The Beekman Hill Window Box Contest

by Patti Weisgerber Read author interview March 15, 2004

Friendly competition. That’s what the Beekman Hill Window Box contest was all about. Since the 1950s, this annual contest brightened the brick-faced Federalist, neo-Georgian and Victorian homes on “The Hill” and strengthened the sense of neighborliness among us “Hillers.”

Folks whose front doors were triple-bolted and who considered intercoms adequate for human contact, chit-chatted freely. It was no surprise to overhear reticent Mrs. Van Moorten compliment Mr. Habersham’s morning glories, “How perky they are!” or Tippy Perkins ask Bitsy Burrows (who’d long ago stolen her beau at Winter Promenade) for tips on soil acidity. Practically everyone owning a window entered–-despite the fact the winner was a given.

For the past ten years, the title of Best Window Box had passed alternately between Miriam (Merry) Fairweather and Honey Winthrop-Smythe. These two amateur gardeners possessed a positively inspiring flair for flowers. For example, a few years back, Merry won with her stunning display of heirloom blooms. Well before the trend materialized, she was at the forefront with Zephyranthes grandiflora (pink rain lilies to you and me), a flower popular in the early 1800s but unknown to this 1-800-Flowers age. The sherberty color, lilting fragrance and fullness of bloom was glorious! Merry was much commended on her discovery of this antique blossom (although, didn’t she have a distant cousin at the Beekman Arboretum?).

A newsworthy event, everyone clamored to view this unique flower and the Beekman Hill Gazette ran an article complete with a color photos. (Unheard of!) It didn’t stop there. When the Beekman Hill Historical Society caught wind of the existence of heirloom blooms, they proposed a vote. To reinforce historical integrity, the vote recommended that beginning next spring, only heirloom bulbs commensurate to a home’s architectural era be planted. No more common geraniums, petunias or pansies growing willy-nilly. (Despite the best of intentions, however, the vote never passed.)

The next year, Honey, not to be outdone, won with her display of juniper and bamboo Bonsai. Who’d ever imagined such a thing?! Not only was her choice of flora so unusual, but her window boxes were custom-made to resemble Kokoro country homes with the plants snug under tiny sloping roofs. It was a topic of constant comment. (Rumor was Sakura’s Restaurant supplied Honey with free sushi the whole summer in gratitude for the extra business. It seems hordes of Japanese tourists were informed by local concierges about the Kokoro planters and visited the miniature curiosities to pose for photos. After, their return directions invariably guided them past Sakura’s where they stopped for tea—and Saki, too).

So, this year, The Hill’s anticipation for Merry and Honey’s entries soared. You could cut the excitement with a pair of hedgeclippers. (Truly.) Finally, all was unveiled. Merry chose the English garden route with an amazing variety of miniature roses while Honey created an ode to the American seashore complete with dune grass. (Stunning!) The chatter in Taluca’s Market naturally centered on who would win. And, as judging day came closer, good-natured sportsmanship abounded. Merry complimented Honey, “Practically looks like ‘Sconset Beach” and Honey returned the compliment, “Dear, your roses remind me of the Cotswolds.” It was just as friendly as usual. Until.

Until two days before judging, Merry’s roses had all turned brown. (Such horror!) They’d been over-watered–-an amateur mistake, one Merry would never make (nor her gardener who fastidiously watered on Tuesday and Friday evenings, only after sunset). The tittle-tattle among Taluca’s produce was sabotage. Someone had over-watered them purposefully. Honey was most sympathetic. In a show of esprit de corps, she offered to bow out of the competition. Merry wouldn’t hear of it and wished her the best of luck.

The next morning, however, the sidewalk in front of Honey’s home was strewn with grass clippings as if newly mown. Quite odd since Honey only had a back lawn. Or, odd until you glanced up at the window box and realized they weren’t grass clippings but dune grass clippings. Someone had snipped the long reeds down to crewcut length. Now, Honey’s window box was reminiscent of ‘Sconset Beach after a nasty nor’easter.

The Hillers couldn’t toddle to Taluca’s Market fast enough. “Retribution” was overheard by the butcher’s case. “Jealousy” was commented on in the baked goods aisle. “Repressed primal urges by white-anglo-saxon bourgeois” was the insight provided in the health food section. “A shame,” said Mr. Taluca himself, polishing his apples. “Neither of those talented women will win and the window box competition will change forever. I only hope we all learn something from this.”

And, Mr. Taluca was right. Neither of them did win. They had no qualifying presentations on judging day. Their friendship suffered, too. In fact, Merry soon moved to Boca to be closer to her daughter and Honey stopped entering altogether, channeling her summer energy into an art enclave up at Monhegan Island.

But, I think we all did learn something–-I know, I for one did. I learned the importance of neighbors and how, like in a garden’s ecosystem, we each contribute in our own way. Some folks buzz around with colorfully fuzzy bits and pieces looking for a place to pollinate. Others make the garden pretty, warming their petals in the sun. Still others, like little worms, burrow through thick darkness creating little tunnels deep in the soil where the rain flows to underground streams, which then feed much bigger bodies of crashing water.

Most importantly, however, I learned how much I liked winning first place after having finished third, ten years in a fucking row. (Geraniums are desperately under-rated.)

About the Author:

Patti Weisgerber is a novice writer from New England whose work has appeared in Insolent Rudder, Pindeldyboz.com, Whistling Shade, the-phone-book.com and Flashquake.