Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Window Box!

Our book today is Diana Stewart's lovely little 1985 instruction manual, The Window Box: Pot, Tub & Basket Book, with twining, intricate illustrations by Marilyn Leader. The book's subject is terra incognita for me - the successful growing of house-plants, which I group with 'successful cooking' and 'successful music-making' as talents I must regretfully admit I'll never possess. Although even there, plant-growing occupies an especially lonely shelf in that group; dint of sheer perseverance has allowed me to whip up a passable bacon-and-eggs breakfast if the need arises, and a scrupulous observance of my own limitations has allowed me to carve out a small repertoire of songs I can sing without complete disaster. But plants I instantly kill.

Stewart would have it be otherwise. Her book (a slim pretty rectangle of a thing, designed to evoke the very boxes it champions) is full of practical advice and level-headed encouragement for novice and expert alike. Here, presented in a calm, congenial voice, are the facts on everything from choosing a container to laying down the proper composting layer to anticipating any possible problems with that most crucial of all container-gardening needs: frequent and copious watering. She stresses the watering issue repeatedly and makes a basic point I'd imagine is lost on many beginners: soil exposed to the air on all sides evaporates moisture a lot faster than soil that's in the ground. Our author wants to make sure you've factored in that frequent watering when choosing where your plants will be displayed - and she wants you to consider the sheer bulk of what's involved as well:
 You have selected your box, or boxes, and decided roughly what you will grow, spring bulbs, summer annuals or whatever. Now comes the time to put the box in place and fill it, and how you tackle this may be between you and your osteopath. ....

And although she's primarily focussed on getting her readers started with creating their container gardens, she spares thoughts constantly for the plants themselves, which she's obviously come to like in the course of her years of gardening:
An oak tree will probably survive in a 10 inch clay pot for a few years but eventually its roots will break it. Even before this happens it may well not be a very happy oak tree.

Of course, even so slender a book as this one - on so healthy and anodyne a subject as this one - can't escape striking a wrong note with Steve! This author makes her slip-up with the innocent-seeming line "For summer evening scent there is really nothing to beat the tobacco plant ..."

But she makes it up and more with the sweet, sensible conviction she brings to every aspect of small-container plant-growing. Window-boxes, urns, troughs, hanging baskets, even bonsai - every aspect of urban, small-space plant-tending is covered in this sunny, delightful book, and all of it is done with such an encouraging, happy tone that I actually keep and re-read the thing, even though I'm certainly never going to succeed in actually having a window-box garden. Maybe it's the reassurance of how deeply Stewart loves creating order out of chaos (even if it's just a little bit of order), or maybe it's the fact that container-gardening books must perforce be celebrations of urban living, which I love. Or it could be something deeper, something essentially bound up with the art and science of making things grow. Every time I re-read this book, I catch hints of that essential something in lines like this, and it never fails to perk me up:
If you get the propagation bug badly you will need more detailed information [on utilizing cuttings] than there is room to give here. Hanker after camellias from cuttings, or bay, or azaleas or magnolias and you may find you are in a different ball-game. But there is never any harm in trying, for hope is what we all live on.





Sam said...

This sounds delightful. Flower planters are one of my favorite ornaments for city apartments, but I've been prone to let mine die in the past, leaving dry skeletal remains of impatiens and marigolds. This year I went with hearty thick-leaved non-flowering plants that need very little attention but still give some color and life to the sidewalk.

Ryan Eckley said...

Sounds like a good book. I started making and peddling cedar window boxes and other cedar planters this past spring. Fun. Our stuff can be seen at our new site