Container Garden Ideas - Thriller, Filler and Spiller

Main Image

Did you ever wonder why some container gardens look straight out of the decorating magazine while others are just…there?

One of the most common mistakes made when arranging a container garden for the patio is when people choose plants that they like. That’s right; they head out to the nursery or garden center and walk through the isles picking up plants that catch their eye along the way, with no plan or thought or how they will work together. Sometimes you’ll find that while each plant looks great on its own, they somehow just don’t come together in the container. It’s very easy to get overzealous when selecting plants, so it’s best to have a plan in place before you even get into the car.

First Things First  

The first thing you should decide on is where on the patio will your container garden live. Will it go in the sun, shade or somewhere in between? Investigate plants on-line that fall into your patio placement needs and read the tags in the plants at the nursery. Keep in mind that the plants in your container will also need to have the same basic water requirements.  

The Container

If you have an existing container that you’ll be using, you’ll want to take the height measurement with you. (more on that later) A container garden is made up of parts (the container and the individual plants) so scale plays an important role in the success of the overall look. Don’t limit yourself to store bought planters. This is the perfect project for re-purposing baskets, buckets, or any other item that will hold soil. If it doesn’t already have drainage holes you can easily drill in a few.

Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers  

One easy way to get a professional look is to follow the “thriller, filler and spiller” guideline when selecting your plants. This means that the planter will contain a selection of plants that fall into these 3 categories.     

  • Thrillers  patio plants

These plants are tall and dramatic and give the arrangement height. Drama can be found in leaf texture and colors. Your thriller plant doesn’t necessarily have to flower, but its best to choose plants that sustain their presence throughout the months that it will be on display.     

A general rule of thumb is that your thriller plants should reach the same height as your container is in height. In other words, if you are creating your garden in a 1 foot tall planter, your thriller height should grow to approximately 1 foot above the rim on the planter. The thriller plant is most often centered in the planter, but it can be placed in the back of your design if the planter is going up against a wall or in a corner of the backyard.  

Examples of Thriller Plants:Canna (sun) Astilbe (shade) Purple Millet (full sun or part shade) Allium (full sun) Caladium (full sun to full shade) Snake Plant or Mother in Laws tongue (full sun to light shade)

  • Fillers

Your filler plants are there to fill out and balance the center of the container garden. They should accent your thriller in color and/or add visual contrast in texture. Filler plants should completely encircle the center thriller plants, or should be placed near the thriller (half circle) for those that are in the rear of the container. These should be lush to help to camouflage the bottom of any thriller plants that may be somewhat bare. 

Examples of Filler Plants: Coleus (shade) Persian Shield (part sun) Lantana (full sun) Lily of the Valley (part shade) Begonia (shade) Lobelia (part sun)

  • Spillersbackyard plants

As the name implies, spiller plants cascade over the edge of the container. Spiller plants help to balance the arrangement and create a more natural or organic feel. These should be placed on the outermost edge of the container.

Examples of Spiller Plants:  Creeping Jenny (full sun to part shade) Alyssum (sun) Silver Falls (full sun to part shade) Potato Vines (full to part sun) Million Bells (part sun to sun) Asparagus Fern (shade) 

Because larger backyard patios often have sections that get different amounts of sunlight, you may have separate plant lists (sun vs. shade) for each container. Of course, this requires prior knowledge how much sun each section of your backyard gets during the day.

If you are a beginner, take note of pre-made containing gardens or baskets at your local nursery. Look at the individual plants within them. Look how the plants proportions, colors and textures all come together to create a cohesive look.     

With a little research and practice you’ll be creating beautiful living accents that will be the envy of the neighborhood.