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Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers: Flower planting season is finally here!

Perhaps while out on summer evening walks, you’ve cruised by homes with gorgeous flowering planters that entice you to take a closer look. Some are humdrum and some leave you with that sense of awe that stays etched in your mind. Feeling stumped on how to achieve your own planter bliss? You can build that quintessential summer planter that speaks your unique design style and bumps up your curb appeal by simply following a few basic gardening tips: we call them thrillers, spillers, and fillers.

Nature has a way of elevating our planter endeavors because of the vast array of colors, textures, and rhythm. But where to start? It can feel overwhelming. I assure you, even I get stumped because of the myriad of choices; like going to a restaurant with too many menu options. To reign in your selections and prevent your pots from looking like an all-you-can-eat buffet salad, I recommend starting with the basics and building upon the foundation to create cohesive, well-designed pots.

Prepare the Soil and Explore:

About a week before planting, prepare the soil and explore plants options at your local nursery. To my store-bought soil, I add a couple scoops of kitchen scrap compost before installation to help nurture the growth of the new plantings. It’s important to water it in to mellow it for a few days otherwise, tender young plants can burn in the richness of the compost. When thinking about your plantings, observe the environment they'll occupy all season long. You'll want to pick annuals with similar water and light needs.

The Foundation:

Pick a pot with good drainage. Remove most of the old soil if you’re using the same pot from last season. If it’s a super deep pot, use packing peanuts or old planting containers in the bottom to take up some real estate so you don’t have to fill the entire pot with soil. Add your prepared soil to fill the pot near the top, but not to the brim.

An added note on pots is to keep them similar if you are planting more than one. On my front porch, since they face north, I prefer to pick more dramatic vessels. For instance, I mix metals and rich colored glazed pots with interesting profiles. I have a trough-style anaglypta metal planter as well as an antique champagne bucket with a fine copper patina. I try to keep the textures or the colors similar, as a bridge, otherwise it can start to look a bit haphazard.

Visualize and Conceptualize:

Once your soil and pot are prepped, it’s time to visualize and conceptualize your planter. Are there certain colors that catch your eye? A particular annual you relish each season? A color you want to highlight that draws from your home's aesthetic? Are you a fan of pastels or do you like vibrant hues? Pinterest, Instagram, and local gardening shops are great resources when seeking inspiration. Think about pots as mini landscapes. A good landscaping plan includes texture, rhythm, balance, layering, and depth--something to see no matter which side you’re viewing. 

Thrillers, Spillers, and Fillers:

When selecting your thriller, choose something tall and stunning. This is the moment to take a chance on a special eye-catching plant that intermingles with the fillers and spillers; adding an element of brilliance to your planter. Place this plant in the center so that it can be seen from any angle. Options limitless as long as you carefully consider your lighting conditions. Consider tall flowers and ornamental grasses. Novel ideas for inspiration include Fountain Grass, a Mandevilla or Morning Glory vine on a trellis, Delphinium, or Foxglove. Choose a fern for shady planters. Don’t worry so much about color here. Texture and a strong form are your building blocks for turning your planter into a fine design.

When building layers for fillers, choose two or three different kinds of plants. This is where the color layer is built. Play around with mixing large and small flowers, or perhaps something bushy that can intermingle and play nicely. You can manipulate this layer as the plants grow, weaving them gently by hand to fill in the gaps. I also try to find an accent color to repeat and pepper in throughout multiple pots. If you like a certain color, you may use a little smattering of it or use a lot, but be thoughtful in your approach as it doesn't have to be exactly the same plants throughout repeating. If you like red, use a geranium in one pot and a Chenille plant in another. It's a fun way to create continuity in your scheme.

Flowers aren’t the only fillers to consider. There are rich varieties of small tufted grasses, succulents or perennials that will add a satisfying rhythm and dimension to your design. Adding perennials is a gardening sweetener: at the end of the season, you can stretch your investment and move that established beauty to your garden. A typical interior plant, like a fern can be brought inside to overwinter.

Adding Whimsy:

Another unexpected element to consider adding to your pots is a small sculpture piece. I have a cast iron mermaid who lives in one of my newly planted pots and when the foliage really gets growing, she peeks out and is a surprise to those who enjoy her pot up close. Let's be honest, it really does belong to her.

Spillers are most effective when they complement the pot color and style. They add balance and proportion to the planter. Spillers often endure through the summer growing season, adding an element of contented repose as summer fades into autumn. Imagine replacing faded annual blooms with vibrant autumnal pumpkins atop your planter with late summer spillers tying the seasons together. I even leave the spillers once they are spent after the first chill nips them because they add to the creepy factor for my Halloween decorations.

Sweet Potato Vines are popular spillers and offer color varieties including both chartreuse, or black, even the variegated pink are pretty. If you’re looking for something more unusual, consider Licorice, Dichondra, Vinca Vine, Asparagus Fern or Creeping Jenny.

If your planter is sun drenched, consider vibrant annuals in a melody of colors: Calibrachoa, Petunias, Scaevola, Dahlia, Alyssum, Artemisia, and tried-and-true heat tolerant annual red or pink Geranium.

For shady planters, muse over the stately beauty of Caladium, Coral Bells, Impatiens, Begonia, Variegated Hosta, Bugloss, and Brunnera.

One last way to create a more modern feel is to "deconstruct" your annual pots into a vignette of three. It's definitely important to keep the pots the same with each pot getting its own star performer. Grouping them together echoes the philosophy of Thriller, Filler, Spiller, but it takes on a chic, strong aesthetic.

Care and Keeping:

Once your awe-inspired porch planters are thoughtfully crafted, remember to treat those stunners with love. I water regularly in the morning, before the heat, while enjoying my daily Dirty Chai. Occasionally I'll aerate the soil with a fork to let plants breathe a bit, but use caution around newly forming roots. Fertilize every 1-2 weeks with either a homemade compost "tea" or Miracle Grow Fertilizer and before long, you’ll be evoking the spirit of summer and having people stop to admire your floral displays.

Happy planting!


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