I love winter in Brooklyn. I love how it looks when there is a light dust of snow on the brownstones. I especially love the smell of real wood fires. I am not, in the slightest, winter phobic. Even so, by February I’m tired of the gray landscape. The simple solution would be to buy a plant. I have ample light in my apartment so why not? Well, I kill them. They get sick and die. I forget to water them. I over water them. I put the pot in too much sunlight or not enough and my cats always seem to eat them even though their bowls are full. So after years of needless plant murdering I gave up on anything other than succulents.
My cacti live on a shelf built into our window. If you only have one window, building a window shelf, which blocks the light, probably isn’t what you want. If you do have more than one window and it’s fairly deep, a window shelf is a nice alternative to the normal collection of pots on the windowsill. Because the shelf is placed high it keeps the plants safely away from our cats. It took all of 10 minutes to construct the shelf out of a wooden plank and four “L” brackets. Measure carefully. The shelf must fit snugly in between the sides of the window so it doesn’t slip off and fall. Also check height placement because you don’t want to find out later that you have to take the entire thing down to open and close your window.
I don’t want to hurt my cacti’s feelings but I feel like my little oasis is missing something. I decided to consult a professional. Chuck Dorr, owner of Dig Garden Shop in Bohrum Hill, Brooklyn, specializes in urban landscaping for both outdoor and indoor spaces. His store is a lush Eden that I wish I could transport to my living room. I love the combination of sophisticated garden accessories, like mercury balls and aged metal sculptures with the more whimsical, like gnomes and animals. Many items on display fit perfectly in a small window box.
According to Dorr, there is an incredible amount of diversity you can have in a window box. Even the container is flexible. He says anything you can poke a few holes into and let sit in a tray with water will work. He suggests that you just be careful about what the planter rests on since there is always a chance that water could seep over the edge of the tray or out of the pot. If you have window sills with a fancy finish that you care a lot about you can lay down a small plastic barrier made out of a clear plastic place mat or tablecloth, cut down to the size of the window sill. No one will see it and your wood will be safe.
If your window gets decent light, there are several tropical varieties that you can put into your box with good results. To avoid something that looks too funereal, Dorr recommends a single color palette. The result is fresh and clean. Avoid something too fussy and over designed. He suggests herbs because they are hardy and you can put several varieties, such as mint, parsley, rosemary and sage, in one box. Perfect for a kitchen window sill, herb gardens not only look great but are useful and often have a pleasing aroma as well.
Putting a few varieties of plant together in one container means you only have to water once. This is a lot easier than trying to keep track of several pots. As long as there is a little water in the tray, most plants do very well. Cacti and other succulents don’t need a pool.
If you tend to over or under water you can make a note and attach it to the pot. Write the day and time the plant is to be watered on a small slip of paper with marker, or if you’re ambitious, you can make nice ones on a printer. Then use packaging tape on both sides to laminate, punch a hole into the note, and tie it to the pot. The more inclined you are to overlook your plant, the bigger and more colorful your note should be. Since you aren’t writing on the pot directly or using a sticker, if the plant dies, you can throw away the tag and use the pot for something else.
Even if your window faces another wall and you get very little or no sunlight, it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Many varieties of Snake Plant are small enough for a window sill garden. This hardy plant, found in corporate offices all over Manhattan, grows vertically with no sunlight. It shoots horizontally and can easily fill out a box. Sprouts can be removed and replanted since the roots are very shallow.
A self-contained terrarium requires the least maintenance. A professional gardener can choose the right container and plants that work best in this environment. Once created, you can put it anywhere there is light and pretty much ignore it. Dorr says it’s important to remember that water can amplify sunlight and causes burns on the leaves of your plants. Because a terrarium creates moisture, the plants can burn if the container is put in direct sunlight. For the same reason, you want to water all your plants early in the morning or later at night.
It’s very easy, especially when walking into a shop like Dig, to get overwhelmed and want to buy everything. Dorr says “Don’t be afraid.” Taking care of plants isn’t quantum physics. It’s not the end of the world if you kill it although he says that plenty of people come in to the shop heartbroken when their plants die. He also adds, “to know your limits.” A reputable dealer will ask what your ability and lifestyle is and match the right plants to you. Since asking a question is free, there is nothing to lose by seeking out help.