Best Time To Buy Plants & Other Tips

What is the best time to plant up your planters that are seasonal?

-The week before or following the last expected frost for your area for summer planters is the best time to buy your summer annuals:
-Zones 3&4 – May 31 & Sept 30
-Zone 5, 6 & 7 – April 30 & Oct 31
-Zone 8 – Oct 30 & Dec 1
-Zone 9 – Feb 28 & Dec 15


The very first thing (and arguably the most important) you need to find out is- when the last expected (and first expected in the fall)  frost date for your area. If you don’t know, you can ask at your local garden center, ask your local extension service or just google it. The timing for everything in gardening is based on this.  Unless you are in a frost-free zone, your timing will be tied directly to these dates.

Special Occasions

Some other considerations are any holidays or other special dates (weddings, baby showers, or birthday surprises anyone?) that you need these containers to be at their show-stopping best.  Do you have existing seasonal plantings that still look sensational or conversely, overgrown or spent? Planting up containers a few weeks before the event will make a huge difference in whether your containers look full, filled in, show-stopping, or skimpy for the event.

If you do not have any other considerations that override the frost date, then pick a weekday in the next week, or week-and-a-half following the last expected frost date in the spring to hit the sweet spot for planting your containers.  

Deciding the Type of Planter Combo

There is even more to consider in when to pot up your planters for the different seasons.  How many seasons will you plant up your planters for ( just summer annuals, or multi-seasonal displays), will they be complete fresh remakings or a  simple refresh using existing year-round permanent plantings? Can you leave your planters outside all winter (will they get brittle or degrade),

 Will you have existing permanent plantings in containers growing in a shaded location in the summer that you move in to swap out into your full sun locations for the winter and when can that move happen? Will it be too heavy to move?

 Are you a person that wants to take full advantage of the wonderful and free resource of getting professional consultations for your containers, getting plants that will thrive in your light conditions, your watering situations?  Plants that not only look great now but play together well in the same container? Something that is not a pre-planted combination that every neighbor on the street has, something unique for you, put together with experience?

Or are you a person who wants to try that perfect combo you saw on Pinterest….

Or do you already have combinations that work in your spots, so you already know what you want?

Your answers to all of these questions will affect when you should purchase plants and plant up your planters.

What Are the Frost Dates, Why Do I Care, & How To Find Them?

The frost dates are the average date in your growing zone that there was the last frost of the spring, or first in the fall.  What does that mean to you? When you spend the time and money to plan, shop, and plant out your container, and you do that before your last frost in the spring…you will likely have to buy and do it all over again.  Well, except for the planning part, but still a hassle!

If you are planting up for a special occasion like a wedding, a special occasion surrounded by a million details and you need your planters to look just so; I would recommend going and buying pre-planted containers and dropping them into your pretty containers.  They will be full, and beautiful, and easily protected from a late, or early frost.

If needed, just pull the, much lighter, plastic container you bought them in, out of your decorative container and bring them inside for the night.  If you are looking to plant up planters for a wedding that you have at least several weeks or more before the event be sure that you have enough time for them to fill in and come into flower before the event.

If you have a month to go you can start with smaller plants, 4-inch pots. If you have less than 2 weeks start with already showing buds and blooming 6-inch plants.  But, again, if available during your timing..get the pre-planted containers, it will save you a LOT of hassle. You might even get a local independent garden center to hold them for you for up to a week, so you know they will be there.

What Garden Zones Do NOT Tell You !!

Spring Into Summer Containers

These are the mainstay, staple annual planters for most people. This is the type we to look at the last average frost date to use to time to go the week following the last average frost.

NOT the weekend after the last average frost, but the weekday after the last average frost. this will give you the best selection and the most time that an experienced Garden Center person can give to you help and guidance in the plant selection.

Fall Plantings

Quick Secret Tip On Fall Mums!!

If you are using mums just for annual color, and not permanent additions to your perennial bed…wait for it… THERE IS NO REASON YOU NEED TO PROVIDE THEM WITH FULL SUN !!  Yes, you heard me right. I see that written and said, again and again, the advice for fall mums to give them sun, HOWEVER, I think this information confusion is coming from sources talking about growing perennial mums, for mums to return and grow next year in a perennial border.  If this is what you want DON’T WAIT UNTIL FALL TO PLANT. Roots and flowers use primarily the same major nutrient for growth, phosphorus, and if your mum is flowering, it will prioritize sending its available phosphorus and energy to those blooms. Not allowing enough for the best root growth that a mum needs to overwinter.  So bottom line, think of a mum as a poinsettia, yes you CAN keep them after the season and for the future, but is that what you want to do? Is that where you want your energy? If the answer is yes, PLANT IN SPRING, if the answer is “No, I just love the exuberance of color for my fall containers,” then no worries about the sun. Your mum will last even longer in the shade 🙂

Click here to learn about using chrysanthemums!

