Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers

– Posted in: Garden Design

My HOCD-horticultural obsessive compulsive disorder–kicks into high gear when it comes to containers. I use more than 100 in my garden. I have hordes of mixed containers -those planted with a riotous array of plants, and many more outfitted with a single specimen. Even empty pots play a role (but more about that in a future post). Yes there is some – OK, a lot – of maintenance involved in all that, but I have learned more about garden design from playing with pots than I have from any other pursuit, indoors (I have zillions of gardening books ) or out. And the kind of container culture that has taught me the most is designing mixed plantings.

I’ve come up with an easy-to follow recipe for making mixed pots. It calls for three simple ingredients: A brawny thriller – a dramatically architectural , eye-catching plant to serve as centerpiece; a spicy filler – a mounding, billowing plant to fill in around the base of the thriller; and a tasty spiller – a trailing vine or tumbling plant to spill over and soften the edge of the pot and to sprawl earthward to help visually connect the pot to its place. In the big pot at the top, I’m using red Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) as a thriller, a ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’) as a filler, and some dragon wing begonias as spillers (something they did a lot more of later in the season). And here’s a nice pot assembled by Sydney Eddison; it uses a Phormium ‘Maori Sunrise’ as the thriller, a coleus, a salmony Salvia splendens and a fire-engine-red geranium as fillers, and a Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ as thriller.

As long as you use at least one each of the ingredients in my recipe, you’ve got a good chance a creating a handsome container. The key is to really work the shapes, textures and colors. I tend to use lots of annuals, tender perennials and tropicals in my pots because the lengthy bloom times, vividly colored flowers, and the outrageous shapes and textures of their foliage are so much fun, but I’ve made pleasing pots using a mix of perennials and woody plants too.

A few additional strategies: keep your plants in proportion. I like to think in threes, so I’d rarely use a thriller more than three times as large as the fillers. Think too about scale- something that’s a thriller in a 12-inch pot may be a filler in a 20-inch composition. I also work mostly with foliage plants, as their contributions last longer and the plants are easier to keep in proportion as they grow through the season. For good-looking results from day one, I plant my mixed containers densely from the get-go, knowing that some plants will get overrun as the season progresses. I try to work with the growth rather than against it, and appreciate the lush, almost overgrown look that characterizes the late season. For those nicely stuffed early-season pots, I sometimes include a few plants that I leave in their original, 4-inch-or-so nursery pots, then, when they start to get overrun, I just pluck them out, pot and all, and use them elsewhere in the gardens while the remaining plants fill in and knit together.

Plus, there’s nothing sacred about using one of each type of plant, or limiting yourself to three kinds of plants. Sometimes a single will host two different thrillers, a bunch of fillers and three or four spillers -it all depends on the size of the pot.

Here’s a gallery of different approaches: This pot with a fuchsia thriller was designed by Wesley Rouse, of Wooodbury, CT.

Sydney Eddison designed the pots above and below. The two color schemes are almost identical, the different textures and shapes gives the pots a very different feel.

This last one, with an airy, light feel, is by Bucks County, PA garden designer Jerry Fritz.

I wrote about Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers several years ago in a Fine Gardening magazine article, and this past summer wrote an entire special issue devoted to the topic. My latter effort really details the design technique and includes profiles of about 25 each of my favorite thriller, filler and spiller plants.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Elly Phillips March 4, 2008, 7:42 am

Fantastic post, Steve! How could anyone not love “thrillers, fillers and spillers”–so easy to remember and such good design sense, too. I read your article in Fine Gardening–thanks for the link–and will order the special issue at the EOM. And okay, okay, I *will* order a red Abyssinian banana (or two or three) from Brent and Becky and stop just thinking about it. What a plant!!!

Hi Elly–I have a few more thriller, filler and spiller posts planned to show just how versatile that little scheme is, so keep your eyes on this spot. As for that red Abyssinaian, I know those bananas look pricey. But I daresay you won’t ever regret ordering one–at least, that is, until you decide you need more of them.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow March 4, 2008, 8:11 am

Great container words to work by…Thriller, filler, spiller. Boy, these photos conjur up some great thoughts.

Thanks, Lisa. Sounds as if my pictures did just what I’d hoped, there are just endless variations on this theme. All you have to do is conjur one–or a dozen–that work for you. Have fun with it!–Steve

gina March 4, 2008, 8:18 am

steve – these are just beautiful! thanks for the very easy-to-remember description of how to organize our containers. This really eases my “container angst”!

Container angst? Say it ain’t so, Gina! Pots should be about fun and experimenting and cutting loose with your plant combinations. If you don’t like it start over. Sometimes I’ll plant my thriller and then just play with what might go around it, shuffling various other plants in and out of the scene to see what works best. I take my time, and have lots of options on hand. That’s when I’m really learning about what makes combinations work.–Steve

Colleen March 4, 2008, 8:23 am

Thank you, thank you for this, Steve! My containers never quite work out–I’m going to try your recipe this year!

