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Our Planter Boxes: After a Chicago Winter

Late summer of last year, we had just completed our DIY planter boxes for the back patio – all 37 linear feet of them! – and after a consult with a local nursery, we felt pretty comfortable bringing in soil, planting and mulching in September. We’ve never been much of green thumbs, but since living in this house, we’ve had a lot of fun learning, thriving, failing and trying our damnedest. It felt scary purchasing the soil and perennials – a mini investment, no doubt – and living in a part of the country with exceptionally cold winters had us worried about the raised planters we had to have.

During our design consult, we were given a tip that could potentially save us from heartache in the spring, and that was to insulate our planter boxes. Quite literally, we insulated them with multiple layers of thin foam! The bottom of our planters are open to the ground below, and our hope has always been that our garden will grow deep roots and return year after year, stronger, messier and more entangled as the seasons go by. The thought of a lush, overflowing garden in our backyard makes us smile, so imagine our happy surprise when our plants came back!

Chicago had a streak of exceptionally warm days in late winter / early spring, and after noticing the first pop of green push through our soil in March, we’ve been obsessively checking on all the plants’ growth. The good – scratch that, great! – news is that almost everything did come back. The somewhat bad news is that we lost a few, but even we were impressed with the speediness of the survivors. These photos were taken last week, and already, our garden is taller!

We received a handful of requests on a garden update, so today, I thought we’d poke around the planter boxes with a little update of what’s thriving and what was replaced.

‘Pinky Winky’ Hydrangea

Our hydrangea is nestled in the corner of the garden, and she was one of the first to sprout green leaves. We had to cut back one dead branch early in the season, after which, she sprang to life and hasn’t stopped since.


We chose about three different varieties of stonecrop, and they have easily doubled in size since last year. The leaves are full and thick, and it will be fun watching the flowers bloom in their mix of colors. These guys were some of our favorites last season, so to see them come back with such force has been the best surprise.

Ornamental Onion

We chose these for their whimsical ball-like purple flowers (they’re very Dr. Suess-esque!), and when not in bloom, they look like grass. Tall, strong grass. We were warned that they have the potential to take over the garden, but so far, so good. They have expanded in size since they died back in the winter, but we honestly can’t wait for the day that these boxes are bursting!


We have a love/hate relationship with these guys. They steal our hearts when they’re in bloom, but until then, their thin, pointy leaves remind us of weeds. We’re keeping our eyes on the prize, and although they seem to be growing slower than the rest of the garden, we’re looking forward to seeing the first blooms.


We were certain that we had lost this one. While the rest of the plants were showing growth, this one remained underground, and he wouldn’t budge. One day, when Scott was out watering the plants, he pointed out that there were no less than 10 purple sprouts pushing through the soil – seemingly overnight! They doubled in size nearly every day, and now there are countless stalks! We were impressed. Well done, baptisia.


I mentioned last year that I was on the fence about the clematis. It’s a fast grower, but the leaves have always felt a little weed-like to me. Scott loves them, so I promised to give them a chance; who knows, maybe they’ll grow on me (heh)? In the fall, they’ll sprout white flowers, and by then, we’re hoping our entire modern trellis will be covered!

Ceratostigma | Lavender

We’re hoping these plants pull through! Below, the ceratostigma is on the left (a blanketing plant with blue flowers), and the lavender is on the right. When planting the lavender last year, we crossed all our fingers that they would come back, and they are, but very, very slooowly. We lost one of them in a different planter box, but this one is trying his best. Come on, guys, you got this!

Sky Pencil Holly

We chose these evergreen plants for their skinny width and potential to grow nice and tall. They flank our fireplace, and while they are alive (no brown branches), they seemed to have thinned out. They’re looking scraggly right now, but just a few days ago, Scott pointed out that there are teeny, tiny green buds lining the sparse areas. Time will tell.

Blue Rug Juniper

We purchased four of these plants to fill in areas were we lost a lavender, ceratostigma and an echinacea or two. We like that they’re evergreen, and our hope is that they’ll continue to spill out over the planter box ledges, breaking up all the wood. The two you see below have grown quite a bit since we planted them just a few weeks ago!

Gold Juniper

Another evergreen, we purchased two of these yellow shrubs to replace rhododendrons. Our poor rhodos began fizzling out in the cold, and right before we pulled them in exchange for the gold juniper, they were nothing but dead sticks.

Last but not least, this mini rose looking plant replaced a ceratostigma that didn’t make it. I’m not sure what it’s called (help?), but we really liked the shape of the leaves and the pale pink flowers!

The patio has already seen a few other changes, and there are a few more to come! It’s been a bit too cold to enjoy it as much as we’d like, but we have a whole summer ahead of us. Bring it on!

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  • Debra5.10.17 - 6:23 AM

    The plant with pink flowers in last photo is a columbine. These come up easily by seed, will reseed themselves, and some have beautiful deep colors. A staple in the garden! I am also in the Chicago area and have thrown away more dead lavendar than I can count. I have the autumn blooming white clematis that gets huge. Good luck with yours. You may want to consider mixing in an early bloomer and midsummer bloomer clematis for color all season long.ReplyCancel

  • Vanessa5.10.17 - 6:58 AM

    Yes, I second Debra’s comment. It’s Columbine, Aquilegia, and comes in a lot of colors. If you keep it dead headed, it will prolong the blooming period and you can also grab seeds and spread it around a bit. It is just for Spring, early Summer though. Also for the Clematis, you might consider a colorful flower against the white background. There are some incredible choices out there. Look at Joy Creek’s catalog. Just a thought.ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.10.17 - 10:28 AM

      Glad to hear the love for the columbine – and thank you guys for helping us remember what it is!

