Design tips: Get some inspiration from these container designs

Updated May 1, 2024
Photo: waferboard/FlickrPhoto: waferboard/Flickr

I thought I was pretty clever when I came up with a successful formula for a plant combination in a pot. I’d make my plant selections using an “uppy,” a “downy” and a “bulky.” The uppy for height. The downy to cascade over the rim of the container. And the bulky to fill up the rest of the space (usually something inexpensive and fast growing to keep the cost down). Well, as it turns out, I’m not as clever as I once thought myself to be. I recently ran across my formula — and with a catchier catch phrase to boot! Sheesh.

Here’s the refined, original-to-someone-else formula for creating great plant combos in containers: Select a thriller, a spiller and a filler. The thriller (aka the uppy) is the focal point, soaring toward the heavens; the spiller (aka the downy) grounds the plantings in the pot, softening its hard edges and drawing the eye downward; and the filler (aka the bulky) allows the eye to rest in between points of interest (that is to say, the uppy and the downy). Consider the qualities each component brings as you’re formulating your composition — beyond color, plants can bring textural interest, contrast in form, movement and more.

Modern Landscape Planting

Photo: Kenneth Philp Landscape Architects

Airy thrillers, a densely matted spiller and fillers that read as calligraphic brushstrokes make this a stunning arrangement. Placing this masterpiece in front of a backdrop that makes it pop— much like art hung on the gallery wall — plus the strong color of the container really kicks it up a notch.

Traditional Landscape Planting

Photo: Margie Grace – Grace Design Associates

Tough but airy, these low-water-use plants have lots of movement.

Thriller: Fairy Tails Feathergrass (Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’)

Spiller: Marnier’s Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe marnieriana)

Filler: April Gruen Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca amethystina ‘Aprilgrun’)

Modern Landscaping

Photo: Kenneth Philp Landscape Architects

Need something bigger than a single pot? The same thriller-spiller-filler formula can be expanded to a group of pots that work together to create a unified composition. This grouping of pots filled with flax (Phormium var.) and assorted succulents follows the thriller-spiller-filler formula.

Home Design Style Landscaping

Photo: Margie Grace – Grace Design Associates

There’s no reason not to include edibles in your magnum opus. Try:

Thriller: Semi-dwarf tangerine

Spiller: Million Bells (Calibrachoa)

Filler: Thyme (Thymus var.)

Contemporary Landscaping on Patio

Photo: Exteriorscapes llc

This pot uses multiple thrillers, spillers and fillers to create a well-balanced whole. To get this look, try:

Thrillers: Evergreen Miscanthus (Miscanthus transmorrisonensis) and Coastal Woolybush (Adenanthos sericeus)

Spillers: Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas var.) and Bacopa (Sutera cordata)

Fillers: Sand Hill Sage (Artemisia pycnocephala ‘David’s Choice’) and Wand Flower (Gaura lindheimeri)

This combo will need regular tending: pruning and tip pinching to keep larger plants in line, and digging up, dividing and removing a portion of Sweet Potato Vine “potatoes” when they’re dormant to keep them from crowding out the other plants.

Landscaping on Patio

Photo: Margie Grace – Grace Design Associates

Thriller-spiller-filler on a grand scale! For a look like this, try:

Thriller: Altissimo Rose (Cl. Rosa ‘Altissimo’)

Spiller: Bacopa (Sutera cordata); Glacier Ivy (Hederacea helix ‘Glacier’)

Thriller: Purple Vine Lilac (Hardenbergia violacea ‘Happy Wanderer’)

Plants Near Rustic Entry

Photo: TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design

Matched pots with tropical-flavor plantings make a statement strong enough to pull the eye away from the stunning backdrop. Try:

Thriller: Canna var.

Spiller: Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)

Filler: Assorted Coleus

Photo: Margie Grace – Grace Design Associates

This distinctly Asian-flavor planting illustrates that the formula works in any design style. Try:

Thriller: Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara)

Spiller: Variegated Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea ‘Variegata’)

Filler: Siskiyou Blue Fescue (Festuca ‘Siskiyou Blue’)

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This article was written by Margie Grace. This article is from Houzz. Grace is the founder and lead designer at Grace Design Associates. She is a self-taught landscape designer and contractor with a degree in biology and minor in geology.

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