Back to Planter Timing...

If you’re going to do more than one season of planting, this is the second favorite, usually the next one. By now your spring and summer planter is looking overgrown and tired. For many people, Fall planters include mums and pumpkins.

It is good to look at the average first frost date, because it is this date that starts to require a lot of maintenance for protection of tender plants from frost, and it’s a good idea if you are using frost-tender flowers such as mums, to swap it out for a frost tolerant plant instead.

I usually prefer to start planting up fall containers a month before the first expected frost, that is The Sweet Spot of getting the most from your blooming containers, the largest frost tolerant selection, and the longest time your fall containers are really going to be showing well.

Frost tender flowers vs plant hardiness.  Not the same. A plant can be perfectly winter hardy, or cold hardy and still have frost-sensitive flowers.  Many, many perennials die back to the ground completely and will regrow next year making them winter or cold hardy.  But will the plant continue to flower after a frost? That is what I am talking about. Pansies are cold, winter hardy in US zone 6 for instance, AND they will continue to flower all winter and continue whenever the temps are above freezing.  Mums are also cold, winter hardy in zone 6, HOWEVER, they will not continue to make more flower buds after the current crop has been nipped by a frost.

Winter plantings

Winter container planting starts right when people are thinking about a winter holiday container.  For some this can be the day after Thanksgiving, others this can be the first week in December, and others even closer to the holiday season.

This is one container timing that is more about your preference, and best times to find things at the garden centers in other decorating areas sources, than about frost and freeze dates.

If your fall containers are fwature pumpkins, I will point out that once a hard freeze of the pumpkins happens, you are really going to want to pull out those pumpkins and put something else in because the pumpkins will turn to mush.

Refresh OR Complete Redo?

There are three most prevalent strategies for containers:

  1. Permanent plantings.  The question many of these people ask is “Why replant again and again your seasonal containers when you can have a permanent evergreen plant or plants that stay year-round?”   
  2. Another option  the other is to completely redo the planters every year
  3. A midway strategy between the previous two is every year redo the planter yet swap in and out different seasonal colors around some key components which are kept the same from season to season.

Whether you refresh or do a complete redo depends on how large your container is and how well suited the plants in your container are for the conditions they’re in. Containers that are less than 18 or 24 inches in diameter are less suited for permanent plantings.

They are more susceptible to winter root damage, damage from drying out, and can get quickly overgrown. If your plants are in less than ideal conditions, such as too much light or little light, which is common, the permanent plantings are likely to look poor after a period of time and will need to be replaced.


Swap out pre-planted containers from another area of your landscape.

A good trick to try if you have several good size containers, with several different growing situations, is to move or swap containers instead of purely replanting the container.

Move a container from a different area completely and put it in your new spot. A good way to do this is for your winter containers. this would be where you have a container that you can give partial sun to partial shade to in the summer, then pulling into a partial to full sun area in the winter.

Winter sun is less direct and harsh than the summer sun. Most of the showy shade plants naturally grow underneath trees that lose their leaves in the fall putting them in full sun for the winter where they can show off and shine. You can refer to my article on Evergreen Container Plants For Shade & Winter Color, click here, I touch on this a bit more.

Free Expert Consultations?

Timing your trip to a great local Independent Garden Center will allow you to go in during a time where they are:

  1. Fully stocked
  2. Fully staffed
  3. Not at it’s busiest peak time of the day or of the week

This can allow you to pick the brain of staff and ask all your questions to help you get the right plant that will thrive in your space.  

A plant that is thriving will outshine a plant that is struggling, hands down, every time.

Also, they might show you some wonderful plant choices or design ideas you had not considered before, to make your container a stand out. This is one of the main reasons why I recommend going not on a weekend, especially not the weekend of or surrounding the frost dates to change out your planters.  The best people are going to be so swamped and won’t have time to focus on you and your containers.

Click here for a few questions to ask at the garden center. Take it with you so you will have answers to the questions they will ask to match you up with your best container plants.

Pre-planned For Quicker Shopping.

If you don’t need the advice or help of an experienced Garden Center person to assist you to pick out what plants or help you with your design. Then pre-planning with a list of what you’re looking for and a color scheme will save time and money. Just like having a list at the grocery store helps focus you on the groceries you need, and you don’t end up coming home with a lot of items that caught your eye but you don’t need for your planter. This will help you get in and out of the garden center much quicker and without a lot of extra expense.

