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  • Dana Tutela

Spring into Summer Container Garden: Tips and Recipes

Updated: Apr 9

Spring is here and flowers are in bloom. Now is the time to add and refresh container gardens that will keep blooming from spring into summer!

full sun container with petunias

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Where to Begin? Choose your Location and Container.

Is this container going on a front porch? Against a brick wall? In a garden? How much space will it have? Choose a container that fits the location and decor. I like big containers because they are statement makers, hold moisture longer and provide room to grow.

three turquoise planters with summer flowers

I also like to keep a color scheme. My containers are all turquoise with neutral accents. This allows me to arrange them in groupings if I so desire. It also helps me when picking out which color plants at the nursery. I know yellow, pink and purple blossoms are pretty next to the turquoise, as is lime green and variegated foliage.

pink caladiums in turquoise pot

Choose a material that can withstand your climate. I love these heavy clay pots, and they do well in our zone 8 climate. However, I would be concerned about cracking in extremely cold climates. Plastic and resin containers are handy because they are lightweight and easier to move around, but over time plastic can become brittle in extreme temperatures and resin can fade. Another material that I like is this heavy bronze planter. It holds up great in all weather, but can become hot in direct sun and dry out faster. I use them in the shade and partial shade areas.

shade container with fern and ivy

Next? Determine your Hours of Sunlight!

When planning container gardens to last from spring into summer, you need to know how much time they will be in the sun. Take a day or two to make a mental note of when the sunshine exposure begins and when it ends. Keep in mind that afternoon sun can be more intense than morning sun.

*Ginger Tip: If you have a Ring camera, you can figure out the amount of sun really fast by going through the history!

Once you have your range of sunlight exposure, label your container appropriately.

graphic of sunlight exposure labels

Design Your Planter with Thriller, Filler and Spiller!

The Thriller, Filler and Spiller Method is a fairly well-known technique to ensure your container is full and dramatic.

The "Thriller" is the star of the show and typically stands tall and bright in the center.

The "Filler" is a foliage or flowering plant that fills in the bare spots.

The "Spiller" is a trailing plant that spills over the edge of the container and cascades down the sides.

boxwood container with white flowers and graphics

Pick your Plants and Prepare Your Containers!

Now that you have your planting conditions and an idea what to create, start buying your plants. I've prepared some sample container recipes for you to download for free.

graphic with spring to summer container ideas

Container Garden Ideas
Download PDF • 546KB

*Ginger Tip: When you are at the garden center, organize your plants in the cart by container to envision the end result and size.

Be flexible and creative! Try different color varieties or swap with similar plants if what you want isn't available. Have fun with this part! I've spent hours walking up and down the rows at nurseries laying out pretend containers in the buggy.

*Ginger Tip: Use an evergreen like boxwood as the thriller of your container and swap out the fillers and spillers as needed throughout the season.

Lemon Cypress is my new favorite thriller. When you rub the soft foliage, it truly smells like lemon! Plus the light green color is stunning as a backdrop. It can take full sun and partial shade. Mine carried through from spring into summer beautifully! It even survived the winter here in South Carolina and it's not supposed to be cold tolerant. I love how this Charleston homeowner used two in their window box.

window box with summer flowers and lemon cypress

Lamium, or dead nettle, has delicate pink flowers in the spring and beautiful foliage that makes a lovely filler throughout the summer. It's hardy in zones 2-9 and likes part to full shade. It can also trail over the edge and be a spiller! I planted Lamium "Beacon Silver" as a perennial ground cover in my moon garden because the silvery leaves reflect the moonlight. Bonus: it's deer and rabbit resistant!

lamium dead nettle trailer in container

lamium silver foliage

Creeping Jenny is another favorite spiller of mine. The yellow-green round leaves cascade over the edge of the container in long tendrils. It can take sun to shade and is deer resistant. Creeping Jenny will perform spring to summer and even into fall. With a trim and a light mulch covering, she will even survive winter. Warning: it can be invasive, so keep it contained to the container.

creeping jenny in spring container

Caladiums are thrillers with attitude. With so many varieties, it's difficult to pick just one! They are tropical plants that grow in the understory of the jungle, so plant in containers that receive part shade and water often. If your spring has a late sneaky frost, protect them. Otherwise, they will go from spring through summer wonderfully!

