Our early spring season has been notable for its soaking and relentless rains. Daily rain. As in “don’t go out without your muck boots on” rainy. And “don’t even think of stepping into the garden” rainy. The boxwood pictured above are slated for an early landscape installation. They spent the winter indoors, in the building we use to house equipment and vehicles. By mid-March, those plants needed to come out of storage. The process was not pretty, as you can see. No gardener can tell ahead of time how the season will change from winter to spring. That transition is rarely smooth and easy. Into our second week of daily rain, the ground is simply too wet to work. We have heeled these boxwood in, not knowing when we will be able to begin planting.
These rainy days are gray and dreary. The cold is magnified by all of the water in the air. Bone chilling. I stand on the edges of my garden, knowing it is off limits right now. Stepping on the ground when it is completely saturated with water drives all of the life giving oxygen out of that soil. Compacted soil is unfriendly to any plant that is trying to grow. So how can a gardener garden early on, given these conditions? Plant some pots. The soil in containers drains much more readily than the soil underfoot. The soil of your choice loaded up in a container drains freely. Containers can be readily be planted in the rain, just ask my crews. Containers can furthermore be planted with all manner of seasonal plants that do a great job of tolerating the cold. Our trees are still leafless, and few perennial plant has dared venture forth, but for the hellebores, and the early spring flowering bulbs. What else can help soften the very early spring blues? I would suggest that a worthy preview of the spring season to come might begin with some containers confidently planted with plants that endure in spite of the cold.
These branchy style cut pussy willow stems speak to and echo the spring garden. Pussy willow is a very large growing shrub that blooms very early. If your landscape is not large enough to accommodate this big rangy shrub, the cut branches look terrific in spring containers. The blue preserved and dyed eucalyptus acknowledges that blue color that is so beautiful and reminiscent of our spring. Pansies and violas are entirely cold hardy right out of the flat, provided they have been grown in cold conditions.
We buy pansies and violas that were started from seed last summer. They are over wintered in houses with no heat. They are ready for the April chill. If the temperature threatened to go below 25 overnight I would cover them. If I wanted to protect their blooms from a windy 28 degree night, I would cover them. This seems like a call to plant away to me. Pansies and violas are among some of the most charming, sparkly, and cheery plants that endow our northern tier spring season. I would not do without them.
Planting in cold blustery weather is not my favorite, but I am ready for spring. So I plant anyway. This large container is home to a Turkish hazel tree – corylus corlurna. It survived the winter in this container, and threw out scads of long pink catkins a week ago. Bravo! We planted the ground level soil with an overall mix of blue and purple/blue bicolor pansies and white alyssum. In several weeks, when the filbert tree leafs out, this container planting will sing spring.
Have you ever seen a spike bloom? Me neither. This particular spike was planted in this client’s container last summer. I wintered the plant over in a greenhouse. I was faint with surprise when we went to pick up that spike for her spring garden. Planted in this container, there is an incredibly beautiful and fragrant bloom spike that takes all of the visual attention away from a landscape that has not yet emerged. The pale lavender pansies will grow and spill over the edges. Are spikes cold tolerant? Utterly.
This is a favorite spring container, just planted a few days ago. The fat and fuzzy cut pussy willow branches preside over all. A cream/green preserved eucalyptus provides some mid level interest, and subtle color. The box is stuffed full of a white pansy with a purple blotch, beautifully grown and just about ready to come in to bloom. The spring gardening season is all about hope, delight, and renewal. The garden coming to life again – what could be better? The very early spring container planting season gives any gardener a chance to whoop up the coming of spring. I like how this spring container addresses that moment.
This big container features pansies, alyssum, and lettuce underneath a centerpiece of cut pussy willow and tiger branches. Lettuce is a chilly weather vegetable, but it will wither in extreme cold. Pots planted with lettuce now will need to be covered when the night temperatures go low. I suspect the same is true for myrtle topiaries. I will confess that I have a habit of pushing the limits of plants to tolerate cold in our early spring. But my best friend in the early spring is floating row cover. Vegetable gardeners cover their early transplants with this non woven fabric to protect them from the cold. I use it to protect my early spring container plantings facing a fiercely cold night. Floating row cover keeps the temperature underneath that cover 10 degrees higher than the air temperature.
What plants tolerate a cold container environment? Pansies and violas, for sure. Dusty miller. Spikes. Alyssum. Chicago figs. Rosemary and lavender, cold grown. Ivy will take some cold. Chard, parsley, chervil and thyme shrug off the cold. Early spring flowering bulbs are great in containers. Think daffodils. Hellebores are so beautiful in early spring pots. Once that spring pot fades, those hellebores can be transplanted into the garden. Osteos. Marguerites. Interested in planting early spring containers? Try everything. There will be some successes, and some failures. Any gardener can handle and be energized by these odds.
My 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Yesterday 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.
We 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.
It 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.
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.
You 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.
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.
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.