Do your planter all at once, or pre-prep for the planting party?

I would do each container planting all at once, it is much more work to plant a part of the container. Getting some of the plants and keep them watered and alive and doing well while you’re getting the rest of your plants several days later. Do it all at once, gather all your plants the same day.  That way you don’t have to keep pulling out potting soil to make room or adding more potting soil because the plant was smaller than you expected. If you plant up part of the container and then come back to plant and the rest of it, every time you’re going to have to pull your plants out that you planted already to adjust spacing oh, just don’t do it.

You can do different planters at different times if you want, but complete each planter as you start it.  Also, if they are matching planters, do them at the same time. Trust me, you will find yourself short on a type of plant, someone stepping on it, it snapped on the way home, something.  On the same day, you have a chance there will be more of exactly what you want. Yes, I know it seems like there is plenty there, it goes FAST. The next shipment may not have the same color or size….it’s not worth the trouble.  Do matching containers at the same time.

Related Questions

Can I have permanent plants that do not need to be replanted?

Yes, you can have permanent plants that do not need to be replanted. However, there is a reason why most people still choose annuals in their containers. An annual we just won that you need to replant every year, will Blume and Blume and Blume and Blume and Blume it will have more flour power for your buck hands down than anything else. Now, if you focus the color and interest of your container around foliage, that will make it so you can just change out a couple of spots in the container with some flowers and reduce the amount that you need to reinvest every year and a great-looking container.

Also, most plants that are perennials are more expensive than annuals. and if you have less than ideal conditions for that type of plant it will start to decline and you might want to plant it again anyway. So it may not be advantageous to try to put permanent plants in your container and It is the secret reason I hate blanket guarantees on plants from sources that are either not local or not knowledgeable, yes, you get another one, but the time and effort in planting, digging back up, replanting, and then……was that a plant that will thrive in that spot?  The guarantee only covers the plant once, what if that plant was doomed to start with because the conditions were all wrong for it? But, I digress…try to keep them from year to year to year unless you are sure that they are in great size and type of containers for them, great potting soil for them, and a great location for them as far as light and air movement.

Trading out for new plants every year may be a less expensive option.

Does it really matter what potting soil I use?

Yes, it does matter. Not only does it matter that you use a potting/container mix(believe me on this, for now, I’ll have an in-depth post covering this soon)but it matters what type of potting soil you use. The choice in potting soils depends upon what plants you’re going to use and what you’re going to expect of them. If you are planting plants that need even moisture and will be in the full sun and you have struggled in the past with keeping your pots watered; use a water holding mix.  Sometimes these are called Moisture Control potting soils, or add water-holding crystals. Remember, this gives you some leeway, depending on the size of your container, from a couple of hours to a day, but it does not reduce the volume of water required over time.

Bottom line, yes get the best potting soil that you can afford is important.  It will help your plants thrive. A healthy plant is more resilient to tough conditions than a plant that is just hanging on.

Can I put too many plants in a mixed container?

Yes, you can put too many plants in a container. They will start fighting with each other for water, fighting for nutrients, and competing for space. A container filled with foliage and color is the goal, however, it is the end product of growing for at least a month or two to get the wonderfully full and spilling-over look that you will see in magazines and posted on Pinterest. If it looks that full when you plant it, it’s too crowded unless you started with full-sized plants, to begin with. To achieve planters that look good all season without getting overgrown, and without running you ragged watering, will look a little sparse when first planted. Now, this goes for your spring containers. Fall containers are usually not around long enough to get overgrown so they can be filled, to begin with. Winter containers rarely put on any growth over that winter season so they should also be full right when planted in. Just remember to keep your season in mind and the expected height that plant is going to get and the one season’s worth of growth during the season you’re growing it.  This is where an experienced Garden Center person comes in very handy 🙂

I hope this has answered some of your questions on when to plant planters and inspired some more thought about what is involved that might spark even more questions.  Just remember plants want to grow, give it a try, try something new, take pictures of both your successes and failures in containers. It is too easy to forget that fantastic combination or that rockstar plant you want to use again.  Or, to forget the plant that looked fabulous and full of promises in the garden center, that just did not suit your container that you do not want to use again. Try something new, it may be the best thing you have ever tried in your containers before! Have fun with it!


Toni has a bachelor degree in Plant & Soil Science, has lived, gardened and growing all over the US, in Vermont, Tennessee, Idaho, coastal North Carolina and Virginia. She has been sharing her knowledge through writing, one on one consulting and talking to anyone who wants to listen at social gatherings everywhere : )

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