Our DIY Planter Boxes: Still Going (Mostly) Strong 2 Years Later!

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Now that our DIY planter boxes have made their way through two fairly rough Chicago winters, we’re excited to report that the majority of our perennials are still with us and going strong! We were initially concerned that perennials wouldn’t survive the winter, but based on a hot tip from someone at our favorite Chicago garden center, we lined each box with multiple layers of 1/4″ insulation board. We’re convinced that the insulation board has kept things from dying off in the coldest months of the year.

Our initial design direction was toward boxes that were overflowing with tangled greenery and splashes of white, pink, and purple blooms wherever possible. We also utilized an entire palette of perennials that were acceptable for our USDA Hardiness Zone (Chicago sits in zone 5a), so we could avoid a large investment in new plants each spring.

Beyond watering and fertilizing at the start of the season, the boxes are low maintenance by design and require minimal care. Each fall as the plants turn brown and die off, we do… absolutely nothing. Come spring, at the first sign of greenery poking through the soil, we trim everything back to a few inches above the soil line to allow for healthy new growth. Spring also calls for more fertilizer and some additional high-quality topsoil to account for soil that settled or compacted over the winter. The first two summers, we spread mulch to help with water retention, but things got a little away from us this year and the greenery was pretty full by the time we remembered, so we skipped it this time around, and all is still (mostly) well!

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For whatever reason, the sky pencil holly that initially flanked the fireplace seemed fairly stagnant and never really took off, so we removed them and plopped in these big, beautiful ‘Fire Chief’ evergreen shrubs in their place. The rounded shape and orange-y tips fit really well into the tapered corners at the end of the boxes, and their max overall size is 3’x3′, so we can’t wait to see them grow to their full potential. We’re finding that evergreens thrive under the conditions in the backyard and provide color all year round, so we’re running with it!

The box at the corner of the patio is thriving with our stonecrop, allium and coneflowers, plus two new additions with candle larkspur and ‘Ramona’ clematis:

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When we picked up the new candle larkspur (seen below) they were so plump with flowers that they were beginning to topple under their own weight! We used some long bamboo marshmallow skewers and a few loose zip ties to give them the support they needed. They’ve grown sturdier and can now support themselves without additional help. The mound of purple flowers looks great, but we wished the leaves look a little less weed-like. We’re happy with the trade-off though!

In honor of Kim’s first Mother’s Day this year, I started a new tradition. In lieu of gifts, we spent the day together as a family doing whatever Mom wanted – there was pie, of course! We ended our day at a local plant nursery, where Kim got to choose a few new perennials that will (hopefully!) come back every year to remind her of her first Mother’s Day. I then got dirty planting everything while Kim sipped rosé and played with Lucy.

Kim picked out a pair of ‘Ramona’ clematis to replace the Sweet Autumn that had grown up our trellises previously. You might remember that we were never in love with the leaves on the clematis we initially chose, and after two seasons not being thrilled with the plant, we replaced them once and for all! The leaves on the Ramonas are more attractive than those on the Sweet Autumn, and if they’re kept happy, they’ll throw out big, beautiful purple flowers twice each summer. (On Father’s Day,  Kim returned the favor to me, and we had a similar day out in the neighborhood – there was beer, of course! My choice was the big purple candle larkspur. Again, I got dirty planting everything while Kim sipped rosé and played with Lucy – ha!)

The allium (ornamental onions) do really well back here and continue to spread; those are the ones with the fluffy lilac-colored heads, below. We seem to get more flowers every season, and we love the way the graphic, grassy leaves spill over the tops of the planters!

The ‘Pinky Winky’ hydrangea in the corner box has been an absolute trooper, and has grown in size by about 1/3 each year. This spring, I left to run a few errands while Kim tidied things up in the backyard. When I got back home, I was shocked to find that she had cut all of the sturdy branches back to about 18″ from the base. I was convinced that the plant would never recover, but she assured me that she’d done some research online and that this was recommended practice. She proved me wrong when the plant grew back bigger, stronger, and more full than ever before with the most perfect flowers we’ve seen since planting it!

The stonecrop and blue rug junipers flanking the hydrangea provide great contrast and some nice texture in the foreground. I think this corner may be my personal favorite section of the garden. It gets bigger and better every year. (Every day, Lucy helps us water the plants, which is currently her favorite thing!)

The baptista on the other side of the patio is one that we struggle with. It is happy, healthy and ENORMOUS. It does, however grow out way more than it grows up. If planted elsewhere in the garden, this might not be an issue, but we intended for this guy to provide some vertical interest and help block out the three rusty old electrical meters on the back of the house. We’ve considered transplanting it this fall to swap it out for something with a little more height, but we haven’t decided yet. Any suggestions for possible replacements here?

