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Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers: Easy Steps for Spectacular Containers

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This week I read several tweets from garden bloggers about planting container gardens for their Moms and it got me to thinking… What a wonderful way to express your creativity and make a truly unique gift. Container gardening is not without challenges in our Houston summers, but here are some basic tips that will help you design the perfect outdoor container garden.

Container Gardens on the Front Porch

Before You Start

First decide where you are going to place the container in the garden. Will it be in full sun, part-sun, or in shade? That will determine what type of plants you want to use. I’ve seen a lot of containers placed inside garden beds as a focal point. If you are planning to do this you’ll find a round concrete stepping stone makes a nice flat surface to place your pot on inside the bed. A pedestal works nicely too and provides added height so your container gets noticed.

Saucers are okay for tall planters where the roots will not get down that far, but use caution with smaller ones. You don’t want the roots to drown in standing water, especially deep saucers.

Bigger is Better

Choose a container that is larger that you think you’ll need. I say this because our summers are brutal here in Houston and yes, you will get tired of watering a container 2 or more times a day.

Choose the right container

The water needs of the plants you select will help determine what kind of pot you need. Terra-cotta clay pots are natural and pretty, but they are porous and tend to dry out faster than ceramic glazed pots. Drought tolerant plants such as succulents do well in clay pots. Glazed pots offer a good balance of aesthetics and functionality. Plastic ones are another option, but it is best to avoid placing them in full sun as they tend to fade and breakdown quickly.

Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers Explained

As a general rule, place taller plants in the center of the pot and smaller ones around the sides. Try this simple and easy to remember technique of using thrillers, fillers and spillers. Thrillers are your focal point and usually the tallest plant. They’re bold, dramatic and an attention getter. Fillers are used around the base with color or texture. Spillers flow over the edge of the pot and cascade down. This softens the edge of the pot and creates a more graceful and natural look.

Soil Considerations

Use the right potting mix for your plant selection. If you are planting succulents, you’ll need sandy well draining mix whereas plants that love moisture will be quite happy in a rich medium of compost and humus. Fertilize as needed with a slow release organic fertilizer. Granules are easy to use and can be sprinkled around the soil if they need a mid-summer boost. Slow release is the key here. Remember, feed the soil not the plants!

Choose the right plants

RULE # 1 – Choose plants that have similar water, soil and light requirements. Avoid grouping plants that need full sun with shade loving plants.

RULE # 2 – Remember texture and leaf shapes can be just as important as color, especially when annuals fizzle out in the summer heat. Avoid using too many types of plants. Stick with no more than 3 to 4 as a general rule.

Get creative!

For my container garden, I needed plants that would do well in shade. I found two containers that were similar in size. I tried a few combinations until I found one that I liked. Any of these combinations would work just fine.

One Option

I decided to use the cream colored clay pot to give the arrangement a nice “pop”.

Low and wide Azalea style pot

First start with the thrillers

A few plants that would make good thrillers in shade are cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), Dracaena, tall spiky ferns, or caladiums. I selected several different varieties of coleus (Solenostemon spp.) as my filler plants. For my thriller I combined two plants, a small white caladium (Caladium spp.) and a taro (Colocasia spp.). While the taro may get too tall, the shade should keep it relatively compact. (We’ll see how it looks by August).

Next add fillers

Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) was selected for my spiller. I divided the ivy up so I would have enough to plant in several locations around the rim of the pot. I gently removed the plant from the pot and separated the plant into four sections, then gently pulled them apart in clumps. I tried to avoid damaging the root area around the stems as much as possible.

Dividing the Grape Ivy for Spillers

Added Grape Ivy around the rim to flow over the edge

A handful of organic fertilizer

Water well

In a few weeks this will fill in nicely

Avoid Container Clutter

A common mistake is planting too many containers the same size or using containers that are too small in scale. Grouping containers of various sizes in groups of three or five can produce a lovely vignette. Remember that your are decorating your outdoor rooms in a similar way to your indoor rooms. Sometimes too much is exactly that, too much. Fewer, larger containers are best.

Example of tiered planters well placed

River Oaks Garden Club

Here is another example of using thrillers, fillers and spillers I saw at the River Oaks Garden Club.

Example of too many pots! Looks messy. - Yes they're mine.

Here is an example of what NOT to do. Yes this is my driveway collection. While I have the tiered effect, I have too many containers. Nothing stands out. It looks messy. SO! I plan to follow my own advice this weekend and make some needed changes.

Simple Collection of Three Tier Pots

This arrangement of containers looks much better. Container gardening makes a landscape pop and creates a warm and inviting space. It brings your landscape garden closer to your home and ties everything together.

Need help? Buchanan’s has all the fixings for fabulous containers!

Get your creative juices flowing and let us help you put together the perfect container garden.

Jacqueline D'Elia is a freelance garden writer, photographer and organic gardener living in Houston. She earned a BS in Horticulture from Texas A&M. She blogs about her garden antics at Southern Post Journal. Follow her on Twitter @JDElia.

8 Responses to “Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers: Easy Steps for Spectacular Containers”

  • Barbara Lyles:

    thank you, thank you! THOSE OF US WITH NO ARTIST BENT NEED PICTURES TO GO BY. THANK YOU AND YOU,LL SEE ME VERY SOON.

  • [...] Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. If you are new to container gardening, you may find this Container Garden Basics post helpful. I wrote it for Buchanan’s Native Plants this week. It was a fun post and I have [...]

  • Greg:

    Excellent post. I’m inspired to do some work this weekend! Some of the most spectacular container gardening I’ve seen was a few years back in the Smithsonian Castle and Mall area. The combination of containers and hanging baskets was very impressive and I’ve always wanted to try and do the same thing around our home. Any suggestions on hanging baskets? I find getting started to be a tad intimidating.

  • Thank you Greg. Hanging baskets can be done in the same way, but I would recommend oversized baskets to avoid having to water repeatedly during the day. Keep them out of the afternoon sun. I have found it difficult to keep hanging baskets alive in July and August here without constant watering.

  • Marlene:

    Very nice post, love the pictures. Any more suggestions on plants to fill the three catagories. In a container, it must look good for a long time, in the garden when the blooms fade the plant can just be and fade into the background, but that does not work so well in a container. And some plants just do better in containers than others.

  • Sandy B:

    Good post. I love the thriller (Cordylline), spiller (Autumn Fern), and filler (Sky Pencil Holly, Geranium & Begonia) in big pots by my front door. They’ve lived together nicely now for a couple of years.

  • [...] Remember to use the design techniques discussed in our recent post on Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. [...]

  • Michele Hammond:

    I just bought a new house about 4 months ago and didn’t know what to do with the backyard, it is fairly large and barren of plants , only grass, the grass is only 4 months old , now you have given me wonderful ideas and I cannot wait to get to your garden, I will need a lot of counseling from your experts. Michele H