Our Blooming City: What The Best Window Boxes Are Wearing this Summer

August 24, 2015 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , , ,


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.

About the author

Dennis McGlade has been a part of OLIN nearly since its inception, joining the studio in 1978 and becoming a partner in 1995. A regarded professional in the field of design and horticulture, his noted works include the design of the J. Paul Getty Center and Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden in Los Angeles, California; Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf in London, UK; Midway Plaisance in Chicago, Illinois; and the 500-acre development of Camana Bay in the Cayman Islands. Dennis’ active projects encompass myriad scales and typologies, from the revitalization of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Plaza in New York City, to the spiritual retreat of Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut, to a plaza streetscape design at the University of Chicago for The Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.


  1. Yes, the Philadelphia region is home to more public gardens than any other region in the country – I wrote the guidebook to these gardens back in 2007. But as far as cities go, I just got back from Chicago, where anyone interested in how to make a city beautiful needs to go. Philadelphia has made great strides, thanks to PHS and Center City District and its Parks and Recreation trail staff,but it has a long way to go before it matches the Windy City. There, businesses are required to beautify their public spaces, restaurants with outdoor seating are required to install railings ornamented with window boxes. The horticulture along Michigan Avenue is as elaborate and well maintained as any public garden. Then you have the string of city parks along the lake, which keep expanding: the latest to open, Maggie Daley Park, is not quite fully planted but has a children’s garden, a skating track around rock climbing walls, and is connected to Millennium Park, with the Frank Gehry “bandstand”, the Cloud Gate, and the Lurie Garden, which I think is one of the most sublime gardens in any city–doesn’t hurt, of course, that it is surrounded by some of Chicago’s most iconic architecture.

  2. I agree, Chicago looks lovely in the summer. All two months of it. I think Philadelphia manages to do an okay job though given how strapped we are for resources.

    I used to date the gentleman that helped pass the Chicago ordinance requiring restaurants to have elaborate window boxes and plantings as part of outdoor seating. It is a very strict regulation. While it is beautiful, it also is a tremendous expense to newbie restaurants trying to get off the ground. Sure, there are some pretty simple things you can do to make an outdoor cafe look nice, but even simple gardening is costly, and the requirements were many. The law was heavily enforced throughout the city and quite a burden to those trying to make a go of it on a shoestring budget.

    Additionally, while I was a resident of Chicago, I cringed at the amount of tax dollars spent on horticulture along Michigan Avenue. When schools are crumbling, it is hard for me to justify the extremes of constantly rotating plantings as beautiful as they are. I get that it helps woo the tourists, which brings in more money. But it also feels like an insult to many whose own neighborhoods could not get a 911 call responded to let alone a tree planted.

    Western PA Conservancy in Pittsburgh does a great job of planting that city in the summer and they spread the floral wealth to upper and lower income neighborhoods alike.

  3. “ltimately, 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.”

    Indeed…or pays to do it. I must admit I was rather surprised one day to be walking down a block of beautiful window boxes when I suddenly came upon a landscape services van and workers pulling out perfectly good heucheras and redoing the whole window box. I still regret not asking them if the heucheras were going to be composted or replanted, because I would have taken some of them!

    I still am grateful for the homeowners bringing this beauty to their blocks, but now I know I don’t have to feel quite as guilty about mine not being as super-duper, considering I do mine myself!

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