Planting Container Gardens for Spring

spring container gardensYesterday morning dawned very windy, very rainy, and very cold. This is entirely normal for Michigan in mid-May.  What gardener is surprised by this?  All of us. Once Mother’s Day comes and goes, all of us expect that the time to plant summer containers is nigh.  Nothing could be further from the reality.  Spring in Michigan lasts for 3 months-the same length as any other season. Detroit Garden Works does have plants available now – as in cold tolerant, road ready for a spring container, plants. Cold sensitive summer plants – those are best kept in the greenhouse where they are being grown until the night temperatures are reliably above 50 degrees. . We have planted lots of pots for the shop in the past month, but all of those plants are adaptable to chilly spring conditions.

May 6, 2015 025We had lots of people come in yesterday, in spite of the pouring rain and cold. Our Amanda spent half the day scheming with Rob about how to protect our plants from the predicted overnight low of 32 degrees.  Gardeners of every persuasion, dressed in fleeces, rain jackets, sweaters, knee high rain boots and warm hats were asking in one way or another about when to plant for summer. I gave the same answer that I always give.  not now; not yet.

spring container gardensIt is fine to plant containers for spring now. It has been fine since late March. A late March planted container will thrive until the beginning of July. March, April and May are spring months in Michigan. Only cold tolerant plants thrive in containers during the spring season. Our  summer season opens in June, and goes through August. Would that I could convince more northern zone gardeners to celebrate the spring with lots of spring flowering bulbs and cold tolerant container plants. We hold a spring fair every year, with exactly that purpose in mind. There is so much about the spring season to enjoy. Experiencing the process of the landscape and garden waking up in spring is an extraordinarily beautiful phase.

DSC_5433 We planted lots of containers with daffodils this past fall.  From the moment the leaves broke ground until the blooms began to open was over 6 weeks ago. Watching those bulbs break dormancy  is an experience of the spring season that is not to be missed. A container planted with spring flowering bulbs provides a visual short course in how the seasons change from winter to spring. Some foliage that emerged early was damaged during a run of very cold nights in late March. The flower buds were unharmed, as they came later. Our cold persisted throughout April, and now in to May. Those normal chilly temperatures are a luxury. All the spring flowers going into nature’s cooler at night means they are available to enjoy over the longest possible period of time.

potted daffodilsYou may think the spring arrives overnight, and vanishes within a few days. This is not the case. The trouble and expense of planting containers for spring will be rewarded with a whole season’s worth of pleasure.  We do not force our daffodils.  We pot them up, and winter them in our unheated garage.  As soon as the temperatures warm a bit in March, we move them outside.  The fact that the bulbs are not forced into bloom outside of their normal season means they can be planted out in the garden, where they will bloom at the normal time next year.

potted daffodils It is not a good idea to plant for summer just yet. There are so many good options for spring one hardly knows where to begin.  In the garden, the hellebores and spring flowering bulbs have been in bloom for weeks.  The scilla hyacinthoides and camassia are coming on.  The sweet woodruff, and loads of spring wildflowers are in bloom. The Virginia bluebells are particularly good this year. The magnolias are still holding on, and the crabapples are still coming on. The American dogwoods are in full bloom. My clematis have been growing steadily, and are budding up.  A dense patch of ornithogalum is in bloom. The fern fronds are uncurling, and the hostas spikes roll out new leaves every day.  The fresh leaves on the Princeton Gold maples are the most intense shade of chartreuse imaginable. So much spring around us!  There is something new to see every day.  These are not the dog days of summer. These are the emerging days. Some containers to compliment the spring season-a natural.

Mother's Day flowers (7)Is it fine to plant containers for summer right now?  No, it is not. Spring is not the time to plant for summer. Summer annuals look out of place now, as they are not yet in season. Nor will they do well. Tropical plants set out into cold soil and air temperatures may be set back for for a long time from cold shock. Your local greenhouse can easily reach 80 degrees on better on a sunny day. Plants that thrive at 80 degrees do not want to be outside now.  If you made no plans to plant a few containers for spring, it is not too late. What you plant today will be great looking into July.

spring lettuceThe spring is a great season for container planting.


Planting In March


I know I made much this past week about planting a more beautifully designed hanging basket.  The challenge was such, I have the troubled dreams to prove it.  All of the notes I made this past summer inexplicably disappeared.  The lesson here-any idea, phrase, phone number, concept or design that you really need-write it down, and insure its safekeeping.  Notes and notebooks, scrapbooks, file folders, magazine clippings-all of these are a good idea.  Some ideas occur way ahead of their time.  Keeping them written down, visually documented, and readily available is the best backup to insure that what is close to you heart gets a hearing when the time is right.  Well, the time isn’t really right yet, but I was ready anyway. 


