Versatile Container Plants for Spring

spring container garden

After being buried under snow for weeks, my Seattle garden is finally green again – with splashes of yellow, blue, pink, and white as spring-blooming perennials and shrubs wake up. It's so exciting to see color! Inevitably a few things look worse for wear after the winter – especially some of my containers, but rather than look out on these winter-weary pots for two months I've decided to give them a mini-makeover but do so on a budget.

That doesn't mean compromising on design or quality. It simply means working with versatile elements that can be re-worked into my summer designs or transplanted into the landscape.

Re-thinking the plant selection

spring perennials at Terra Nova Nurseries Inc

Colorful foliage and flowers that gets better every year – a wise investment for spring containers. Spring display at Terra Nova Nurseries Inc., Canby, Oregon

If you usually fill your pots with "color spots" for spring, this may be a new idea for you. But rather than being long-term investment pieces, those tempting pansies and grocery store primroses all get thrown away after blooming. Here are some ideas for spring blooming interest that will continue to offer value for months or even years after their initial container planting. And there are so many more….

Spring blooming shrubs

Andromeda (Pieris japonica)

Pieris 'Little Heath' and Fuchsia speciosa

Pieris 'Little Heath' has a rosy flush to the new growth, perfectly paired here with Fuchsia speciosa in the early summer garden

Whether your container is large or small you'll find a variety of andromeda that fits. From smaller, mounding varieties with variegated foliage such as Little Heath (my personal favorite), to dwarf but upright and green-leaved Brookside and wildly flamboyant Flaming Silver – a much bigger girl – they all offer colorful new growth and fragrant spring flowers. Many can also be purchased as small as a 1 gallon (6" diameter pot) so can be included in a mixed container design then transplanted to the landscape to reach its full potential.

Winter daphne (Daphne odora 'Aureo-marginata')

winter daphne and hellebore

In pots or in the landscape, variegated winter daphne pairs perfectly with pink hellebores. Design by Bellevue Botanical Garden, WA

Who can possibly resist the fragrance? Not me! And the variegated foliage of this winter daphne is perfection year round. I recommend transplanting it into the landscape before it becomes totally root bound in your pot. Put one near your front door.

Perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)

perennial candytuft

Perennial candytuft is evergreen. Photo used with permission (Wikimedia Commons License)

Is it a shrub? A perennial? A groundcover? A rockery plant? Who cares – perennial candytuft is an old fashioned, spring-blooming favorite, often available for purchase as a 4" pot. Tuck it into the front of your spring containers then add it to the landscape to start a nice broad spreading groundcover for next year.

Spring blooming perennials

Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spp.)

Goldheart bleeding heart and Pieris 'Mountain Fire'

Goldheart bleeding heart quickly fills out in the shade garden to form a golden carpet studded with hot pink blooms.

While the classic pink bleeding heart may be too big for all but the largest pot, there are many more compact varieties well suited for containers  – and then the landscape. From the gold foliage of Goldheart, to the deep red Valentine and the pure white form of fringed bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos eximia 'Alba'), the ferny foliage and delicate dangling blooms make for a sensational spring container inclusion before transferring them to your shade garden to enjoy in perpetuity. (Bonus – these are deer-resistant)

Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)

Epimedium rubrum

The new foliage on Rubrum barrenwort is almost more exciting than the spring flowers!

Perfect for dry shade under conifers but why not enjoy them in containers for a few years first? Many varieties to choose from with flowers that range from yellow to white, orange, lavender and red. The new foliage growth is spectacular too (Rubrum is my favorite for foliage color). Here are a few landscape design ideas using them.

Heuchera, Heucherella, Tiarella

spring garden Terra Nova Nurseries Inc

A colorful medley at the Terra Nova Nurseries Inc display. featuring Heuchera 'Fire Alarm' with Winter Jewels hellebore 'Golden Lotus' and Goldheart bleeding heart in the background

While these are all foliage plants, many start blooming in spring too, attracting hummingbirds and adding another dimension to the display. So many colors to choose from! Which is your favorite?

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)

Mrs. Moon lungwort

An old fashioned favorite – Mrs. Moon lungwort

Silver-spotted leaves, dancing flowers in shades of pink and blue, a hummingbird siren, drought tolerant, easy to grow – why haven't you got more of these?! Add lungwort to your container this spring. After blooming cut it back hard (leaves as well as flower stalks) and it will quickly return in two weeks with large, healthy leaves to outdo the fanciest of hostas (and much cheaper too!).

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla spp.)

Pasque flower

Favored by hummingbirds, the pasque flower traditionally blooms at Easter

Underutilized yet such a rock star in the garden, pasque flowers have beautiful flowers in shades of red, and purple, wispy seedheads and fern-like foliage that lasts almost all year. Adding them to a container is a great way to start your collection!

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

Brunnera 'Jack Frost'

Known as perennial forget-me-nots in England, this old fashioned perennial is as much loved for its heart shaped leaves as the flowers

One of the earliest perennials to leaf out, Jack Frost is still a firm favorite for me with its silver and green, heart shaped leaves and sprays of forget-me-not type flowers that make perfect mini-posies for the table. This is a perennial that can stay in the container for your summer designs too as the leaves are so decorative.

English primroses (Primula vulgaris)

English primrose

I'm not a fan of the jellybean colors of grocery store primroses, preferring those that look more natural in a woodland setting. The Wanda primroses are true perennials but I also love the classic wild English primrose with its pale butter-yellow flowers. (I grew mine from seed). They look delightful in the woodland garden mingling with Georgia Blue veronica – why not use these two companions at the front of a container instead? Incidentally these were among the first flowers I introduced my daughter to over 30 years ago….start them young!

It's never too soon to share your love of gardening with children. My daughter Katie was about 9 months old here!

Watch, Learn and Grow

Do you learn best by watching rather than reading? Many of us do and that's why I've created this new online workshop for you:

Creative Container Designs for Spring

creative spring containers online workshop

Click on the image for workshop details!

Watch two videos of me planting two unique designs for spring that highlight using versatile, inexpensive or FREE elements, download the planting plans, and get the plant lists – all from the comfort of your own home. There's even a bonus downloadable excerpt from my new book Deer-Resistant Design  – a winter/spring container design for shade that is deer-resistant too!

Check out the details and use coupon code spring10  to get 10% off through March 31st.

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  1. Vicki Legman on March 19, 2019 at 8:16 am

    Just wanted to let you know that I attended your workshop at Seattle Flower and Garden Show. I'm selling my house and my lovely garden is barely awake. To show better curb appeal, I created two of the best pots I've ever made. They're lovely, no dirt shows (!), and the best part is, that when we move to Port Townsend, the plants will all go into my garden.

    I am SO looking forward to your living with deer gardening book. It's going to be a challenge in Port Townsend.
    Thank you for sharing your knowknowlegeledge.

    • Karen Chapman on March 19, 2019 at 5:04 pm

      That's WONDERFUL to hear – thank you! You've totally made my day! And you'll be excited to hear that Amazon has JUST added the book cover and "look inside" feature to my book!