The Thrill, The Fill, and The Spill of It All

Container garden contents

By Elizabeth Cornell Fake, Fairfax Master Gardener
The hard work is done. You have the right container. You’ve planned for its proper drainage and filled it with a good potting soil. Now, you are ready to add plants to your container garden. Age-old advice in gardening books and magazines tells us to “thrill, fill and spill” the plants in a container garden. Newer sources say the same thing, though with a more modern bent –use thrillers, fillers and spillers! Let’s take a look at each kind of plant and see where it belongs in a container garden.

potted plant

Photo of container at Merrifield Garden Center. A good example of proportion, palette and texture in a container garden – the thrill, spill and thrill of it all.

Thrill plants are focal flowers or the ones that get all the attention. Choose something big, bright and showy that will add an element of surprise. But before you run off to buy elephant ears or canna bulbs, consider the proportion of the plants to the size of your container. A good rule of thumb is to measure the diameter and the height of the container, and then add the two numbers together. For example, if the diameter of the container is 24 inches and the height is 18 inches, then the total is 42 inches. For proper proportion, the thrill plants should be no more than 42 inches tall at full growth. Smaller containers need shorter plants. In selecting your plants, don’t forget location. Choose a drought-resistant focal plant for full sun and possibly a fern or caladium if you are putting the container in a shaded corner.

Fill plants are typically from one-third to two-thirds the size of the focal plant, closing the space between the thrill plant and the soil level. The real job of fillers however, is to establish the color palette of the container design. If the focal flowers have blooms, start there and add fillers with complimentary hues from the opposite side of the color wheel. For yellow, add purple; for orange, add blue; and for red, add green. Alternatively, stick with all secondary hues such as yellow, orange and green. An all-white color scheme adds drama when paired with green foliage.

Spill plants are the lovely, lolling vines that give container gardens their curb appeal. They serve to unify and anchor the design. Spillers should fall over the lip of the container and cascade down a distance that is at least two-thirds the height of the pot at full growth. Although spillers bring romance into a container garden, they also add texture to the design. Think about texture contrasts between the spillers and use a bold plant with a wispy one. Suggestions include any of the ivies or sweet potato vines, as well as Golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia) or Silver Falls (Dichondras).

Container gardens are a popular topic in home and garden publications and websites. Websites below give suggestions for container-garden plant combinations and additional tips on container care.

Our last segment, Edible Containers, is coming soon and will focus on the fall season and winter vegetables.

Full Sun Plants – Plants And Flowers That Do Well In Direct Sun, Gardening Know How Blog
Shade Container Garden: Plants For Creating Shade Containers, Gardening Know How Blog
Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers, Fine Gardening Online
9 best plants for colorful containers, Sunset Magazine Online