I wanted to be past the dreams stage.  It was time to put my show on the road. I drove out to Bogie Lake Greenhouse yesterday with Pam, and some containers in tow.  I had an idea to plant some 50 containers for spring, in addition to the hanging baskets of my dreams.  Ambitious, yes.  But the big fact of the matter is, as Coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  My big ideas got a dressing down.  I am used to planting at the shop; I have already sorted through everything that Mark has available, and have at hand the plants that strike my fancy.  This is a highly edited version of his greenhouse.  Many of them are in color by the time I get them-I rarely buy plants from a list-I buy what I see, and like. Pam got right to work-she had all of the containers filled in no time.  I was cruising the greenhouse with Mark, when reality began to sink in.    

Spring plants in mid March are  tiny green blobs-a few roots, and not much leaf to speak of on top.  I faced an ocean of violas and pansies-all green.  They are just where they need to be, perfectly timed-to be perfect in a month.  I don’t know about you, but  great color combinations in spring pots can be tough to achieve.  The blues, lavenders, violets and red violets in pansies don’t always go together.  Red violet pansies look great with red ornamental kale-dark purple pansies go blah.  It became apparent that I would need to rely on my memory of color, my memory of the colors in the various mixes-or the notes that I could not find.  If I was thinking I would have mature plants in  color from which I could design-I thought wrong.

You can see from this picture that all of the purple in question has a decidedly red-violet cast.  Do I know the names of these pansy and viola cultivars-no.  Even when I did manage to match a cultivar name to a picture in a seed catalogue, I did not feel one bit better.  Color pictures in a catalogue may give a feeling for a color-or not.   

The purple is this bicolor pansy is not at all red violet.  It has a heliotrope blue cast, to my eye.  Red-violet alyssum in this pot would make me wince.  Citron alyssum, which has a decidedly cream yellow cast, would have worked better than the white alyssum you see here.   

So I did what I could-all of the schemes came from my head and memory. Pam planted pairs of pots with a variety of spring annuals including pansies, violas, phlox, angelina, osterospermums and so on-and we’ll find out later if I can design in the dark.  I didn’t even approach the hanging basket planting project-I see I have to plan them on paper.  The time to plan combinations is at the height of the season-when color, texture and mature size is all right there to be seen.   

I have new resolve to photograph all of the flower cultivars I like to use-from the start of the season to the close.  I will have then a catalogue of my own making, so I can plant green, if need me.  We’ll see how far I get with that.

Though these baskets are lush and well-grown, I have something different in mind.  To that end, I’ll spend some time planning, before I plant.

Planting Those Pots For Spring

My last post dealt with how I prep a pot for planting. I am sure other people have methods that work just as well for them.  As I plant lots of pots, I need a method that works well in general, and specifically in consideration that the maintenance will be handed off to someone else. When deciding what to put in a pot, I have my list of questions.  Is growing plants your most favorite thing to do, after your children, or breathing?  Do you have a stack of responsibilities that makes a low maintenance planting a plus?  Are you watering on the fly, or do you make time to individually water plants in a given container? Do you like big bouquet plantings that look like a Dutch flower painting?  Does the farm and garden look appeal-or something much more crisply contemporary?  How do you like your color? I planted the middle Anamese pot first with a 1.5 gallon rosemary-in recognition of that muddy blue green color at the bottom of the pot.  Some small green kale with purple veins repeat that blue/green, but are a great textural foil to the needled rosemary.  Hot pink annual phlox and orange pansies make for a friendly color combination that reminds me of vegetable rows altenating with marigolds.  I paid much attention to that pot’s color-what would harmonize, and what would pop, in a casual way. The loose planting is a great contrast to the simple shape of the pot.  The large pot presented another challenge.       

Large pots demand a planting in proportion to that size. Either the plants need to grow up into the pot, or something of scale needs doing from the beginning.  Our spring season is short, and cool-not so much growing goes on.  For that reason I like branches, even faux material, that will give the planting some presence from the beginning.  The curly willow branches remind me of the color of the glaze; some faux fern curls and pea-green stems brighten the willow branches, and add substance and heft to the centerpiece.  

The tips of the willow have the slightest suggestion of orange-as do those fern curls.    I took apart an orange grass pick; some faux material can have a much better and more subtle appearance if you spread it around. Taking materials apart, and putting them back together in your own way-I invite you to do this.  Using unexpected materials-why not?  The yellow pansies and angelina will grow.  Up close to the eye, the willow and spring plants will get your attention.  From a distance, you will see a larger overall form more than the individual elements.  

The little Anamese pot-I planted with black willow, and Easter Egg mix alyssum.  A simple vertical element in contrast to a low wide mass-a simple and elegant arrangement.  This small pot is planted with material that grows in proportion to the scale of the pot.  As I write this, I am wondering how a large scaled plant would look in this pot; knowing the rules is what makes it possible to break them with great style.    

The three pots are quite different in feeling, but fairly harmonious in color.  They will come on in no time, should we have night temperatures well above freezing.  Once established, they will handle the Michigan spring with ease.  The palette of available plants that tolerate cold may not be so great in my zone, but planting what I do have in a series of glazed pots celebrates spring in fine fashion.

How interesting would it be to see how a group of gardeners would interpret a planting for these pots. I am sure every one would be different-based on who they are, where they garden, and what about plants move them.  Pots of lovely shape and complex color would give any planting, in any zone, a big head start.