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Container Gardening How To

Category: How-To Projects, Plant Ideas & Info, Presenting "The Curious Gardener"

containergardeningblogIn one of the classes I took at the NY Botanical Garden I learned about the container gardening concept of “Thriller, Filler, Spiller”. When you’re selecting plants for your container, the Thriller is the central plant that grows taller than the others and is the focal point. The Filler is the plant or plants that surround the Thriller, and the Spiller is the plant that spills over the edges of your container.

I followed this concept with the container I planted at my home, shown here. The Thriller plant is an annual variety of Milkweed (Asclepias ‘Monarch Promise’); the Filler is called Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus) and the Spiller is Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).containergdnsetup

Before planting I assembled my tools, which included a pair of Incomparable Scissors for trimming dead leaves and deadheading blossoms to allow roots to grow; Eco Watering Spouts, and Weeder Gloves to protect my hands from the soil and amendments I was handling. I used a terracotta container I purchased at Sugar Tools in Camden, Maine. It has a lovely, natural shape with a patina that suggests age. It’s true that plastic containers retain water better than stone or terracotta, and there are plenty of them on the market that are very attractive! The two containers behind my terracotta pot in the photo are made of fiberglass to look like stone.

Womanswork Weeder Gloves


Amy O’Donnell of Sugar Tools suggests lining your terracotta pot with bubble wrap to help retain water and prevent the pot from cracking in cold weather. For winter protection we recommend bringing the container indoors or into a place that does not have prolonged below freezing temperatures, such as a garage. Amy also suggests putting a coffee filter at the bottom of the container to prevent soil from draining out through the hole.

I mixed organic potting soil with perlite to give it air and aid drainage. I watered and fertilized the plants after potting them up, and moved them to their permanent location on our front stoop.

DCF 1.0
Itea shrub

When grouping containers I try to think about what I want the focal point of the grouping to be. Otherwise it looks fussy and the plants compete with each other. With this particular grouping my focal point is the container in front potted up with the Thriller, Filler, Spiller concept, while the two larger containers behind it provide a more neutral backdrop. One of the larger containers in back is planted with a single shrub, Itea, which I will plant in the ground at the end of the growing season. Itea has arching branches with white blossoms when in bloom. The other container is planted with a variegated liriope that has purple flower spikes. The overall effect is simple and very pretty.

Container Planting Tips:

-Use a container that retains water or line the inside of a terracotta pot with bubble wrap

-Put a coffee filter at the bottom of the pot over the holes to prevent soil from leeching out

-Create balance by following a Thriller, Filler and Spiller arrangement– as appropriatemillerton

-Mix it up by combining annuals, perennials and shrubs. Plant perennials in the ground at the end of the season, or shelter them with their containers against winter freeze.

-Combine complementary textures, shapes and colors for a more interesting effect

-Think about the focal point of your container planting, and if you are grouping several conatiners together think about the focal point of the grouping too.

I saw this eye catching container on a street in Millerton, NY, a small town near here. Here the Thriller is a tall Canna, the Fillers are Coleus and Heuchera, and the Spillers are a chartreuse potato vine and a Bacopa plant with yellow flowers spilling over the edge. A Black Eyed Susan vine is growing up a trellis against the brick building.


Container plants at the home of Michael Trapp, West Cornwall, CT.
Container planting at the home of Jane Garmey, West Cornwall, CT


4 thoughts on “Container Gardening How To

  1. Martha Trower says:


    I love these articles you write. Truly inspiring. And you are being an artist with plants! See, those early, little art classes with us on Chebeague have paid off. Ha ha.
    Marty Trower

  2. Very informative. Learned a lot.
    I will now have thriller , fillers, and spillers !!!

  3. Bubble wrap and coffee filters. Why didn’t I think of that?! Thanks for excellent tips.

  4. Gigi Windon says:

    Enjoy connecting with plants & people who care for them properly. Also, I appreciate learning how to do the best job caring for them. Thanks for including artful expressions

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