The Well-Dressed Garden

FIRST-CLASS MAILBOX GARDENS

Even if the daily mail doesn't amount to much, a cheerful mailbox garden stamps you as First Class in the neighborhood. It's also a fun gardening opportunity.

Mailboxes perched on posts at the curb give you a chance to create a postage-stamp garden design. Think of the mailbox as a piece of functional sculpture that gives your little garden both a focal point and a vertical element. Then design around it, choosing hard-working plants that will thrive in the usually rather challenging conditions at the curb.

A mailbox on a sturdy post must be front and center in your design. It can stand no more than eight inches from the curb, according to U.S. Postal Service recommendations. To make the best impression on the mail carrier and everyone else who passes by, the garden around the box should look attractive year round. You might start with a couple of small evergreen shrubs, as a conifer collector in Norfolk, Virginia, did when she designed her mailbox garden. Her evergreens anchor the plantings, are in perfect proportion, and give the bed definition even in the winter. Dwarf conifers are a good choice because they grow slowly: They will never overwhelm the space.

A gardener in Madison, Wisconsin, who favors naturalistic landscaping and has a meadow in her backyard, designed a mailbox bed to reflect her gardening style. She created a miniature meadow around her curbside mailbox using just a handful of plants. In a spot less than three feet on a side, she planted short prairie grasses, bright yellow coreopsis, bold purple coneflowers and a drift of black-eyed Susans. None of these plants needs special attention, and the design looks pretty through the winter, when the grasses turn into a tawny backdrop for the bristling black seed heads of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans.

Curbside gardens are not the place for plants that need pampering. Of course, you'll need to water the plants while they become established, but drought tolerance is important when you're choosing plants that must thrive at the end of the driveway, a long distance from the nearest spigot. Mailbox-garden plants are also subject to a lot of wear and tear. Even the most careful mail carrier may drive over plants that creep or flop across the curb, or step on ground covers.

You'll want sturdy plants at the front of the bed, on the street side. Small grasses and tough ground covers such as ajuga or creeping phlox will bounce back from occasional trampling. A ribbon of daylilies set back about six inches from the curb will produce a magnificent show of color through the summer, and if the foliage along the curb is damaged, it will not affect the flowers. Depending on the location of your mailbox and your driveway, you may want to choose plants that grow no more than about two feet tall, so they will not block your view as you pull out of the driveway.

Not all mailbox gardens have to be planted around a post. Sometimes, the garden might be a few steps behind the mailbox itself, forming a living backdrop protected from the challenges of a street-side planting but still reaching out to the neighborhood with a stylish punctuation mark of flowers. Pushing the garden back a little way also allows you to grow taller plants without obstructing mail delivery. This could be an opportunity to include a small tree in the scene, perhaps a spring-blooming magnolia or a crabapple. A gardener near Washington, D.C., made a round bed separated from her mailbox by a strip of grass. She planted a small magnolia in the center and a little cottage garden of perennial flowers around it. The bed looks beautiful from the street and draws the eye further toward plantings in the rest of the garden.

In some neighborhoods, monumental mailboxes are a slightly intimidating presence at the curb. They look more like barricades than small architectural elements around which to plant a garden, but adding just a few plants can soften their appearance. Ornamental grasses are especially effective when planted just behind such massive mailboxes, taking some of the hard edges off a brick pillar. In front, there may be room for a row of liriope, an indestructible plant with leaves that are grasslike, but more sophisticated. It will dress up the base of the pillar, just as foundation plants soften the transition between a house and a garden.

Perennials are classic mailbox garden plants because they come back every year. Chrysanthemums, iris, lavender, spiderwort, sedum, daylilies and phlox will all thrive in a sunny mailbox bed. In a shadier place, ferns, coral bells, lamium and hellebores are surprisingly resilient. Roses are tempting, but plants with thorns might complicate things for the mail carrier.

Supplement the perennials with colorful annual flowers -- zinnias, cleome, pentas, petunias -- that will bloom through the summer. A well-behaved vine, such as clematis, mandevilla or black-eyed Susan vine, will dress up the mailbox post.

Like any garden, a mailbox garden will evolve over the seasons and through the years. Borrow ideas from your regular garden and prowl the neighborhood and the internet for inspiration. Above all, don't let the limited size of a mailbox garden constrain your imagination. Good things come in small packages.

(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at chooker@amuniversal.com.)

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