Thinking Outside the Box

2009 by Hearst Communications Inc

We asked four style pros to take on the challenge of reinventing a plain wood planter. The results? Homegrown marvels that burst with creativity.

The starting point: a $32 pine window box (30"L x 6½"W x 7"H) from jamali

Wildly Romantic

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Garden designer Jon Carloftis of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Lexington, Kentucky

Jon Carloftis found inspiration for this rustic creation in the woods behind his Pennsylvania house -- literally. A fallen tree there yielded the birch bark that he attached with waterproof epoxy. Then Carloftis packed the box's interior with chartreuse Helichrysum petiolare 'Limelight,' airy yellow-flowered Bidens ferulifolia, and 'Velocity Blue' -- a new salvia cultivar he jokingly calls "a flower on steroids without the bad attitude." TIP: "To keep wood containers from rotting, line them with a plastic bag, then punch holes in the bottom for drainage."

Tea for You

Landscape architect Jennifer Bartley of Granville, Ohio

Jennifer Bartley designed this cheerful arrangement with more than just aesthetics in mind. Every plant in her bountiful composition can be used to make herbal tea: chocolate spearmint and 'Kentucky Colonel' mint, German chamomile, pineapple sage, French lavender, and lemon-scented geraniums. To help "balance the natural chaos of foliage," Bartley trimmed the window box in tidy crown molding (painted with Olympic's exterior latex in Forsythia Blossom). As a final flourish, she covered the sides in a mosaic crafted from shards of -- what else? -- vintage teacups. TIP: "Choose full-grown plants so your container looks lush from the get-go."

Homespun Sweetness

Fashion and home accessories designer Natalie Chanin of Florence, Alabama

Natalie Chanin's clothing and home accessories label, Alabama Chanin, is known for marrying old-fashioned embroidery techniques with cutting-edge design. And she took the same approach with this planter -- dressing it up with a lace pattern adapted from a pair of Victorian bloomers. After sketching the pattern on the box (painted with Sherwin-Williams'sVOC-free Westhighland White latex), she drilled holes and stitched them up with waxed cotton cord. As for plants, Chanin prefers "dainty flowers and picnic-ready herbs." So she used edibles (strawberry plants, chives, and basil) and ornamentals ('Origami White' columbines and trailing Sutera 'Giant Snowflake') to thoroughly fresh effect. TIP: "Sticking to a limited palette, like green and white, is the easiest way to ensure a sophisticated look."

Do-It-Yourself Desert

Landscape architect Rob Steiner of Los Angeles

Who says a window box has to go in a window? Not Rob Steiner, the genius behind this unconventional stand-alone container, designed to mimic an arid Southwestern landscape. Set off by a sheet of brilliant-blue acrylic screwed into its back, the box -- which Steiner sanded and stained with Cabot's Driftwood Gray on top and Slate Gray around the bottom -- frames a dramatic, asymmetrical display of a spiky Haworthia attenuata and two different sedums (Sedum anglicum and S. spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco'). "For such small plants, they have immense impact," says Steiner. "And they need little water or attention, which makes them nearly impossible to kill." TIP: "Surround succulents with tiny pebbles to keep excess moisture from reaching their stems."

WINDOW BOXES 101 We went straight to Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist for the National Gardening Association, to get the scoop on container-planting basics.

PLANT PLACEMENT Feel free to get creative -- there are no hard-and-fast rules. That said, for a foolproof composi-tion, follow this traditional scheme: Place tall, spiky grasses in the back, trailing varieties at the front and sides, and fill the middle with bushier plants.

SOIL Tempting as it may seem, don't just dig up dirt from your backyard. Instead, go with a medium-weight potting mix that includes perlite and vermiculite -- minerals that help keep the soil aerated and prevent water loss.