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Spring Container Garden Tips

There is nothing like a colorful spring container to brighten the garden.

Every year on May first, home and business owners in Annapolis, Maryland create May baskets in an official celebration of May Day.  The May baskets, which appear on porches, stoops, and front sidewalks, are judged and prizes are awarded, but every basket shouts “Spring.”

As temperatures warm up, we all want to shout “Spring,” and there is no better way to do so than to fill containers with exuberant blooms and greenery.  You don’t have to wait until May Day either.

Pick a Pot

Invest in well-made containers that make you happy!

Choose containers in sizes, shapes, and colors that make you happy. Your “basket” doesn’t have to be a basket, though wicker and woven containers have a spring-like lightness.  Single large planters provide drama, while a cluster of small to mid-size pots creates visual excitement.  If the chosen container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, either create the holes or plant up a slightly smaller, lightweight container that has drainage holes and slip the planted container into the decorative pot.  This “pop in, pop out” strategy also works well for quick changes.  Your early spring display may fade and pop-in containers make it easy to substitute a fresh arrangement that will brighten things up later in the season.

If you are using a large or heavy container, make sure to position it in the desired spot when it is empty to avoid muscle strain later on.

Choosing the Container Rainbow

Pansies are spring standbys that everyone loves.

Garden centers, big box stores, and even supermarkets are full of spring-blooming specimens, from perennial hellebores to winsome pansies and violas.  For a longer-lasting arrangement, choose plants with one or two open flowers and plenty of buds.

When you plan your container display, buy enough plants to give a full appearance, but allow for a little growth room.  If you aren’t sure, buy a few extra small plants.  When your containers are full, you can always plug the extras into smaller decorative pots, or, if you have garden space, find spots for them in beds and borders.  Make sure to add a quality potting mix, like Fafard Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed, to your shopping cart.

Exciting Container Garden Mixes

Primroses, hyacinths, English daisies, daffodils, and other colorful spring flowers make great filler flowers.

Florists have long used the “thriller, filler, spiller” formula for mixed planters because it is easy and it works.  Don’t be afraid to combine cut branches, which can be plugged right into the soil, with annual or perennial plants. 

Pussy willows, in the form of either branches or small weeping standards, make great thrillers. (If you use cut branches be aware that they will root themselves quickly.)  Even as the “pussies” or catkins drop off, the young green leaves are attractive.  Cut forsythia or other flowering branches also work well.   The “filler” in your container arrangement might be potted daffodils, tulips, or hyacinths, or for smaller containers, dainty primroses or violas.  If you happen to have a large swathe of snowdrops or crocuses in the garden, dig up a clump or two and use them as part of your selection of “fillers”.  You can replant after the flowers fade.

For “spillers” small-leafed ivies work really well and variegated types add visual interest.  Shade-tolerant tradescantias like ‘Zebrina’, with its boldly striped leaves, spill beautifully.   

Container Garden Color Combos

A two-color planting is easy to create and always looks great.

Some of the best container arrangements contain only one or two colors.  A large urn filled with a  solid mass of blue grape hyacinths or violas makes a compelling statement.  If you want a little variation, use those same grape hyacinths in a mixture of darker and lighter blue. 

Color wheel opposites, like orange and purple, are eye-catchers in containers.  Create a carnival in a basket by combining dark purple and orange pansies.  For something a little more subdued, try pale green hellebores with pale pink tulips.

Spring Container Garden Aftercare

When the spring plantings are past their peak, and frost warnings have passed, it is time to plant summer container garden plants.

Once you plant your containers, keep them well-watered but not soggy.  Deadhead faded flowers to encourage rebloom in plants like pansies that will continue to pump out flowers until the summer really heats up.  For once-blooming specimens like daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, carefully dig up and swap out spent plants for fresh ones, which keeps the floral show going without the necessity of replanting the entire container. Plant the bulbs in the garden to enjoy the following spring.

First and foremost, have fun with your container arrangements, knowing that while they may please others—or even win prizes—they have to delight you. 

About Elisabeth Ginsburg


Born into a gardening family, Elisabeth Ginsburg grew her first plants as a young child. Her hands-on experiences range from container gardening on a Missouri balcony to mixed borders in the New Jersey suburbs and vacation gardening in Central New York State. She has studied horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and elsewhere and has also written about gardens, landscape history and ecology for years in traditional and online publications including The New York Times Sunday “Cuttings” column, the Times Regional Weeklies, Horticulture, Garden Design, Flower & Garden, The Christian Science Monitor and many others. Her “Gardener’s Apprentice” weekly column appears in papers belonging to the Worrall chain of suburban northern and central New Jersey weekly newspapers and online at http://www.gardenersapprentice.com. She and her feline “garden supervisors” live in northern New Jersey.

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