Thanks Colleen, I hope it helps. My notion is that if you can’t visualize something, say a container planting, you can’t create it. My little TFS mantra is intended to give you a little bit of a picture to work with, and to be easy-to-remember. –Steve

Rana March 4, 2008, 9:46 am

My god, such lovely pictures. Lovely to see. Best regard! 🙂

Rana–thanks so much. I’m planing to put lots more of my container pix up this month, so come back.–Steve

Frances March 4, 2008, 10:09 am

You make it sound so simple. I remember well your article, being a big fan and longtime subscriber to FG. The photos are beautiful but it just never works out well here. I am not a hovering type of gardener, I like to plant it and forget it, maybe that is the problem. But I love the idea of leaving the plants in their pots and pulling them out when the whole thing grows too large. Thanks for that tip!

Frances at Faire Garden

Hi Frances–My garden is way too big to permit hovering time, and even if it wasn’t, having as many pots as I do wouldn’t allow me to spend time doting on each one. Aside from watering, which I do daily, and fertilizing, which I do weekly, my pots are pretty much on their own. They get one or at the very most two grooming sessions a season. Using water soluble fertilizer–as opposed to time-release stuff–helps; if plants are growing too fast you just cut back on feeding. Perhaps your problem is that the pots are too small to start with. It really helps if you use a pot AT LEAST 16 inches in diameter, 20- or 24-inch pots are even better. The plus sizes allow lots of room for growth, accommodate sizeable plants, and the larger soil mass they allow also means the pot won’t dry out as quickly. Another option is to go with slower-growing cacti, succulents etc–you can still do the thriller, filler, spiller thing, but the plants grow slowy and if you get even a little rain you won’t need to water or tend them in any way. If you use agaves, bromeliads, furcraeas, aloes, yuccas, or some cool sansevierias as thrillers, you can make very architectural, zero-maintenance plantings –Steve

Pam/Digging March 4, 2008, 12:06 pm

Was it already a few years ago that I read your article? I remember the “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” — great tagline.

Living in Texas, I don’t do many containers. And the few that I do plant must be able to survive at least 10 days in 90-degree heat with no water because we often take a summer trip and leave the garden to its own devices. Therefore, my container plants must be extremely drought tolerant. I’ll do a post on the few containers I do have sometime this month.

Pam–You sound like a candidate for containers stuffed with cacti, succulents and the like. They’re born for those kind of conditions. And the cool, sculptural stuff you could grow in pots down there year round , well…I’m jealous. You must know of Yucca Do–I’d think that might be a source for all kinds of ideas. Another option might be container water gardens, then you could use water plants for your design elements and the pots would water themselves, provided you top them off now and then. I use both those ideas for pots located out of hose reach.–Steve

Connie March 4, 2008, 1:02 pm

Great title… and lovely container combos!

Thanks, Connie. Container combos are one of the things I enjoy most about gardening. I’ve gotten so many ideas playing with pots, and many combinations that began in a container have translated into more permanent groupings in some of my beds and borders.–Steve

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 4, 2008, 1:44 pm

I also remember the Fine Gardening article & have been following your “Thriller, Filler, Spiller” rule. My problem is in getting the scale of the plants right with each other & with the container. I struggle bravely onward, experimenting, hoping, someday, to get it right.

Aha! Well MMD, you’ve read just part one of the thriller, filler and spiller saga. Next time out I’ll have some ideas that may make life a lot easier for you and others who share the challenge of keeping some of their container plants from outgrowing their allotted space. And I’m glad to know there are so many FG readers out there.–Steve

jodi March 4, 2008, 6:35 pm

Steve, I read a pile of stuff in the run of the week–blogs, newsletters, books, magazines, etc–and sometimes a name will tickle my brain but I won’t know why. As soon as I read the title of this post, I smacked myself in the head, and the connection was made. I have that special issue on container plants, and thought it was inspired–and that Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers was one of the most inspired titles and recipes for containers I’d ever heard. Duh to me for having not made that connection sooner, but my gardenin’ hat is off to you (and i’m almost ready to subscribe to FG, too, now that our dollars are about equal. One of the better magazines out there)

Gee Jodi, thanks for the compliment. I think FG is one of the better garden magazines out there too, but then I may be biased. Heck, at this rate if you wait a little longer, your dollar may be worth more than ours.–Steve

Sylvia March 5, 2008, 6:40 am

Steve, I like your idea that you can learn about garden design from pots. I have planted combinations I liked in a pot, successfully into the garden. I also find containers useful to grow plants into bigger specimens or larger clumps before I plant them in the garden. One plant two different ways of growing it – twice the fun.

