Editor’s Note: This photo essay is the first in an ongoing column of urban horticulture observations–nature at street level–by Dennis McGlade, president and partner of the landscape architecture firm OLIN.
Summer is winding down and it is that time of year when the abundance of the garden is on full display. Farmers’ markets are bursting with tomatoes, melons, squash, berries, and stone fruits of all sorts. What is true for the edible garden is affirmed by brilliant ornamental arrangements. On my routine walks throughout the city this summer I observed the tender care of floral gardners overflowing in window boxes perched on sills down every street and alleyway. We have been blessed with a season that has been neither too hot nor too dry, which has provided the perfect weather for robust cultivation and vivid arrangements.
The variety of the plants I have come across this year has been impressive. The usual suspects are well represented–petunias, sweet potato vine in chartreuse and purple, coleus (with foliage colors in patterns so radiant that Joseph and his coat of many colors would be impressed), impatiens, begonias, and cordylines in purple and green. Along with these stalwarts are the more exotic flora that transform rusty brick façades into small botanical gardens. There are the unusual rex begonias, alocasias, colocasias (the scale of which can overwhelm a window box and consume much of the entryway to a row house), caladiums, bromeliads, ferns, canna lilies, and gray-leaved dichondra among many others. I even found one box that had phalaenopsis orchids on display. Also known as the Moth Orchid, they are quite popular these days and often pop up in the flower section in the local grocery store, but rarely do they ever show up in a window box.
How does one account for such civic-minded passion (and the huge effort of time and money that ornamental gardening requires) that makes our streets more visually alluring and delightful to the eye? A convergence of various fortunate circumstances has made the Delaware Valley the center of horticulture in the United States. Within 150 miles of the city is a concentration of public display gardens, historic botanical gardens, arboreta, and growing public green space that cannot be equaled anywhere else in North America. Landscape and horticulture programs at Drexel and Penn only fortify the city’s persistant love affair with botanical splendor.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society can also take a lot of credit as it has blanketed the city with numerous beautification projects. PHS has an extensive list of horticultural outreach programs for the amatuer green thumb and talented, experienced gardeners alike. The PHS Philadelphia Flower Show in March, one of the largest in the country, puts the power of botany before the more than 250,000 people who attend the event annually.
Advances in the nursery industry like propagation and transportation have made an encyclopedic range of plants more available as well. Like never before, thousands of different species of hardy and tender plants are being propagated and shipped all over the country and world. The costs of what were once rare plants has come down, a perfect example being orchids. The internet has also made acquiring the right supplies and information on how to effectively cultivate immediate accessible.
Ultimately, what is really the driving factor behind botanical treasures like these window boxes is the dedicated gardener who invests in the time, the plants, the pots, and the regimen of regular care that these urban displays require. Their community-minded generosity connects us with a bit of nature and it benefits us all who amble down their verdant streets.