Overall, we’re incredibly happy with how this space functions for us, and we really enjoy tweaking things so that each year’s plantings offer some variety. If any fellow Zone 5a folks have suggestions moving forward, we’d love to hear them!

Backyard Sources:

red pavers | raised garden beds | DIY table | dining chairs | wicker chairs (similar) | outdoor pillows | lounge chairs (similar) | fireplace | outdoor sconce | white umbrella | trellis

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  • Nicole8.2.18 - 8:34 AM

    Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous! This is inspiration to tackle the planters in my backyard. They are an overgrown box of green who knows what.ReplyCancel

  • Nancy8.2.18 - 8:52 AM

    AAAAHHHH!!!!! Tiny Lucy watering is killing me! BeautifulReplyCancel

    • Kim8.2.18 - 9:32 AM

      She loves watering those plants! Or I should say, she loves getting watered herself, haha.ReplyCancel

  • Marti8.2.18 - 9:38 AM

    Your planters look beautiful! I love the new clematis.

    Maybe you could plant a couple of clumping grasses at the back of the bed next to the stairs? They grow UP very quickly, which would hide the electrical meters, and they can stay standing throughout winter until you cut them back down at the beginning of spring. Some swaying grass would also be a nice complement to the thick greenery you have elsewhere. Feather reed grass, perhaps:

    • Kim8.2.18 - 4:54 PM

      Thanks, Marti! Our only concern is that the grasses might get in the way of the staircase that leads in/out of the garden apartment. Our tenants use that staircase when they use the back mudroom door. We’ve always loved the look of grass though, so who knows, maybe it’s worth a shot?ReplyCancel

      • Lori8.6.18 - 9:24 AM

        Seconding the Karl Forester grass rec. They grow super upright & unlike miscanthus/pampas grass, the grass edges aren’t sharp. I guess the downside is that you’d have to wait for your screening to grow back from April-July.ReplyCancel

    • Ellen Leicht8.2.18 - 11:00 PM

      We have the Karl Foerster cultivar in our yard and they are so good. They get tall so quickly and add good visual interest in the winter snow tooReplyCancel

  • CINDEE8.2.18 - 1:36 PM

    I was inspired by your planters and made our own this spring! thanks!

    I have a question on the distance of each plant. Most of our plants says it needs 24″ of root space which means we can only put about 4-5 diff. plants in a 96″ planter box. Did you guys follow this guideline when planting? I’m a total newbie when it comes to this~ReplyCancel

  • ryan8.2.18 - 3:44 PM

    you might consider Russian Sage to replace the baptista. It will also grow out but and equal amount up and will provide feathery screening of the metersReplyCancel

    • Kim8.2.18 - 4:53 PM

      We LOVE that plant! Great suggestion, thank you!ReplyCancel

      • Karen T.8.3.18 - 8:01 AM

        I LOVE Russian Sage but know that they attract bees like crazy. We had multiple clumps of it surrounding our deck and I had to give that area a wide berth when working in the yard. I’m not sure if this issue was specific to our backyard but just wanted to share. Your yard looks beautiful!! I’m zone 5 as well but I’m thankful that the majority of our landscaping was done when we moved in!!ReplyCancel

  • Kim8.2.18 - 4:52 PM

    To be honest, nope, but you can see in our ‘year 1’ post that we left a lot more space between the plants:

    Over time, they have started to grow wider and taller, which is a great thing!ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa8.2.18 - 5:58 PM

    Not that you don’t know this, but Lucy is so cute!ReplyCancel

  • Beth8.2.18 - 8:35 PM

    They don’t get super tall but for me, every garden needs a peony! Gorgeous flowers in June for bouquets and decent looking foliage the rest of the year. Festiva Maxima is my favourite. :)ReplyCancel

  • Rebecca8.2.18 - 9:14 PM

    My daughter wears that same rainbow shirt!! It’s so cute!ReplyCancel

  • Lori8.6.18 - 9:20 AM

    How about some kind of dogwood to replace the baptisa? ‘Midwinter Fire’ is spectacular, but might be too big (maybe for the Tree House yard?). There are some great dwarf yellow & red varieties for great winter interest. Or another hydrangea or dwarf lilac (for the fragrance). There are also some small rugusa roses that rebloom & have an amaaazing scent that you’d be able to smell up on the porch.ReplyCancel

  • Paige Cassandra Flamm8.6.18 - 6:06 PM

    Your plants are looking gorgeous!


  • mkcubed8.8.18 - 9:52 AM

    I would recommend a sweetshrub to replace the baptista. The flowers and scent are amazing and they grow well in your zone.ReplyCancel


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