Pity me, the jaded aesthete. Tired of contemporary art, unfulfilled by DVDs, computers, and cell phones, oppressed by New York’s man-made environment, I crave novelty but am forever disappointed. A few years ago, tired of everything, I wondered, What would be a relief from this ennui? Flowers, came the answer. Not the usual little numbers one sees in every window box—though at first, I thought it would be funny to grow the Ur-cliché flower, red geraniums. (Too David Lynch, I decided. Kitsch is old. Rapture would be new.) I wanted provocative blooms that would challenge the city’s harsh atmosphere and suffocating space.
Like most other apartment-dwellers, I have no room and knew nothing about planting when I started. But I bought some books (From Seed to Bloom, by Eileen Powell, is a good primer; so is Park’s Success With Seeds, by Ann Reilly, out-of-print but available used) and found lightweight window boxes and nail-free racks to hang them in. Once I’d added a few big planters on the fire escape, I had acreage.
At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I discovered the seductive seed packets of Thompson & Morgan, a 150-year-old British horticulture company. The Miuccia Prada of the flower world, T&M every year brings forth over-the-top hybrids, exquisite to the point of decadence. My hands passionately clutched lipstick-red-tipped white Bellis Habanera and glowing-orange, man-in-the-moon Calendula Radio Extra-Selected. These weren’t merely exotic—they were floral femmes fatales.
Last year, on the south side of my building, I planted morning glories. They twined up the fire escape; Heavenly Blue bloomed at sunrise, Moonflower at sunset. I stuck a trellis in one of the window boxes, and by midsummer, Cardinal Climber had grown into a jungly-green, scarlet-dotted shade. In the north-facing boxes, I planted dainty Nemophila: Snowstorm (tiny dark spots on white petals), Five-Spot (a big dot on each petal), and Pennie Black (truly black, with white edges). None of these is available as a plant, only as seed; but they’re easy to grow and deceptively tough. They were all so beautiful I spent half the summer running from one window to another to gape at them.
This spring, I’m trying T&M’s jolie-laide green Envy pansy, and—fresh from the garden lab—its new sunflower (“exquisite chocolate-brown with a gorgeous metallic sheen”), Thunbergia Salmon Shades and Phlox Crème Brûlée.
The outsides of New York apartment buildings, a few floors up or higher, have a particular climate: hot, sunny, and windy, like a desert. Dahlberg daisy is perfect for it. Its lacy foliage keeps spreading and popping out blossoms all summer, and it’s drought-tolerant, so you won’t come home from a weekend away to find it dead. Portulaca is good, too: These intensely colored flowers spring from succulent foliage that keeps them from drying out.
Plants have a few rules. Transplant after the “last frost date” (inexact, but you should be safe by mid-April for most plants and mid-May for more tender varieties). Attend to their water needs; too much or too little will kill them. Roots need drainage or they’ll drown.
Seeds are cheap, so sow extravagantly to increase your odds (plants that die, or don’t grow, are a given). Ignore the spacing suggestions on the seed packet. You want plants to burst out in profusion, so crowd them together in their container and let nature sort things out. That sets the scene for the operatic jungle that follows.