Winning Container Combinations

Deciding what to plant and how to design a container can be daunting.  We feel that mastering container gardening takes a little knowledge and a lot of practice.  One of our most popular design techniques is the Thriller, Filler, Spiller method.  In this blog we will describe each of these three elements and at the end we have design suggestions and recipes for sunny and shady areas.

The Thriller is a tall, focal plant that gives the container arrangement height.  It is the up, the wow, the tall plant that draws your eyes up. This can be achieved in the following ways:

  • For Sunny areas:
    • A foliage type of plant like grasses, millets, dracaenas, or tropicals like bananas or Cypress grass lend height and drama. These different foliages come in shades of green, limes, yellows, bronzes, ruby, and variegated.
    • Tall flowering plants like Cannas, Dahlias, Salvia and Rudbeckia give height and many colour options.
    • Vines on trellises or obelisks like Black Eyed Susan, Cobea, and Mina Lobata are another option for a sunny Thriller.
  • Choices for shade Thrillers include foliages like Cannas, Dracaenas, Fountain Grass varieties, Ornamental Millet types. A good shade flower with height that’s a good Thriller is Dragon Wing Begonias.
  • Always remember that Millet is best used in calm areas – Millet leaves shred in wind leaving the plant stripped and looking incredibly shaggy and beat up.

The Filler is a plant that fills out the midrange of the container. For faced arrangements that are just seen from one angle, use 2 and for an arrangement that is seen from all sides, use at least 3.

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Ideas for good fillers are:

  • Sunny Areas: Geraniums, Sun Begonias, Heliotrope, Osteospermum, Rudbeckia, Salvia, Sunptiens, and Talinum
  • Shady Areas:  Tuberous Begonias, Fuchsia, Impatiens, Lobelia, Sunpatiens, Schizanthus

And lastly, Spillers are the plants that flow over the edge of the pot to further lengthen the arrangement downward.  There are many options for this part of the recipe, and many of them like both sun and shade.  Quick ideas for this are:

What you need to know before you get started and plant containers:

  • Always remember to do your research
    • Location – Where you’re going to put the container? How much sun, shade, and wind does that area receive?
  • Know how you will be viewing the container:
    • All sides? This needs a rounded design
    • One side? A faced arrangement will be best
  • Try to match water requirements – some plants like a lot of water and others like it drier.  It’s a good idea to match these up too, otherwise the water lovers will dry out and those who like it dry could rot.

What supplies you will need:

  • A container that drains – check that the pot has drainage holes. A container that doesn’t drain will eventually turn into a swimming pool, or fertilizer salts will accumulate.  Either one of these things will negatively affect plant growth.
  • Good quality soil is always the foundation of a good planting.  See our blog called Container Planting: Soil Quality is Huge about what comprises a good quality soil and why it’s important.
  • Quality plants that are appropriate for area they are going into – sun or shade or a bit of both. Good quality plants have:
    • a good root system – thick white roots
    • bright green leaves – pale leaves (unless the leave colour is intentionally chartreuse) indicate a lack of fertilizer
    • is stocky – stout, bulky plants grow better. Spindly plants often stay that way and eventually will need to be staked
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A note about Colours:

  • How should you choose your focal colour? Find a plant that you love and want to use in your container – it can be a thriller, filler or spiller and design your container colour around that plant. Pull colours in that will complement and contrast with this focal plant.
  • What would you like to contrast that with?
  • Focal plants can have more than 1 colour. Are there colours you can draw out from your focal plant? For example – if purple fountain grass your favorite, you can focus on pulling pink and purple hues from it, or you can pull the bronze and orange tones from it.
  • Don’t stress over the colour wheel, it’s your art and you get to colour it as you wish.

Winning Design Ideas:

For Sun:

  • Idea 1:
    • Thriller: Canna with a yellow flower
    • Filler: Red Geraniums or Red Trailing Geraniums
    • Spiller: Lime Potato Vine, Yellow Calibrachoa (Million Bells), Purple Trailing Verbena
  • Idea 2:
    • Thriller: Purple Fountain Grass
    • Filler: Evolution Blue Salvia
    • Spillers: Lime Potato Vine, Yellow Bidens, Pink Calibrachoa ( Million Bells)
  • Idea 3:
    • Thriller: Juncus Grass with its lovely bluey hue
    • Filler: Bright pink Geraniums
    • Spiller: Yellow Lysmachia, White Sun Lobelia, Yellow Black Eyed Susan
  • Idea 4:
    • Thriller: Draceana
    • Filler: 2 Pink Sun Begonias, 1 Sun Coleus with pink  and lime in it
    • Spiller:  White Lobularia, Jade Frost Lamiastrum, Soft Pink Calibrachoa ( Million Bells)

For Shade:

  • Idea 1:
    • Thriller: Yellow Canna
    • Filler: 2 or 3 Red Dragon Wing Begonias
    • Spiller: 3 purple Scaevola
  • Idea 2:
    • Thriller: Jester Millet – chartreuse hued (for a sheltered area – Millet shred in wind)
    • Filler: 1 Fern, 1 Kong Coleus, 1 Pink Sunpatien (Sunpatiens grow in shade too)
    • Spiller: Purple Oxalis, White Nancy Lamium, Pink Scaevola
  • Idea 3:
    • Thriller: Purple Fountain Grass
    • Filler: 2 yellow shade nonstop Begonias, White Impatiens
    • Spiller: Lime Potato Vine, Mezoo, Vinca
  • Idea 4: All folige container
    • Thriller: Banana
    • Filler: 2 different Coleus, 1 Heuchera
    • Spiller:  Plectranthus, Bronze potato vine, Lime Lysmachia
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Looking for more container garden ideas?  Come and see us and it will be easy for us to walk you through your options – our sales greenhouse is divided into sun and shade sections for both annuals and perennials and be sure to check out our video on Container Design.


Feel free to contact us via our website or call us at 780.467.3091.

Happy planting!

About The Author

Wallish Greenhouses
Tucked just outside the northern boundary of Sherwood Park on Clover Bar Road, we are known in the greenhouse world as a grower-retailer agribusiness. We specialize in growing annuals and perennials. Presently, Wallish Greenhouses is operated by Glenn & Louise Wallish, and Dan & Sharon (Wallish) Murphy, now a 3rd generation business.