By Sean Conway
Tribune Media Services
This time of year, a quick trip to your local garden center is the perfect way to get a case of spring fever.
Most of us living in the upper half of the country haven't started thinking about shorts and sandals just yet, but a quick tour spring planting stock will get you excited about the warm days ahead.
I recently visited a garden center in the South that was already awash in color. Walking through the aisles of blooming plants is all it took to get me excited about spring gardening.
In Northern climes, spring temperatures fluctuate wildly. One day it is mild enough for a light jacket and the next it is cold enough to snow. For those of us who can't wait to start planting, selecting the appropriate plants for outdoor use is the secret for success.
Plants, just like people, have preferences for temperature; some prefer cool weather, and some like it hot. Cool loving plants like violas, pansies and primrose are perfect for early season outdoor planting.
They not only prefer cool temperatures, they are also able to withstand the extreme fluctuations from daytime to nighttime, a swing many plants can't cope with.
When selecting plants for outdoor containers, window boxes or for planting directly into garden beds, be sure to ask your garden center staff if the plants they are selling are ready to be planted outside or if they need to be acclimated or "hardened off" to the cold.
Plants raised under greenhouse conditions will have lush, tender green leaves and plenty of blooms. After being acclimated to colder temperatures, most will have stiffer, darker green leaves -- and in the case of pansies and violas, darker purple markings on some of their leaves. Plants that are hardened off before they are planted outside are better able to withstand extremes in weather.
When browsing through your garden center looking for colorful spring planter ideas, take a walk through the perennial section. Perennials start growing early in the spring, and most will be right at home in a window box or container, provided they receive the right amount of light and water.
Perennials with colorful foliage such as heucheras, hellebores, Japanese painted ferns, variegated iris or lady's mantle all make excellent choices for spring containers and will combine well with early-blooming annuals.
In addition to perennials, shrubs also make good candidates for early season planters. One of my favorites is the variegated red twig dogwood. Before the leaves arrive in late spring, this beautiful shrub has long, slender red branches that would compliment any container. Once the weather begins to warm, the shrub produces green and white leaves that combine well with almost any planting scheme.
This shrub is perfectly happy living in a large pot, but it can also be transplanted into the ground later in the season if you choose to replant your container with warm-loving plants for the hot summer months.
Seasoned gardeners know that you don't have to wait until T-shirt weather to start gardening. Selecting cool loving plants for your containers, window boxes and porch pots means you can get your hands back in the dirt as soon as your garden center is open for business.
Sean Conway's television series, "Cultivating Life," airs Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. ET on WGN America. His new book, "Sean Conway's Cultivating Life" (Artisan Books, 2009), describes 125 projects for backyard living. www.cultivatinglife.com.