reader mailbag #1,yay!

"Hi Amanda, this is Sheila, Dan's friend in Brooklyn. i have a question: we are selling our apartment in march and would like to put some flowers/plants on our deck to make it look nice. can you post some ideas for container gardens in march for east coast weather?"

So I asked Sheila for photos of the space, which I seem to have lost ( a large balcony with a handful of small mostly faux- terra cotta pots, none of them more that 14" across and then a long narrow walk with a few window boxes to fill the space between the walk and the wall, can you imagine it?) and what exposure they all got...
and here's the lengthy answer...

Ok, I'm going to suggest some thing for Plan A, which is making do with what you have... and Plan B which is buying some different containers.
Plan A: These containers are, for the most part, too small to plant anything medium to large in- which is tough because it's such a big space. My first suggestion is that it looks like 3 pots on the table and the one on the ground are smaller that 6"... those you need to put something succulent in. In spring, I think the only thing you'll find is a plant called Sedum 'Angelina'. Anything else really has too many roots and will crap out on you fast! I'm sure it's been hard to keep those going in the past! In the largest pots, for spring I recommend Phormium, or New Zealand Flax. You need something big out there without too many roots! Around the Phormium some yellow pansies would look nice. For added fake-height- you can add some branches like Bamboo or Willow and just stick them in the soil of the biggest ones on the corners. In the medium pots on the ground you can use Swiss Chard or even plant a few lettuce seeds (there are some surprisingly cool green out there) (I'm still thinking spring)- more Pansies or Ranunculus. Really, anything available in the spring will work(there isn't a lot you can do reliably early). In the long boxes along the side- tough because there really aren't any shade plants for March. You can get away with Pansies and Lettuce but they will look dwarfy there.
Plan B- Throw away those pots and get big ones. They have nice ones that look ceramic but they aren't- at Target- at least 24". You can even get little trays with wheels under them if you want to move them around. Go to Home Depot and get some Dwarf Alberta Spruce or any tree that will fit in the pot. You have a lot of space and you need to maximize it! I would fill up the Target pots halfway with packing peanuts or even just shove cardboard in there so that I could just drop the tree in there and it would sit up like it was planted. Usually I'm not a fan of this tactic as I like my pots weighted down and the more soil the more success- but this is really just staging at this point... Use dried Spanish Moss or sheet moss to hide the fact.
On the side in the window boxes- go buy more so that the whole space can be filled in continuously. They should all match or be darn close. I bought tons last year at a dollar store. Again, March is tough for shade- even part shade. It would STILL have to be Pansies with a little lettuce mixed in. Although something taller is what you need- it just doesn't happen in spring... Other thoughts.... use the lightest soil you can find Soil Moist crystals are a life saver water before cold snaps- the water actually helps protect. I know this is too much info... but I wanted to give as many options as possible.