By Cathy Jean Maloney
Photography By Ron Capek
In our family, my sister Chris hosts Christmas and I host Easter. Among her many talents, Chris pulls out the stops when it comes to holiday decorating. Even in the dead of winter, her house brims with festive greenery, twinkling lights and potted poinsettias.
Then comes early spring and Easter. How can I compete? The ground is muddy at best or still snow-sodden at worst. No buds have popped yet, and any early bloomers have, more often than not, petrified pitifully in a late freeze. Being a gardener, I consider it a point of pride to find a way to jumpstart the season in time for the spring holidays.
Containers are a great solution since they can be moved to protect against volatile spring weather. But what plants might work well in early spring – I’m talking late March or early April – and where do we get our hands on them?
Gina Lange, a landscape designer with Hinsdale Nurseries, is charged with creating attractive spring container displays. By mixing some of the usual suspects like pansies with unexpected plantings, her containers brighten the winter-weary landscape even in late March and April. Here are some ideas:
Evergreen framework: The winter workhorses, evergreen shrubs and ground covers, can offer the same structure for your container. Lange employs variegated ivy and boxwood in many of her designs. If you can’t dig up ivy from your yard, it is easily grown indoors from cuttings throughout the winter. Shrubs such as boxwood are often available in early spring at nurseries. You can leave it in the container and swap out the filler plants, or transplant the evergreens into your garden in early summer.
Cool season veggies: Get more bang for your buck with edibles that start sprouting in early April. Plant veggies such as green or red leaf lettuce or kale in your pots. Arugula, parsley and spinach are other possibilities. They may need some protection on especially cool nights. Harvest and replace with summer annuals (but leave the parsley since it’s a biennial).
Decorative branches: We all know the ornamental uses of redtwig dogwood in winter containers. Don’t overlook the possibilities of interesting branches while pruning. Lange uses different types of willow branches, but consider any interesting branch from your prunings. Why not clip some forsythia or redbud stems? Even if they don’t bud out, you can use their color and shape for upright structure. Some enterprising gardeners weave together thin stems of forsythia and insert them into the container to make a basket handle.
Sunbeam switcheroo: “You don’t have to worry about sun and shade in the spring,” Lange explains. Yes, we need to consider right plant, right place, but as she notes, plants are more forgiving with sun conditions in spring. That’s because summer sun is much hotter than spring, so shade seekers can often withstand brighter conditions. Similarly, plants that need sun can thrive in spring containers because they’re not yet shaded by overhanging trees.
Beyond pansies: Some newer varieties of pansies promise spring flowers and a repeat bloom in the chillier days of fall. In my experience, they get pretty leggy over the summer and the fall bloom is somewhat underwhelming. I suppose, however, if I weren’t so lackadaisical about cutting them back in the summer, I might get better results. Nonetheless, even if only for their reliable cold-tolerant bloom in spring, pansies are readily available and reliable bloomers.
Consider some other plants as well. Lange often employs ranunculus in designs for their rose-like petals and shape. Ostrich fern gives dramatic height in containers and can be planted later in the garden. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) is a good trailer plant with yellow flowers. These plants and annuals such as alyssum, snapdragon, forget-me-nots and stock can often be found in independent garden centers.
Bulbs can work wonders in containers, and you have the advantage of planting them in winter for spring bloom. It’s too late now to plant bulbs for spring, but here are some ideas for next year.
Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens reminds us, “Pots are a highly artificial environment.” Whereas the ground acts as an insulator, bulbs in a container can react as if they’re several zones colder. Nonetheless, with a little trial and error, it’s possible to plant bulbs in containers for an early spring display.
The key to bulb planting is providing a cool – not cold – shelter like an attached garage. Water weekly during the winter to keep the soil moist but not soggy to help the roots grow. Kunst sinks plastic nursery pots of bulbs in his vegetable garden during the winter.
Choose early blooming bulbs. The Old House Gardens website, oldhousegardens.com, features sortable charts showing bloom times and planting depths by species. Among the very early spring bloomers are varieties of crocus, daffodils, snowdrops, winter aconite and even a few tulips.
Kunst is a fan of planting a single type of bulbs (for example crocus only or daffodils only) in a plastic pot, and then placing the containers in more decorative pots. This helps match the best growing condition for each bulb, yet offers flexibility in display.
What if you completely forgot to plant bulbs last fall and are now stuck with forlorn empty pots? Kunst has had some success relocating excess bulbs from his landscape by digging up blooming snowdrops and transplanting them into a tabletop garden. Sometimes there’s too much of a good thing in a naturalized bulb garden and you can cull the herd by moving some to containers.
Whether you’re scouting for bulbs or spring beauties, careful plant selection and a willingness to hunt the garden centers may bring you lively containers for this early spring.
Senior editor Cathy Jean Maloney has authored several books including the recent award-winning Chicago Gardens - the Early History and World’s Fair Gardens - Shaping American Landscapes.
Best Bulbs for Early Blooms
The Chicago Botanic Garden’s online plant finder lists many bulbs that bloom in early spring. Most are varieties of crocus, daffodils, winter aconite, and tulips. Now is a good time to explore the Garden’s Graham Bulb Garden to see the succession of bloom.
Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com) has detailed instructions on bulb planting in containers – look under “Bulb Planting and Care – Planting Bulbs in Pots.” Their “very early” varieties include:
Snowdrops: Elwes or giant snowdrop
Tulips: Duc van Tol Red and Yellow Duc van Tol Violet