The Thriller, Filler and Spiller of Container Gardening

by Aaron Wilson

Whether for curb appeal, to complement your backyard patio or as a gift for a friend, container gardening is an opportunity to express creativity in a unique, dramatic way. Each container becomes an artistic expression and has the bonus feature of being mobile to be placed where it best accents the surroundings. If you are limited by outdoor space for in-ground gardening or have an aversion to copious weeding, containers are the answer for an eye-catching display of color, texture and style.
Pots at garden centers are available for a price, but thinking outside the box allows an avenue of creativity potentially for less money. A flea market find like a vintage metal watering tub or trough can be repurposed as can a wheelbarrow, old wood box, glazed pot, tin bucket, old rubber boots, the seat of a rotted-out cane bottom chair [see sidebar], almost anything. Even if you settle for ubiquitous terra cotta pots, it is imperative that every container have drainage holes. Grab a hammer and large nails to create them if necessary. Plant roots that stand in water will rot. If using a pot with a central hole in the bottom, place a mesh screen, coffee filter or pebbles over it so soil and fertilizer do not flow out every time you water.
Soil Prep ~ Avoid using rich, amended soil from a garden because container gardening is different, and it is worth buying high quality potting soil. There are many recipes to make excellent soil for containers. A sterile mixture with moisture control properties, as well as a slow release fertilizer, is a sound choice. Before planting anything, water the soil mixture to the point of being saturated, but not clumping. It may take a few minutes so be patient and allow absorption. Invest in a slow release fertilizer and follow the instructions, blending thoroughly into the soil. There are water storing polymer products available for additional insurance if the container may not be watered regularly.
Plant Choices ~ The most exciting part of putting together a container is choosing the flowers, herbs and plants. Begin by assessing where the container is going to live – a shady deck, full sun or some combination. Evaluate how the container will be viewed – in a deck corner only seen from one angle, on front steps or against a stone wall. This makes a difference in the layout and arrangement of plant material.
Reading plant labels is imperative for the success of any container garden. They reveal sun and water needs, height at maturity and blooming season. A cactus and fern will not be happy sharing space. The plants need to have similar water and light requirements. Consider colors that match or contrast with deck furniture, window shutters or the front door. Some containers hold all one plant, which can make a statement grouped with other pots or by itself. Combining plants can create drama and yield a unique creation.
Experts recommend the thriller, filler and spiller method. The thriller is a tall dramatic plant in the back or center that catches the eye from a distance. Plant it first in a container filled two-thirds with moistened soil. Gently untangle roots before placing it in the soil to encourage it to grow down. Next, select filler that occupies most of the space. Finally, the spiller is the plant that drapes over the container to lead the eye downward.
Creation and Care ~ As plants are put in their places, add more soil incrementally, then gently but firmly tamp down each plant to decrease air pockets. There should be about one inch from the rim of the pot to the soil level. Some want the instant lushness of plants packed together tightly, but they will grow so it pays to be patient, start small and watch the plants fill in as the season progresses. Give every new planter a thorough watering that flows out the drainage hole. Top off the soil if it settles after watering. Transport the container to its place on the porch, in the front yard, on the back deck, wherever.
Stick a finger in the soil a couple of inches and if it’s dry, the plants are probably thirsty. Watering in the early morning or late evening allows plants to better utilize the water with less evaporation. You will begin to “read” the plants and note the limp look of an over-watered plant versus the wilted look of an under-watered one. Throughout the growing season, pinch back flower heads as they die and be mindful of the soil level as it may continue to settle and need more on top.
Planters can hold flowers and so much more. Certain vegetables, shrubs, vines and even trees can thrive in the right container if close attention is paid to their needs. What a delight to create a themed herb garden for a housewarming or birthday gift. And how interesting to cluster containers around a rock or on the ends of porch steps. Container gardening is a wonderful way to design your own flower gardens with much less work than full-fledged in-ground gardening.


Text by Lynn Brammer

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