Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Garden Issue

Colorful impatiens combine with bright potato vine
in my window boxes
When summertime comes, my thoughts turn to freshly picked produce straight from my garden, a garden I designed and planted last year as my 2012 Summer Project.  Despite the late beginning (I didn’t get to plant until July and was still planting last August), I reaped quite a bounty of tomatoes and native wildflowers last year (see How Does My Garden Grow?).  

In 2013 I was determined to get an earlier start.  After all, my garden was already designed and built.  But I was also determined to do something about the deplorable state of my aging window boxes – seventeen of them – around the periphery of my 150-year-old farmhouse in northwestern Baltimore County, Maryland.  For one thing, that diabolical downy mildew had wiped out my entire array of gorgeous impatiens last year, reducing the colorful, overflowing plants to bare, withered stalks in a matter of weeks.  In researching the ghastly culprit on the internet, I learned that I needed to do more than throw out the lifeless plants. In order to be sure I had rid my property of the deadly spore, I also needed to carefully bag and discard all the infected soil in which the impatiens had been planted, a monumental -- and expensive -- task. As long as I was going to replace the soil in all those flower boxes, I reasoned, I might as well replace the sagging, cracking, thin plastic boxes themselves, especially since I had recently changed the trim color of my house and shutters from green to black.  The faded green of the old window planters really stood out like a sore thumb.  

I borrowed a neighbor's pickup truck
and retrieved my new flower boxes from
the airport  freight yard myself
Money was tight.  I had budgeted and saved for new flower boxes, but the rigid, smart-looking polyethylene planters I wanted were still pricey.  And I had just removed some overgrown bushes on the west side of my house, exposing three additional windows that would now need boxes, as well.  Unfortunately, the pump for my nifty self-watering drip-irrigation system (a summer project from three years ago) was already at its maximum capacity.  I couldn’t add another single dripper without upgrading my entire pump design, another expense of time and money that would eat away at what was left of the planting season.

The Mayne Company had never
filled a single order
for so many flower boxes
First I ordered a more powerful pump for the bottom of my cistern which, when switched on by an automatic timer once a day, waters all my flower boxes, hanging planters, and even flowers planted in an old oak stump out on the lawn. I also replaced numerous drippers that had become clogged over the years. Once the more powerful drip system was functioning optimally, I ordered my window boxes – twenty of them!!   The Mayne Company, which manufactures the boxes, had apparently never dealt with an order so large. 

With the help of a neighbor, I got all
my window boxes installed in one day gave me a great price on my order, even throwing in the (considerable) shipping cost for free, but there was confusion about how to get all those boxes from Canada to Baltimore.  FedEx was considered, then a freight train. The first delivery date came and went.  No boxes.  It would be two more weeks, they explained.  That delivery date passed, as well.  Spring planting time was nearing an end.  Another week passed.  Finally, I received a call from the UPS freight yard near the Baltimore-Washington International airport.  They had my boxes shrink-wrapped on a heavy wooden pallet and would be delivering them in an 18-wheeler.  Where could they park their gigantic truck to unload my delivery?
Next, garden soil
amended with compost
fills the box

First, a layer of
gravel provides
good drainage

When I explained that my driveway was a narrow gravel road beneath low-hanging pine trees leading 110 feet up to an ancient farmhouse, UPS balked. They would need to block the street in front of my house with their big-rig in order to use a scissor-lift to lower the pallet, and their services did not include carrying the 400-pound load up my gravel driveway to the house.  Oh, yes.  And reserving the scissor-lift would delay delivery another week.  

I called Hayneedle.  I offered to borrow a neighbor’s pickup truck and drive to the UPS freight yard at the airport myself, if they would reimburse me for filling my neighbor’s tank with gas.  Hayneedle immediately credited my account for the cost of the gas and I was off.  At the UPS freight yard, I helped the nice man de-palletize my order.  Without the heavy wooden pallet, the individual flower boxes were easy to lift.  I fit sixteen of them in the bed of the truck and squeezed the last four boxes up in the cab with me. 

There was no room for me in my car
once it was filled with impatiens
Fish emulsion and
fertilizer pellets were
added to every box
The next day another neighbor attached steel brackets to each of my window sills and installed my handsome new flower boxes.  I was ecstatic. I paid a visit to my favorite nursery.  By this time it was the middle of June.  I was too late.  The multicolored impatiens I preferred were sold out and no amount of searching turned up any that could be special ordered.  Likewise, the creeping jenny I like to plant at the front of the boxes to spill out over the edges was gone for the season.  Not one to accept defeat, I bought all the remaining flats of impatiens they did have in stock and chose potato vine for my accent foliage this year.

Planting all the new boxes
took 12 hours straight
My basil crop is abundant this year!
With my little Honda loaded down with hundreds of pounds of garden soil and potting mix from Home Depot, I started planting.  First a layer of gravel for good drainage, then earthy garden soil, amended with rich, organic matter from my compost pile.  A drizzle of fish emulsion and a spare scattering of Osmocote fertilizer pellets came next.  Finally, I layered a few inches of moisture-conserving potting soil on top.  These new boxes are substantially larger than my old ones.  They hold a lot more soil.  In went the impatiens and the potato vines. I prayed I’d gotten rid of all the downy mildew spores.  If not, this was going to be a very expensive exercise in futility.  I filled an entire row of window boxes with herbs on the east side of my home: dill and oregano, thyme and marjoram, chives and sage and parsley and tarragon.
The herbs in my east side window
boxes are thriving

Blue veronica and red bee balm
combine to make an attractive display
of native perennials
Once that project was complete, I turned my attention to my garden.  So much for getting an earlier start this year!  My native perennial wildflowers, like black-eyed Susans and coneflower and salvia, were doing just fine on their own, thank goodness.  Seeds of early lettuces I scattered in April were already providing bushels of arugula, endive, romaine and other greens.  Now I worked compost into the soil and planted tomatoes and peppers, a zucchini vine and a pumpkin.  And more flowers. Because I use so much basil and rosemary, I planted those in the garden this year instead of in my window boxes.

Bell peppers are ripening

Maryland's state flower, the black-eyed
Susan. thrives in my garden
Now, barely two months later, my tomatoes are ripening. Bell peppers hang like Christmas ornaments from their branches. The butterfly weed attracts hundreds of swallowtails and Baltimore checkerspots every day. I am awash in basil and have not had to buy lettuce at the grocery store all season.  Despite my late start, the yard looks good.  Not a downy mildew spore in sight.  I smile as I watch winged beauties sip nectar from the thriving pot of marigolds on my patio table.  Ah, summer.
Butterflies flock to marigolds
at my patio table centerpiece


  1. Lynell - we'd love to share this story with our twitter followers if it's okay with you.

    Thank you,
    Social Media Specialist

    1. Yes, Brooke. I would be honored and flattered if you share my story with your twitter followers.

  2. Awesome story of repairs to your window boxes! Lovely and delicious results showing the herbs, flowers and veggies are great, especially with the last picture of the butterflies on your marigolds.