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.



  1. Jude Irwin says

    HI. I enjoyed this. Spring was similarly late here in Poetugal and we have only had 1.5 fine days (including today). I mean it has been COLD and extremely rainy – monsoonal downpours like what I used to see in India but not warm! So. We are all suffering ‘abnornal’ weather which will become increasingly the norm with accelerating global warming. Stand by, ready to don your buffalo robes and bearskins, cave dwellers! I think the following was meant to mention “sweet woodruff” – unless there is a jazz quartet in the garden. “The sweet woodriff, and loads of spring wildflowers are in bloom.” Write on.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jude, I corrected the spelling-thank you. As for us, this is completely normal and ordinary May weather. Nothing new here. best, Deborah

  2. Now if we could just convince our clients who are chomping at the bit to get going! I am in Toronto, and watched the ice pellets try to take down my bellis this morning. No luck 🙂

    • Sheila Schultz says

      Thank you Deborah for reinforcing the need to be patient when planting tender plants. My clients in Denver keep hearing that Mother’s Day is planting day… it has snowed the last two, and we are jumping from 45 to 80 during the week. You are right, what’s the rush? There’s a lot of beauty that can withstand temp extremes this time of year, time to take a deep breath and enjoy the possibilities!

  3. The thing I really enjoy about your container planting narratives is that they inspire me to get out of my house early on a Sunday morning and send me straight out to the local gardening center. Our toasty desert climate demands different plants, but your use of various design elements — color, texture, height, containers etc. — translate to any environment.

    As always, thanks for the inspiration!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Thank you, Terry. It means a lot, as you have been reading for very long time. all the best, Deborah

  4. nella davis ray says

    Thanks so much for the gentle reminder. Last night I stuck 8 flats of begonias in the garage that I was hoping to plant today. This morning at 7 I saw snowflakes falling. The flats are still in the garage.

  5. A friend told me to check my Knock-out roses for worms since she found them on hers. It felt odd gardening and sweeping the deck while it was blowing snow. I heard a lawn mower so I was not the only one outside trying to carry on.

  6. Your containers are amazing! I would like to try spring bulbs for containers next year. How closely do you plant the bulbs? Yours look like there is very little soil, except underneath. Is that right? Thanks for your inspiration!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sharon, we do plant thew bulbs close together, but they are buried in the soil. best, Deborah

  7. JIm Jonker says

    Hi Deborah,
    Well-said, as usual. I enjoy my spring pots immensely, beginning as early as the first of March. My problem comes in early June, when I am anxious to get my summer stuff going, and I have to discard/recycle my pansies, etc. which are just hitting their stride: filled in and blooming like crazy. Some, I enjoy for several weeks more on the top of my compost pile.

  8. Jane Baldwin says

    what is the white daff in the basket? It looks like Horn of plenty, with the double blooms on several stems. I am in Chagrin Falls. east of Cleveland. and hope to visit your wonderful place of business sometime this fall when I also go to Old House garden to pick up my bulb order there. I have had great luck growing my bulbs in the baskets and pots and then putting them out in the garden. Highly decorative and therefore highly recommended. Easy also.

  9. Angeline says

    Thank you for the reminder to slow down! I have been working like mad to get ready for summer. There is so much to do to prep the vegetable garden (tilling, hardening off of seedlings, etc) on top of determining what can be done to the landscape this year. Of course, I want to do it all, at once! 🙂

    Best wishes,
    The “Hori-Hori” girl

  10. Thank you for your continued advice and reminders. Help please, I had purchased a very nice assortment of unusual daffodils from the store at your holiday sale in the late fall. Unfortunately, life prevented me from getting them in the ground before the ground froze. Not sure what to do with them now. I assumed forcing them wouldn’t be good for replanting in the garden. Can you please advise how best to treat these bulbs now so as not to loose them, if possible?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Linda, I am sorry but you will have to pitch those bulbs. I wish it weren’t so. best, Deborah

    • Jane Baldwin says

      Linda, if the bulbs did not freeze and are not soft and squishy you should plant them asap. They may take a season or two to gather enough energy to bloom but give it a try. If they are soft and squishy, I agree with Deborah and pitch them.

  11. Visiting your website for the first time. Love it, will be in soon to shop

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