When the first impression visitors have of your home is a stark-naked mailbox in a bed of nutgrass, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

True, a mailbox can be a purely functional contraption. A simple black metal box on a pole will get the job done. But for most suburbanites, the mailbox is the first thing guests see when they drive up. It creates that first impression of your home. It can extend a warm, welcoming invitation or give them the cold shoulder. With a mailbox as plain as ours, even the mail carrier was tempted to drive by without stopping. It was time for a makeover.

We began by clearing out the weeds around our old mailbox. Because the area was invaded with nutgrass, we first pulled the weeds, waited a week until the tender new sprouts appeared, and then sprayed them with a nonselective herbicide. We were careful to avoid spraying the existing Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), which was attempting to wind its way up the old mailbox.

Next, we dug around the existing corner bed, expanding it and creating a clean border edge. Then, using a garden fork to turn over the soil, we mixed in a little leaf mold to improve it. It's wise to measure the bed and sketch it out to estimate how many plants can fit in the space. Browsing through some garden magazines and books gave us clues of the plants we wanted. We looked for plants that would blend together well, not require much watering or other maintenance, and not block the view of the street from the driveway.

Ornamental grass makes a nice backdrop, and we liked the maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus') in particular. Because some varieties of maiden grass grow as tall as 9 feet, we were careful to select a smaller variety and use it at the back so it wouldn't dominate the scene or obstruct the view. We decided some type of small evergreen, stepping down in height, would stand out in front of the grasses and give the planting an accent during the winter. For added punch, we placed them in terra-cotta pots.

The existing Carolina jessamine vine climbing the post was a good idea, but because it was struggling to survive, we bought another one. The long blooming season and drought resistance of 'Autumn Joy' sedum also attracted us. It is irresistible to bees, so if you are allergic to bee stings, consider another flowering perennial. We decided that a few 'Little Bunny' dwarf fountain grasses (Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Little Bunny') by the street would harmonize well with the taller maiden grasses at the back. Both grasses are drought resistant, and the tufted plumes look attractive as they emerge in mid-summer and last through winter as dried arrangements. For some color, we left small areas (approximately 2 x 3 feet) on either side of the mailbox for seasonal annuals.

We made another list for hardware. With a plan and a list in hand, we visited a local home-improvement center where we found nearly everything we needed. We also grabbed a rusted metal-and-glass firefly that was on sale. For annuals, we selected drought-resistant Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia), which features small but numerous purple flowers.

The store did not stock the dwarf grasses or specimen evergreens, so our next stop was a specialized landscape nursery that helped us complete our list. When we spied the bright green, relaxed branches of a compact Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Filicoides'), we knew we had found our specimen evergreens. The nursery confirmed that they are slow growing and make good container plants, although they require more watering than our other plants. We also bought a small copper vase as a finishing touch for the front of our post. It was time to head home and begin the real work.

With some difficulty, we pulled out the old, well-anchored mailbox and then cleaned out the hole with a posthole digger. If you select a wooden post as we did, dig deep enough to allow for a few inches of concrete in the bottom of the hole so it will not sit directly on soil. According to U.S. Postal standards, the bottom of your mailbox should be 42 to 48 inches from the road surface. When you have the hole at the proper depth, add a few inches of concrete mix; then set your post in. Gradually add water and concrete mix to create a thick mixture that will support the post. Use a level to check the front and side of the stake to ensure it is not leaning in either direction. If your concrete mix is too wet and the post won't remain vertical, you can nail scrap lumber to it for support until the concrete mix hardens.

Next, we added the copper post cap, brass house numbers, copper tubing, decorative copper vase, and the firefly. The copper tubing is sold in prepackaged coils, so we merely had to unwrap it, stretch it out, and wind it around the post. We then drilled a small hole at the top and nailed it to the top of the post. The bottom simply rests on the ground. With the hardware in place, we turned our attention to the plants.

First, we set the three concrete stepping stones in a semicircle behind the mailbox to use as stable bases for the potted Hinoki false cypresses. Next, we planted the three maiden grasses at the back. Although they were modest in size when restricted to their 3-gallon nursery containers, by late summer they filled out and peeked over the cypresses. Next, we added the jessamine and wound the streamer-like branches up our copper tubing. Three sedums went in the three corners, and the four 'Little Bunny' fountain grasses were staggered between the mailbox and the street. The two unplanted spaces were filled with the annual Mexican heather. We finished up with a 3- to 4-inch layer of pine straw mulch, and then gave all of the plants a thorough watering.

Now, instead of a mailbox that is the scourge of the neighborhood, we have the best dressed mailbox around, if we do say so ourselves.

Shopping List

  • mailbox
  • mailbox post
  • copper post cap
  • 1-inch nails
  • 2 (40-pound) bags of quick-setting concrete mix (If you have a strong back, the 80-pound bag is a better buy.)
  • house numbers (Screws should be included.)
  • soft copper tubing (for a decorative twist)
  • three terra-cotta pots
  • one 2.5 cubic-foot bag of potting soil
  • three 12-inch concrete stepping stones (large enough to support pots)
  • one bale pine straw mulch

Tools You Will Need

  • posthole digger
  • level
  • hammer
  • drill and a 5/64-inch metal drill bit
  • screwdriver

"A Mailbox Makeover" is from the Southern Living Garden Guide 2002.