More Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Spring flowersPlanting containers for spring is a great idea. To follow are some of my favorites.

spring container plantings

stock and alyssum

favorite spring pots

bok choy in containers

May containers

lavender in a basket

chard and pansies

 spring pots

spring trough

small spring containers

a bucket full of spring flowers

favorite spring pots

baskets and tubs 005

persian queen geranium and lobeliaMy recommendation for containers this 17th of May in Michigan?  Do not be thinking coleus, New Guinea impatiens, begonias, licorice in any of its forms, sweet potato vine, cannas – the list of summer container tropical that do not tolerate cold soil is long. Annual plants that are greenhouse grown for summer containers will not like our cold soil, or the cold air.  Refrain from planting these cold sensitive plants until the soil and the air temperatures warm up. Containers planted with spring and cold tolerant plants deliver every bit of three months, and will happily accompany your spring garden coming on. Choose to be in real time. The choices are many.

spring container in mid MayThe tropical annuals that are greenhouse grown for summer containers are living in a warm world right now. Everything regarding their culture is right as rain.  They have great soil. They have been fertilized. They are growing in a warm environment. Their place on a greenhouse bench is an ideal world. A greenhouse, on a sunny day in March, gets very warm, as in upwards of 80 degrees.  Those sunny days in April push those plants with tropical origins into very active growth.  A greenhouse crop of container plants is usually available for purchase way ahead of predictably warm weather outdoors. The transition from a hot house to your garden can be a huge shock to those plants. If you do not have a glass house to protect annual topical plants from the late spring Michigan weather, focus on what the spring has to offer.

viola potI understand the idea to shop now. Every serious gardener wants to purchase the best from a big collection. I would only suggest that your awesome early picks need to be, at the very least, housed in the garage until the night temperatures are reliably over 50 degrees. It can be heartbreaking, getting ahead of the weather.  At this moment, I am trying to stay focused on all thing spring.

Early Spring Planting

April 19, 2014 (2)Planting containers for early spring has its pleasures and its pitfalls.  The overriding concern is always the cold.  We planted containers for a client in downtown Detroit Thursday and Friday of last week-a dicey move, considering the overnight temperatures were very cold.  One night-22 degrees.  How to best avoid cold damage in early spring is to be sure you are using plants that have had the opportunity to become accustomed to, or the inclination to tolerate the cold.

April 19, 2014 (8)Very few plants thrive in cold weather.  That does not mean that they will not adapt and tolerate it.  This project was planted solely with plants that had been sown and grown to a good size last fall, prior to being wintered in a cold but not freezing house.  The pansies had had months to become accustomed to cooler conditions.  Placing them outdoors in cold April weather did not send them into shock.

April 19, 2014 (31)Gardeners who start their own vegetables from seed indoors know that those seedlings need to be hardened off before placement in the garden.  Hardening off is a process of exposing seedlings to the reality of seasonal weather, a little bit at a time.  A few hours a day in a shady place, then the day outdoors in the sun.  Then a planting in the garden.  Early vegetables that are sown directly in the garden do not experience transplant shock.  Pea seeds can be sown when the soil is workable, and the soil temperature is 45.  However, peas that that has been germinated or grown in a warm greenhouse will react poorly to a drastic change in environment.  Easy does it.

April 19, 2014 (22)The same would be true for spring flowering perennials.  Some growers  winter their plants in tunnel houses with no heat, so they are subject to the same cold conditions as perennials already planted in the garden.  Other growers pot up bare root perennials in early spring, and bring them on in a warm greenhouse. A hothouse grown perennial may react poorly to being put outside without a hardening off period.  Forced pots of hyacinths need some limited exposure  to the elements before they are placed in a spring container.

April 19, 2014 (27)Lime leaved heucheras do not have much tolerance for cold.  The leaves will bleach, and go limp.  However the heuchera Creme Brulee  seems to shrug off the cold.  I have had angelina survive the winter in a small pot I had forgotten to get in the ground.  But moved outdoors from a warm greenhouse to a cold garden will cause the needles to color up orange and red.  This not so spring like look results from the plant’s inability to absorb potassium from the soil, due to cold.  If your zonal geraniums have red tinged leaves, they are out in the garden too early.

April 19, 2014 (24)There are plenty of plants that can handle the transitional season known as spring.  And having good success with them becomes easier if the plants have been properly hardened off.  The hellebores we had in our greenhouse in March were kept at just below 50 degrees overnight.  Once the season moderated, we moved them outdoors on carts for the warmest part of the day.  When we moved them outdoors for good, we placed them underneath our benches, in the shade.  Even a sunny greenhouse is not near the light intensity of a full sun location outdoors.  Plants exposed to the sun too abruptly can be scorched by sun and wind.

