Cultivating Your Home's First Impression

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 28, 2009

When Alex Dencker, manager of Behnke Garden Center in Beltsville, put his red brick colonial in Silver Spring on the market late last summer, his window boxes exploded with crotons, creeping Jenny and New Guinea impatiens in blazing shades of red, orange and yellow.

Talk about curb appeal.

"My real estate lady focused on this -- I thought she was nuts, but it really worked out. When people see your house for the first time, you have to make that bold first impression," he said, sounding thoroughly indoctrinated.

It paid off. The house sold in two weeks.

"Window boxes create a good impression from the start," said Dencker's agent, Tamara Kucik of W.C. and A.N. Miller's Silver Spring office. "When the buyer goes in the home, they're already excited."

Those "bland Colonials and Capes," so ubiquitous in the Washington area, are particularly needy candidates, she said. "Window boxes add an architectural element to the front of the house. ... It's a very simple way to add color." And the bigger the box, the better: "You have to have something that really catches the eye."

Window boxes are big sellers at Behnke, which carries them in wood, terra cotta, plastic, and composites that are lightweight, sturdy and cleverly mimic more elegant materials. Once they're filled and watered, Dencker cautioned, even lightweight boxes become lethally heavy, so make sure they're securely attached to the building or porch railing.

Starting a box to show well in early spring is tricky, but doable. Make sure whatever you select can survive frost: The average last frost date in the city is April 25, in the suburbs it's May 5.

"Generally, if plants are grown in a cold greenhouse, they will probably be fine planted out now," Dencker said. Behnke and other large garden centers in the area that raise their own plants have plenty of specimens to choose from. Loosestrife, coral bells and pansies "can take the cold with no problem," he said. Tuck in some English ivy and you have a splendid spring box.

"You can also do dried flowers, though I'd stay away from artificial plants," said horticulturist Karen Richards, who with her sisters, Donna and Cheryl, had a prize winner at this year's Philadelphia Flower Show, the world's largest indoor display.

"Cockscomb dries very well," she said. "Mix it with cattails and some small grasses for a fountain effect -- red fescue is drought tolerant -- and sunflowers. Oh, those nice sunny little faces with the purpley cockscomb," she added, in happy thought.

That combination of dried and real plants has an additional advantage for the harried -- or absentee -- home seller: It's a dramatic effect that requires little maintenance.

As the weather warms, and the pansies begin to grow leggy and fizzle, the replacement choices include reliably cheerful geraniums, petunias and impatiens, as well as anything that might grow in or ornament a box; Richard and her sisters included a tipsy martini glass in their flower show display.

Dencker is partial to tropicals. "Hibiscus and croton, with its broad striped leaves in orange and yellow, make a big, dramatic statement," he said, but don't dare plant them out until the temperature is reliably above 50 degrees.

He also likes the mosquito plant, which is "actually a geranium. Though the flowers are insignificant, it's bushy and has a nice lemony scent."

The balcony-size box that the Richards sisters created for the flower show featured such a profusion of flowers and greenery that it caused the knees to wilt: orchids, African violets, African daisies, two kinds of ivy, and a towering ficus anchoring the right corner.

Yes, you can try it at home. "Just keep in mind," Karen Richards cautioned, "if you're overloading the boxes, they take more maintenance. But you're selling, and you want that eye-popping color."

Dencker and Richards stress symmetry, balance and variety: making sure that you incorporate taller plants among the bushy ones and adding flowers or vines that cascade over the front of the box as well.

For a fast waterfall effect, "potato vines and hyacinth beans grow like crazy," Dencker said. And yellow creeping Jenny, "is a two-foot-long chain of gold by midsummer."

For height, consider adding a support and training those trailing vines upward. Or, as Dencker suggested, add dracaena spikes, which poke up like exclamation points among the bushier plantings.

"The outside of your home tends to be the last thing you work on," said Kucik, the real estate agent. "But it tells the buyer that you put in the time and the effort -- and that the inside will be fabulous."

Window boxes have a particularly powerful subliminal effect. "Not a lot of houses have them," she said. "So if you do, it tells people you've taken care of all the details. That you cherish your home."

Might they also distract from a trouble spot or two?

"Yes," she added, ever so delicately. "Giving them something nice to look at would mask a few flaws."

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