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Here’s How to Create Beautiful Containers

Category: Presenting "The Curious Gardener"

Reprinted and Revised from an earlier story in Curious Gardener

I learned about the container gardening concept of “Thriller, Filler, Spiller” at a class I took at the NY Botanical Garden.  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. It works as an organizing principle.

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 all of my empty containers so I would know what my goals are and how many plants I need to purchase or grow from seed. Then I got out 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.

For this arrangement I used a terracotta container I purchased at a garden center 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


Line 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. You can also put 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, not just each container. 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 and shrubs 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 containers together think about the focal point of the grouping, rather than focusing on each container.

-Sometimes simpler is better. Less is more.

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

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