pink and green caladium in shade container

white and green caladium in container

Verbena is a classic container filler plant with a wide variety of color choices. I love how each blossom looks like a mini-bouquet. It loves full sun, so make sure it has 6-8 hours. Some will trail over the edge which makes it double as a spiller! Trim as needed and verbena will carry through spring to summer. I've used verbena all on its own in a hanging basket because it is such a strong performer. Thriller, filler and spiller all in one!

pink verbena bloom

Ornamental Grasses for the win as a thriller in your container! Beginner gardeners tend to stroll past the grasses in the garden center because they are so busy picking out flowers, but they should not be overlooked. The height and texture of ornamental grasses will take your containers to a new level.

container garden in Charleston

planter with ornamental grass and white flowers

Bacopa is a spiller that I love to add to my containers. The white (see above) makes a subtle accent to colorful fillers and thrillers. The bluish purple makes its own statement against the container (see below). It likes full sun in spring to bloom, but can struggle with full summer sun. I planted mine in part sun and it made it all the way to our first frost last year.

tall turquoise container garden and white mums

How to Prepare and Fill your Containers!

Before you start dumping dirt into your empty container, there are a couple of tasks that make container gardening easier.

If it's a large container that might need to be moved, consider adding a plant caddy with wheels. Place it under the pot now before it's too heavy to lift.

If you have access to drip irrigation, run a 1/4 inch tube up through the bottom hole of the container before you fill it and let the magic of automatic watering take care of your planters. I've been doing this to the containers in my kitchen garden in recent years, and it makes gardening so much easier.

Speaking of the drainage hole, add pea gravel to the bottom of your container to allow for good drainage. Otherwise, soil and debris can clog the holes which causes your plants' roots to sit in water and rot.

pot with layer of gravel

Next add your soil. I like a good potting soil and garden soil mix. Happy Frog is one of my favorite bagged potting soil to use. I fill it close to the top and stop to arrange my new plants in a test placement.

pot filled with soil

Then I fill almost to the very top because it will compact after watering. In fact, many gardeners will wet the soil halfway up to help compact it before planting.

If you added a drip irrigation line, position the tube where you want it to be and then start adding your plants.

Give everyone a good gentle soak and tell them you how happy you are to have them join your garden! Yes, I talk to my plants. They like it.

*Ginger Tip: If your container is very tall and you want to save on soil and weight, add a layer of crumpled plastic water bottles or aluminum cans in the bottom. Cover with a piece of landscape fabric or newspaper and then fill the remainder with soil.

Maintain your Spring to Summer Container Garden

To keep your containers looking gorgeous all season long, keep them watered appropriately for their location. Full sun planters will need more frequent watering. Shade containers will stay damp longer. In addition, smaller containers will dry out faster than larger ones.

Water when the first inch of soil feels dry, or use a water meter if you're not sure. If it's a small pot, water until it runs out the bottom of the container to ensure a really nice soak.

Feed your plants with an organic liquid fertilizer like Fox Farm Organic Big Bloom once a week. This is a light fertilizer, not the blue stuff which can burn. You can also sprinkle a slow release granular fertilizer around the base of the plants at the time of planting, if you prefer. Regardless, feed them or they will slow down, be susceptible to diseases and pests and not perform well.

Deadhead and trim plants throughout the season. Leaving spent flowers will promote seed setting instead of more blossoms. Snip them regularly. I also find that some of the trailing spillers can get too long and stringy looking. A trim here and there can keep them under control. Fiskars MicroTip Pruners are my favorite light duty flower clippers!

Replace the plants that don't seem happy. I've often joked that I should start a blog called The Ruthless Gardener because sometimes that's what I feel like I have to be. If necessary, rip out the offenders and replace them with a new healthy plant. Don't worry, do like I do and apologize to them and thank them for trying. It happens.

Leave a comment and let me know about your spring into summer container garden! Have fun putting down some roots in a planter!

To see more incredible containers and window boxes, explore Historic Charleston gardens with me in 8 Essential Features of a Charleston Garden.

blue bench in Charleston garden

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