April 19, 2014 (17)Any plant that is already outside at a nursery is good to go for a spring container.  Small spring flowering shrubs are great in containers, and provide some scale.  Twigs and dry or preserved materials can add some heft and presence.  Perennials that look good in spring containers include hens and chicks, lady’s mantle, brunnera, columbines, coral bells, angelina, lavender and hellebores.  Spring vegetables and herbs such as peas, lettuce, cabbages and kales, bok choy and chard, rosemary and parsley, look great in pots.  Pansies, violas, ivy, sweet peas, alyssum, and fuchsia can provide so much color and fragrance.  If in doubt, harden off.

April 19, 2014 (15)My summer pots usually go on long into the fall.  They have the opportunity to get accustomed to the coming of the cold over a long period of time.  Petunias, verbenas, million bells, creeping jenny will look great until frost, having been planted in late May.  If you want to plant them in the spring, give them some time to adjust to the outdoors before planting.  Some gardeners cover their spring plantings for a week or so with floating row cover.

April 19, 2014 (14)A quick introduction to weather that is too cold can set some plants back such that their growth is stunted.  Some never recover.  Much better to celebrate each season, in season.



At A Glance: First Signs

last rose of summer

pumpkin “Long Island Cheese”

ornamental kale 

pumpkin in the gourd patch 

fall container planting


gourds and pumpkins

ornamental kale


fall container materials

carving pumpkins

broom corn

twig pumpkins


fall pots




Fabulous For Fall


I think my summer may be over.  Though Buck and I are still cruising the garden every night, we have broken out the fleeces, and jackets.  As loathe as I am to give up my summer, the fall season has its charms.  I had best get ready to be charmed-the fall is here.  I am so happy that my local nurseries have seen to supplying replacement plants for those tired spots in my containers.  The petunias are fading fast, and the leaves of the coleus have thinned, and lost color.  Luckily lots of plants are very tolerant of cold-and they are ready to step in wherever you have gaps.

My favorites are the ornamental kale and cabbages.  Available in white, pink, or red, they do not begin to color up until the night temperatures drop.  Cabbage have the big wavy leaves; kale leaves are frilly and lacy.  Both do well and grow until there is a truly hard frost.  An ornamental cabbage grown in a one gallon pot has a huge rosette of leaves, and a relatively small rootball. 

 Just a few of these plants go a very long way.  I love how tolerant they are of a deep planting-I set them at whatever level I want in a container.  I tip the faces forward, so I can see into those rosettes.  They do not mind in the least the back side of their rootball set above grade.  The color and texture is moody and jewel-like-perfect for fall.  Their very thick leaves are very weather resistant -at least that is my theory. 

Persian Queen geraniums that have been in containers over the summer will go on representing well into the fall.  Given that their chartreuse leaves are their big attraction, fewer fall flowers matters not.  Other summer container plants that do well through the fall-vinca maculatum is one of the best.  These long trailing plants are not in the least bit fazed by cold.  Nicotianas can revive and soldier on with the advent of cold weather.  My nicotiana mutabilis is sending out new shoots, and growing like crazy right now. 

If you need your container plantings to thrive on through the fall, choose carefully in the spring.  Impatiens of any sort, and coleus will collapse into a heap of mush given a short string of cold nights.  Tropical plants need to be brought in ahead of any really cold nights.  Trailing verbena is amazingly cold tolerant, as are nasturtiums, dahlias, and ornamental grasses.  But in the event that your containers are full of plants that have little love for cold, you still have choices.   Pansies reappear in the fall-they really do thrive in cooler weather.  The Clear Sky series is actually quite perennial.  Plant them in early fall-they will reward you all fall, and on into the spring to come.Their cheery faces look great in fall containers-try a few.

For years I rolled my eyes whenever I saw a sign for fall mums.  They have a form completely unlike garden chrysanthemums-they are trimmed to within an inch of their lives until it is time for them to set buds.  Mum balls, I call them.  Garden grown mums have a much more natural appearance.  Why I ever had the need to make a comparison, I do not know.  Mums grown for fall planting are just that-fall plants for containers.  I love the giant balls that have been perfectly trimmed all summer.  Thinking of planting on in a pot now?  Pick a plant that is budded up-no flowers.  Once those budded plants are in your containers, you have all fall to watch them develop, and bloom.

Gourds, pumpkins and the like-I am starting to see those shapes and colors at market.  Fall colors are like no other.  A pot full of gourds with sme left over creeping jenny from the summer is a good look.  It will be late Novemeber before I start my winter plantings-that is two months from now.  Too long to have nothing to look at near the front door. 


Bare branches-I have no objection to them in fall pots.  Every shrub and tree reveals a beautiful branch structure, once the leaves fall.  The structure of a garden is never more clear.  Subtract the flowers and the leaves-a gardener is faced with the bones.  I design with the bones in mind. Bare bones-I like that look.  There are enough cold tolerant plants, gourds, pumpkins and squash- and enough bones to make a festival of fall.