Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers, 2.0

– Posted in: Garden Design

To cut down on watering and maintenance, I usually use nice, big slow-to-dry-out pots, maybe a 20-incher or bigger for my thriller; a 16- incher-or two or three– for my fillers; and a 12-inch or so pot -maybe three or five of them-for the spillers. The result is basically fool proof. If something grows too fast, move the pots farther apart to accommodate it. Too slowly? Raise a pot on a brick or whatever to get it the right height; disguise the booster by placing a pot with spiller in front of it.

Love this example from Tower Hill Botanic Garden, in Boylston, MA. Now here’s the best part of the plan. It is infinitely changeable. All I have to do to retool my composition is move the pots around. I can easily take a poor performer out and replace it with something else. I can tinker with my colors and tweak my textures all summer if I care to. But one thing is certain: I can ultimately happen on an arrangement that really, really pleases me, and learn a whole lot about combining plants in the process. You can also do a lot more with these kinds of groupings, they allow you to become a garden architect of sorts, something I just finished writing about for an upcoming issue of Fine Gardening.

This Tower Hill one’s a favorite too.

As this Chanticleer grouping shows, even when spread apart, a flock of pots is a great way to display collections of a particular type of plant.

Get a row of identical plants in the same pots, and you’ve got the start of a moveable wall, just as Sydney Eddison does here, on the terrace of her Newtown, Ct garden.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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our friend Ben March 16, 2008, 6:05 am

I *love* the idea of Sydney’s movable wall, Steve!!! That is definitely one worth stealing, I mean, borrowing!

Hi Elly–Yep, I’d have to agree. Of course, I’ve already borrowed it too. It’s terrific way to try out new spaces before planting them with hardy trees or shrubs.–Steve

mss @ Zanthan Gardens March 16, 2008, 9:08 am

This is very clever. I’ve always liked the concept of a movable garden although I’ve never had much luck with potted plants. Your photos are inspiring me to give it another try.

I’m curious about those yuccas and agaves hanging on the wall. They are basically rosette shaped plants against a flat space. Do the pots stick out further from the wall than the photo shows or were the back leaves hacked off? That variegated American agave can reach 6×6 feet pretty quickly…so I’m guessing that’s a short term display. If those pots can’t be removed from the wall, replacing those plants will be an interesting exercise.

Hi mss–potted plants–it’s all about giving them decent soil, plenty of water, and plenty of fertilizer. As long as you don’t let then get turned to toast by summer sun, they’re usually tough enough to make a go of it, and if they’re not, turn to those agaves etc. That Chanticleer display is short-lived, after all the plants aren’t hardy in PA. So they just use small specimens in what, if memory serves, are actually little lengths of clay pipe, flue pipe, whatever. There is a little bit of spacing between wall and container, but not all that much. It is a good way to grow young pups, then, as they get bigger, pot them on in bigger containers.–Steve

Gail March 16, 2008, 1:32 pm

Thanks I have some very usable ideas for containers…they are not my strength! I need the visual cues;) Gail

Hi Gail–I learn best by seeing things too, so I never get tired of looking at garden photos.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow March 16, 2008, 6:00 pm

I like the idea of having the thrillers, fillers and spillers in seperate pots. I think Imight approach it that way this summer. I had some pots that were just a little too small for an arrangement last year. I should have grouped them in seperate pots because I still like the idea of the plants together. I just needed larger pots.

Hi Lisa–Well, bigger pots are always a good way to go, you can grow bigger, more dramatic plants in them, and you don’t have to water quite so much since all that soil retains moisture. The best thing about having different pots is the ease of redesigning your grouping. –Steve

Carol Soules March 16, 2008, 11:04 pm

Great ideas and examples. I love Tower Hill; have been visiting there almost every year since it opened.

Thanks Carol-I went one of the first years Tower Hill was open, then back again about 2 years ago. I couldn’t believe how the place had grown and come together. I’ll be back this coming season for sure. –Steve

kate March 17, 2008, 12:23 am

I liked your post’s title – what a good idea to mass plants in different size pots and then move them around. I have so many potted plants that this is a good way to showcase them along with the pots.

Hi Kate–Yeah, I have a lot of fun moving stuff around. Gives me a great way to reinvigorate my patio and stuff mid-season, or even a couple times a season. Come to think of it, I do have a spring style of pots too, so I guess it’s always in flux. That’s a good thing, it always seems fresh. –Steve

Layanee March 18, 2008, 10:06 am

Used your term thriller, filler, spiller the other day! Gave you full credit! Love the big containers as they hold so much and keep so much better! Tower Hill is on my route and I always take the garden walk when I am there. It is a magical place!

Hi Layanee–Thanks for the credit! Yes, big containers are so much more forgiving, and so much easier, well, except for moving them. How’s the Tower Hill conservatory looking these days? I keep contemplating a trip there soon.–Steve

Frances March 19, 2008, 11:19 am

Thanks for some great ideas. Our containers are a little smaller than would be good for the thriller, etc. all in one, but one in each pot would work and be moved around. Wonderful inspiration!

Frances at Faire Garden

Hi Frances–yes moving the stuff around is great, it allows all kinds of mid season corrections. If you carefull place your fillers and spillers, you can put a thriller in a big nursery pot or anything else –then just tuck it away behind its companion plants and their pots. I use lots of unattractive pots, but then just hide ’em.–Steve

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 19, 2008, 1:12 pm

I’m not quite at the stage of having my TFS planting in separate containers yet. I have to get more containers for that. It’s a great idea & allows for more creativity and flexibility in creating combinations. Definitely something toward which to aspire.

Hi MMD–Now’s the time to be looking for containers, I’m always amazed how fast the season’s shipment gets picked over. But again, you might try hiding some less attractive but functional larger containers behind more attractive ones loaded with fliiers and spillers. Flexibilty is the name of the game. –Steve

Elizabeth March 19, 2008, 2:12 pm

Love the idea of the movable pots…actually I loved all of your ideas today. Thanks!

And thank you Elizabeth! BTW, here’s a tip on moving those pots–wait until just before you water so pots are fairly dried out, and so, not quite as heavy. And, if you’ve got fairly smooth terrain to work with, use a hand truck to move the pots around-saves wear and tear on the back.–Steve

Layanee March 24, 2008, 10:15 am

Steve: I need to take a trip also! It has been a while but it really never disappoints! Perhaps I’ll head up there on the 26th!

Commonweeder April 26, 2008, 10:41 am

the idea of an arrangement all in one pot has always been intimidating – not to mention the cost of a BIT container – but the idea of using separate pots makes the whole concept more appealing and doable. And considering my design talents, their moveability is a real plus. Thanks.

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