It is believed that the first window boxes hung from the terraces in the Gardens of Babylon (southern Iraq) making the plants look like they were suspended or floating in mid air. The story goes that King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled between 605-562 BC had the gardens built for his wife Queen Amytis of Medis who was homesick for the mountains of her homeland. In 290 BC the Babylonian Priest Berrossus writes about these gardens crediting the King with their creation. The exact location of these gardens have yet to be identified and no physical evidence have been found making some believe they are more mythical then physical. If the gardens were real then it's believed that they had been destroyed after the 1st century AD.
For the Romans the use of window boxes was purposeful and convenient. These terra cotta boxes were used for growing herbs for food, medicine and religious purposes. Overtime, these boxes took on a more decorative role with flowers replacing herbs. Wealthy Romans created gardens on balconies and rooftops with the use of window boxes. Roman writer, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder mentions window boxes in his works, Naturalis Historia (encyclopedias). In it he writes:
“The urban poor used to have window-boxes, which gave them a glimpse of the countryside every day, but now the countless violent burglaries have forced them to shutter their windows.”
The use of window boxes spread through Europe (as did the Romans) and eventually to the US. The French used wrought iron to create their boxes while the English utilized wire hay baskets for a “cottage style garden”. The arrival of the settlers to America gave rise to the traditional colonial style window box. One thought is that the poor utilized window boxes in Europe do to lack of land for traditional gardens. In historic cities like Charleston, South Carolina, homes extend all the way out to the sidewalks. This left no front yard garden space, thus the use of window boxes. Today, these boxes play a vital role in the cities appearance.
According to an article in the Independent (Oct. 13, 1995) window boxes were at their height of popularity by the 1870's. In 1955, Neosho Missouri embarked on a city wide, beautification project utilizing window-boxes. Since 1957 it has been known as “The Flower Box City” at least to the locals. In cities like Philadelphia, window box companies will design, install, plant and replant your window-boxes seasonally.
When designing your own window boxes think “Thriller, Filler, Spiller”. Thriller plants are the tallest, adding drama, movement and a focal point. Fillers, as the name implies adds mass, texture and color. And spillers are trailing plants that drape over the sides, creating softness and anchors the design.
Window boxes can add charm and beauty. They are miniature gardens that bring nature in and provide a colorful view looking out. They can also support our pollinators. In 2016 the USDA launched “Plant A Window Box for Pollinators” through the Peoples Garden Initiative Website (peoplesgarden.usda.gov). This tool helps you locate plants for pollinators based on your zip code. The Pollinator Partnership (pollinator.org/windowbox) has created an online web application in which you can create a window boxes for pollinators with an emphasis on native plants. Once created you can share your virtual window box with others through social media or create the real deal.