online sellers like Simply Succulents – I’ve not tried them yet but their website offers an impressive variety of plants, starting from Aeoniums as far down the alphabet as Trichodiadema. The variety of shapes and colours is impressive.