      As for the clematis, we personally prefer the look of the white flowers on white siding for a more peaceful feel. :)ReplyCancel

      • Caitlin5.10.17 - 10:48 AM

        It also looks like one of our columbine plants, which is a “winky mix” varietal – much more upright and tightly grouped. There are other varieties (including single and double blossoms, though double blossoms won’t self-seed) that are lower and more spread out, and a few dwarf varieties too! We love our columbines. :)ReplyCancel

  • Ann5.10.17 - 8:13 AM

    One trick I’ve read about getting strong plants like your juniper to cascade over a pot is to attach small plant weights to the ends. This helps train the plant’s habit to trail rather than stick straight out like a salute. Good luck, things are looking great!ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.10.17 - 10:29 AM

      Ooh, I’ve never heard of that! I’ll have to check it out, thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen A Conery5.10.17 - 8:14 AM

    Just a thought… did you also topdress with extra mulch for the winter? I’ve always heard that layer of topdressing helps in colder areas.
    I’ll third the comment about the columbine. I have several and I love them… so many beautiful colors and shapes to the flowers. But they are a brief seasonal bloomer, though the foliage will stay all summer.ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.10.17 - 10:30 AM

      We did add a little extra mulch before winter, but not much. I’m really thinking the insulation is what saved us!ReplyCancel

  • southern gal5.10.17 - 8:45 AM

    couple of things

    1 perennials … sleep creep leap
    the first two years are spent developing roots … what you see these first two years will be smaller then as they mature.

    also each perennial has its own growth cycle.. and blooms … many take a longer time to ‘grow’ back each season …

    2 to get continual blooms thru the spring and summer select a variety of plants with different growth and bloom cycles. so in the early spring some bulbs come up and as they are in full bloom then your perennials start to push up. by the time they are spurting up your bulbs will be dying back.

    echinacea is a late summer bloomer – very late july but mainly august .

    3 in planter boxes an important task is to constantly trim and prune. you do want to have plants fill out but dont want them to take over. so every week take an hour or so and take your pruners (buy good ones) and check every plant . you want to pull off dead leaves and prune back … for hydraganeas find out what kind yours is. one blooms on OLD wood from the year before (sets buds in the fall) the other blooms on NEW wood – (sets buds in the spring) its important to know which yours is so you dont cut off all the buds!

    4 make a trip to your local nursery every few weeks (not home depot but a real nursery) they will have plants that are appropriate for your area and you can observer what is blooming etc at that time and then purchase knowing you will get that.

    the most beautiful and hardest thing of planning a perennial border/bed is to stagger the blooms and growth of your plants to have a continuing stream of color.

    5 remember that a plants leaves can also be a part of a color scheme. there are wonderful plants that have different colors than green for leaves (ferns and hostas have a huge variety of leaf color) and they add a fabulous counterpoint to the greens of perennials and evergreens.

    spend hours pouring over gardening sites to see how master gardeners do it. that is the best way to learn as well as visiting gardens in your area.

    its exciting to have a new garden.

    mine is 12 years old and i change and learn every year.
    see many (tons) of photos on my flickr and instagram accounts.

    so excited for you!

    ps DONT forget to FEED your plants!ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.10.17 - 10:32 AM

      Thank you so much for all of this feedback! What fertilizer would you recommend for feeding?

      And yup, we’ve heard of that saying before: sleep, creep and leap. I suppose we’re in the creep year! We have a handful of local nurseries that we love, and we like to ask lots of questions before purchasing. They help to remind us of what will work in different areas of our home – inside and out. Their guidance has been invaluable over the year!ReplyCancel

      • Tracy5.11.17 - 8:43 AM

        There’s a product called maxicrop that I believe is just powdered seaweed. Dissolve a little in water and spray onto the leaves/stems. They love it! Working a little bat guano into the hole where your planting is also a good idea.ReplyCancel

  • Bernadette5.10.17 - 9:37 AM

    Looks great! My sky pencil holly didn’t survive the winter :( but my coppertina that I barely kept alive through last summer is back and thriving! My terrace is under construction most of the season, so I’m focusing my energy this season on new indoor plants for my Woolly Pocket.ReplyCancel

  • Ann5.10.17 - 11:29 AM

    How did the hostas in the front come back?ReplyCancel

    • Kim5.10.17 - 11:46 AM

      Great! One of these years, we’ll fill out the back half behind the gate so we have a beautiful row of hostas down the whole side of the house…ReplyCancel

  • Paige5.10.17 - 12:34 PM

    Your planter boxes look awesome! I can’t wait to get some made at our house!


  • Crystal5.10.17 - 1:37 PM

    I think you guys would love some nasturtiums. You can get climbing or bushing varieties, but they are both amazing. They have large leave, big flowers (they come in pretty much every shade from yellow to orange to red), and are actually edible as well with a light peppery flavor. I love adding the flowers to a salad for a punch of color and flavor all at once. They die back every year, but my experience is that they reseed themselves really easily and come back year after year.ReplyCancel

  • Stacy G.5.10.17 - 10:37 PM

    Everything looks great! We are a few weeks behind you, but the plants are starting to wake up.

    Hydrangeas are my very favorite. I could not grow them in California because we stuck to drought-hearty natives. However, they grow well where we live now, so I planted one three years ago at the end of our first summer here in BHH. I am delighted every year that it comes back.ReplyCancel

  • […] love seeing updates from two of our favorite backyard projects last year — Julia’s and Kim’s! Both of these talented ladies happen to also be the host of the “A Night In” series […]ReplyCancel

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