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Summer Vacation

Not-So-Secret Formula

I'm up north this week, and maybe you thought I'd be putting together some sort of up-northy post for today. But no. It's raining up here (because of course it is; it gets cold or rains EVERY time I come up this year). And there is some sort of issue with the motor on our pontoon (because of course there is; the motor is over 30 years old and deserves to be somewhat cranky). And we're not going to town (because of course we aren't; the vax rate is low up here, and the transmission rate is high).

But . . . no worries. I planned ahead for a little garden post for today!

A few weeks ago, I did a mid-summer compare-and-contrast post analyzing my front porch container . . . and I got several comments from readers alluding to the fact that they have a hard time figuring out what to plant in their containers to make them look nice and balanced. So I thought I'd share my not-so-secret (like . . . not secret at all) formula for putting together nice-looking container gardens.

Winning containers = Thriller + Spiller + Filler


It's really that simple. 

When you put together a container, start with your thriller -- a focal-point kind of plant that will be tall and showy. For my front porch planters, I chose those big, leafy things (which I can't remember the name of now; they are not elephant ears, but something along those lines). Definitely a focal point sort of plant, though.

Next, choose your spiller -- a plant that's going to trail over the edges/sides of your planter. Ivy/vining kinds of plants work well in this role. This year, I chose trailing verbena -- those white and pink blooms you see there -- which was a new variety for me this season. I also stuck in a marjoram plant (the lime green leaves there on the right) because I didn't have room for it in my herb garden. Turns out it spills, too! (I will definitely be using marjoram in my planters in the future. I like the way it's behaving. Not so sure about the verbena, though. It's not trailing as much as I'd hoped.)

Last, find a filler -- plants that will just mound up, enhance your thriller in a supporting role, and pull the planter together in a pleasing way. In my front porch planter, I used some of my tried-and-true fillers: a Boston fern, a sun coleus, and lantana. I also stuck in some some yellow straw flowers (but I'm not particularly pleased with them; they need a lot of deadheading and look bad much of the time).

And there you go!
That's the basic formula for a gorgeous and well-balanced container: Thriller. Spiller. Filler.

A few other considerations for a successful container: Make sure your thrillers-spillers-fillers will perform well - together - in your particular container conditions. Like . . . make sure all of them are sun-lovers, for example. Or shade-friendly. Think about your bloom colors and how they'll look together. Consider a good mix of foliage shapes and color. And then water the heck out of it. . . all summer long!

My front porch containers are HUGE, and I need to use quite a few plants to get it fill out like this (so . . . multiple spillers and fillers). But even for small containers (or indoor plant gardens or even cut flower arrangements), if you just mix one thriller, spiller, and filler . . . you're going to have success!

Here's one of my smaller patio containers . . . 


Just three plants . . . a thriller, a spiller , a filler. 

Here's another . . . 


Again, just three plants. This one . . . didn't follow the rules, though. The spiller . . . decided to take over as the thriller! (The geranium was supposed to be the thriller in this particular container -- but the spiller didn't get the memo and turned out to be a bully. I'll remember that for next year.)

Which is a good seque here. Unless you're following a "pattern" for your containers (and there are plenty of those to choose from out there), this is really just a great way to experiment and have some fun in your garden. Sometimes things will work out really well. And sometimes they won't. It doesn't mean you don't have  a"green thumb" -- it just means that your container didn't quite live up to your expectations. (Which happens.) Remember what works - or doesn't - for next year. And then try again.

And also know that by this point in the summer? You may just end up with a jumble!


This . . . is two containers that have merged and become one. When I planted them, there were thrillers, spillers, and fillers. But now? It's an explosion of foliage and blooms. EVERYbody is happy. (Especially the hummingbirds.) Is it the look I was going for? Nope. Do I care? Nope.

Plants . . . don't always follow the rules. 
But in August, all plants get a pass (in my book).


Have a great weekend -- and I'll see you on Monday.



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Great advice that I sometimes follow but also sometimes ignore - especially when I've planted most everything I've bought and I don't have one of each left! Is the green thriller in your first container photo a caladium? It looks like it could be but I don't think I've ever seen an all green one.


Wow. I SO enjoyed this post! It makes me think maybe I could do this. And that's a big statement; I have no gardening confidence.

Kim in Oregon

I want a 'thriller and spiller' tattoo. I don't know why, I just do.


I am going to remember this useful info. next spring, especially because I will (hopefully) be planting containers for just one house in NJ. (And now I've got "Thriller" stuck in my head.)


What a fun look at your planters! my favorite is the two-became-one ... I can see why the hummingbirds love it! and so sorry about the ugh Up North. but surely you have some good books, some knitting, and some more knot pictures to uncover :-) Happy Weekend!!


Wow it really helps to have a giant urn (or so it looks like in your photo) for added drama. You are a master of outdoor spaces, Kym.
Since you mentioned hummingbirds I recently read an article (can’t find it now) on the dangers of nectar in feeders to a hummingbird’s beak and tongue. At the very least you Must clean the feeder and replace the nectar every two days to prevent mold, mildew and infection. Hummingbird rescue centers , as I read only days ago - I think on the web but can’t find it now - are reporting that the sugar in the nectar deteriorates the actual beak of the bird, and the pictures they displayed were pretty dramatic. They suggested an alternative to the nectar, but again I can’t find that website. I had intended to refer to it later. I should have “Pocket” - ed it. Maybe someone else will have better luck.


This is great advice, especially for an ignorant gardener like me. I think I might venture more into container gardening next year, and now that we've pulled out the annoying and much-hated holly trees on either side of our front door, we'll likely need some new color out there.


This is great information! WOW. I can't wait to send to my sister!

Caffeine Girl

I love your formula. I've never done a planter on my own, but I hope to do some next summer. Our old house was too shady to make it worthwhile. I just hope I can remember your formula!


What a great idea - thriller, spiller, filler. I'm going to write this in my new garden journal. My front porch pots weren't great to begin with and by now they look more than a little sad. I am adopting your thought - they get a pass in August. The Covid thing - just ugh.


I have taken all.the.notes (and put them in my calendar for next May so I remember! lol) They are gorgeous Kym! All of them!


I got some good spillers and thought I had a good filler, but the thriller just wasn't up to the job. My fault, really. I just can't get the sun/shad plants figured out. Instead of well planted pots I got a small fountain. I love the sound and it doesn't need any work. I guess, there's always next year to try again!

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