For Queen, country and window boxes

An official infuriated the residents of a council block when he said their pride and joy had to go. He was messing with a vital part of urban life.
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The Independent Online

Britain is both a nation of gardeners, and one that loves things in miniature, so when an over-zealous council official in Norwich launched an attack on window boxes last week, the howls of outrage might have shattered many a greenhouse pane.

"Ludicrous," says the gardening writer Anna Pavord. "Ridiculous," says window box prize-winner Michael Glasspool. "I think it would be very sad if people had to lose their window boxes," says Brian Smith, a leading plantsman. And then there are the poor people in the Norwich council block who were stunned to receive the letter that told them that their window boxes were dangerous, and that they would have to get rid of them.

"I can't believe this is happening," says Jean Gatt, 81, a disabled resident whose flat is on the first floor of the block. "My window box is one of my few pleasures. It has been there for 10 years. I have seen loaves of bread whizzing down and nothing is said about that." Frank Cox, a 70-year-old retired gardener who lives on the fourth floor, has also had his flower box for 10 years. "I can't see why they have suddenly come to the conclusion that it is dangerous," he says.

You challenge such innocent and life-enhancing pastimes at your peril, especially when their roots go as deep as window-box tending. Window boxes came into their own once apartment blocks started going up in the 19th century, and they created an area, albeit a very small one, in which town gardeners could compete on equal terms with their country cousins.

Demographic change, which is seeing more of us living on our own, and in flats, has added to the importance of the window box, Anna Pavord believes. "In terms of the satisfaction derived from connecting with the living world when you're surrounded by concrete, a tiny bit of green makes so much difference," she says.

And as the decking generation of gardeners has grown up, so window boxes have found their place in the sun. At Clifton Nurseries in Maida Vale, west London, window box business is taking off, according to its landscape manager Nick Cornwall. "We'll do about £40,000 worth this summer," he says. "That's a significant amount, and it's growing all the time." Cash-rich, time-poor customers are plentiful, and they will happily spend up to £250 on one well-stocked window box, and £500 or more on one of Clifton's irrigation systems, thus saving them the trouble of even doing the watering.

Window boxes are by no means immune from gardening trends, with nurseries such as Clifton's leading the way in developing a look that goes beyond such stand-bys as petunias and geraniums. "Things have been rather formulaic," Mr Cornwall says. "What we're trying to do is produce window boxes that stand out from the norm." Orchids and strelitzia, for example, mean that "you can walk on the wild side", Mr Cornwall says. Containers, too, are the subject of much debate. There's always terracotta, of course. Metal came into fashion but is now on the wane, as gardeners have returned to wooden boxes.

For Michael Glasspool, a retired eye surgeon from Knockholt in Kent, the window box has helped to pave the way to gardening glory. As chairman of the village's Horticultural Society, he wanted to put the organisation on the map, and entered a window box for the prestigious Hampton Court Flower Show. After three attempts, he won a gold medal this year for a window box that occupied an hour of his time every day for two months. "There's a great deal to it," Mr Glasspool says. So take note, council officials: mess with our window boxes and the gardening gloves will be off!