I agree that larger pots are best, not just for upkeep but also the plants look better. I try to buy at least one big pot each year. I can never have too many pots but my small back garden soon will!

Thank you for a lovely blog, I look forward to the next installment.

Sylvia (England)

Thanks, Sylvia–I’ve been collecting pots for a long time too. In fact I just bought six 30-inch tall, very narrow pots the other day. I always hunt them down in remainder stores and such and have been surprised at how little you can get great pots for provided you’re not too impatient. And yes, I often grow plants that are new to me in a pot. That way I can keep an eye on them and get a better sense of what they’re all about before moving them on to a permanent home. It’s great to buy inexpensive, small Japanese maples, grow them on for a few years in a pot, then when they get some size, into the ground they go.–Steve

Gail March 5, 2008, 3:09 pm

very new blogger and wandered over here from Faire Gardens. The containers are spectacular, makes me glad I pushed mine in the corner where they can remain unseen until I try your

Do you know if there is a list somewhere with all the fun days garden bloggers participate in…like Bloom Day, etc.

clay and limestone

Welcome Gail-Not sure whether there is such a list, but if you keep poking around it shouldn’t take long for you to discover enough activities to keep you busy. I do hope you’ll bring those containers out of hiding this spring, stuff them full of fun plants and share the results with us.–Steve

Annie in Austin March 5, 2008, 7:00 pm

These containers are gorgeous, Steve!
None of my container combinations are as colorful as the ones in the photos, but I do have some height differences and trailers. Other plants would die in my clay soil, but are surviving in a container with a more friendly growing medium.

My email this afternoon included one from Park Seeds linking to an webpage featuring “Thrillers, Spillers, and Fillers”…should they be giving you credit for this term?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Hi Annie–Yes I see the thriller, filler, spiller thing popping up all over. It galls me some when I see some other garden coach-type offering it as their original advice in a newspaper story or the like–as I’ve seen more than a few times. But a catalog’s OK. Credit would be nice, royalties even better. But I’m afraid all I get for coining the phrase is the satisfaction of having done so.

Yep, one of the great things about container gardening is that you can use any mix of soil that’s appropriate, and so grow things that wouldn’t even dream of surviving in your regular old garden soil. Pots let you play with more plants.–Steve

Cindy at Rosehaven Cottage March 5, 2008, 7:53 pm

You’ve inspired me! I love pots in my garden as well and you’ve finally defined for me a perfect formula for making my pots look better. I will be instituting this formula in the next few weeks. Thank you!!!!

Cindy at Rosehaven Cottage

Cindy–I wish I was going to be instituting this formula in the next few weeks. But with all the snow lingering outside, and more on the way, all I can do is dream about it. For now.–Steve

Fern R March 18, 2008, 1:29 am

Too funny. I was about to criticize you for claiming that the “thriller, filler, spiller” idea was yours. Afterall, I just finished the Fine Gardening special edition and the author of that edition used the same terminology. Clearly that guy invented the phrase. I grabbed my magazine to see who the real author was and that’s when I realized that the real creator and you are one and the same!

I really enjoyed the special edition, and look forward to reading more of your posts here.

Thanks Fern. Did you see my original story on the topic? I think my earlier Thriller, Filler, Spiller post has a link. It’s nice to have coined a term, I see it all over now but rarely get credit, oh well.–Steve

Kathy Ribik April 21, 2008, 11:21 pm

Steve, I will never again look at another potted container without thinking of you. Is there a thriller, great filler and a stunning spiller! I see alot of gardens and potted containers with the work I do, but rarely have I see containers so beautiful! I have your original story and still show it off to my clients and friends.

Denise Hoffer August 30, 2009, 8:22 am

Hi Steve,
I recently saw an episode of “Gardening by the Yard” which highlighted your “Thrillers, Fillers, & Spillers”. It was amazing! The host, Paul James , mentioned your soil combination and I only remember the one part potting soil, one part compost, but I missed the final ingredient. Please help so I can get started. Many thanks.

Francesco January 8, 2016, 12:17 pm

Steve, thank you so much for this great article, it’s very inspiring. I am keen to try out the thriller-filler-spiller technique this spring, but what I struggle with is an understanding of how many plants I can put into a pot. Is there any point in even considering the eventual size (i.e. width) a plant can reach when looking at how many plants to put into a pot? My understanding is that what really matters is choosing the right plant combinations, but how can I work out how many plants I need in a pot? Thanks for your help, much appreciated!

Saxon Holt January 11, 2016, 1:53 pm

Franz – Thanks for the comment. You replied to one of our Archive posts, and Steve Silk no longer blogs with us. I will chime in that any plant combination in a pot will eventually outgrow the pot, so ahead and combine several plants and remember to keep up with fertilizer. They will grow together in a marvelous jumble. Saxon Holt

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