First impressions may be wrong, but they are always right for that moment. Most of us living in suburban neighborhoods pass our mailboxes several times a day. We put in our outgoing mail and take out our incoming mail. Each car that passes sees it; kids hit it with their balls; and you paint it to match your house. So why not plant around it? Your mailbox is most likely the first thing a passerby or visitor will see, so make it the best you can. The mailbox is an American icon and a perfect space for a dedicated garden.
The postal service has rules on the placement of the mailbox (the height and distance from curb), but their main interests are inside the box and getting access to it, leaving us gardeners an opportunity to create—one that should not be missed. The mailbox goes a long way toward setting the tone of your property, and yet they are often not given much thought. To a degree, you can think of mailboxes as garden art.
My mailbox is so unique—a tall, black, rustic monolith—that visitors often first see it as art before they realize it’s just the mailbox. I must assume it’s because most people who know me already know that I like garden art, so assumptions are made. Admittedly, it is an interesting mailbox. And the box doesn’t stand alone; it’s surrounded by a garden. But I’ve always been a gardening opportunist. In my garden, the mailbox has become an attractive focal point with a dedicated garden design.
If your mailbox came with the house and cannot be changed for reasons such as homeowner association rules, consider making it unique with clever plantings. In determining the size of a mailbox garden, match the dimensions of the planting bed to the height of the mailbox. Imagine the mailbox lying down on the ground. The garden bed should stay within the box’s reach, more or less, but not be less than three-fourths of the overall height of the mailbox. This will keep the garden bed in good proportion to the mailbox.
The planting design can follow personal tastes, but some basics are good to know. In general, the plants around the post should blend into the landscape, balancing the plants with the size of the bed. You don’t want to plant something that would overpower the mailbox or obstruct it any anyway.
The area around the base of the post (called the junction) should be softened with low evergreen mounding plantings, such as a dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’). If you’d like a little more height, use O. japonicus. Liriope is so overdone; you won’t find me suggesting it.
From here, add height and texture by introducing a vertical element to counterbalance the height of the mailbox. A clump of grass, iris, or even a canna would be appropriate as a vertical plant. Then you can layer plantings around the post with different textures and diversity to draw the eye in.
Much too often, gardeners add climbers to their mailbox, overpowering its small size—or worse, attracting stinging insects. We want to stay on the good side of the postal worker, so let’s show a little respect. If it seems adding a vine to the mailbox is obvious, think again. If you do add a vine, look for cultivars that grow no more than three or four feet tall, or be prepared to pinch back with each visit to your mailbox. Even if you are vigilant, vines can get away from you.
A distinctive mailbox will differentiate you from your neighbors, offering a glimpse of your individual taste and style. There are many distinctive mailboxes available to choose from, and you’ll enjoy passing by your mailbox and garden each day when they both display your personality.
My mailbox goes beyond a box to insert mail. The monolithic shape of my mailbox was already unique enough, but it allowed me also to add a sign that reads, “A water-wise garden watered with harvested rain.” It lets me tell you a lot about who I am as a gardener.
In the movie The Color Purple, many scenes and angles are filmed around the mailbox as Celie hopes each day to get a letter from from her estranged sister. The box sits on a post made from twisted wood, maybe even a root of some sort. It is distinctive, albeit gnarled, paired with an otherwise pleasant-looking home. The mailbox suggests there is deeper meaning in the story as you consider why the post and mailbox are so different in style from the house.
Over the years, I’ve taken hundreds of photos of mailboxes. I have no actual fascination for mailboxes in general, but when I scout gardens for magazines, the first photo I take is the number on the box to remind me of the address. As I went through the scouting photos, I began to pay attention to mailboxes, although I never really thought or cared about them.
After I got to know the gardens and their caregivers, I could begin to match personalities with their mailboxes. The most charming gardening personalities had a twist to their mailbox and surrounding gardens—antique pedestals, unusual planters, or metal sculptures. These mailboxes had something about them as unique as the gardener—the first impression of good things to come.