Readers prove that a simple recipe is a sure bet for container success

Thrillers, fillers, and spillers—never before has container gardening been so simple. When we first published Steve Silk’s inventive recipe for container success in the June 2004 issue of Fine Gardening, we never imagined how popular it would become. But why not? It’s easy to remember, effective, and fun. It became such a popular method of container gardening that we devoted an entire special issue to it last spring. So we decided to see what kinds of masterpieces our readers could create with these three types of plants. The results are in, and every last design is proof that the formula works. Out of more than 225 entries from 31 states, one container design stood out as our winner. We also chose to highlight the handiwork of several deserving finalists who took this design recipe and made it their own.

Enter this year's contest!

WINNER: Sheila Schultz, Denver, Colorado

Photo/Illustration: 
Daryl Beyers

Balancing shapes with textures
While all of the plants Sheila chose for this planting are succulent, their widely varying textures make the combination dynamic. The paddle plant’s broad leaves and the aeonium’s dark foliage add visual bulk to cover up the stalk of the weeping yucca. As a whole, the plants also inversely mimic the shape of their vessel, creating a pleasingly balanced composition. Sheila and her husband moved from the shady suburbs of Chicago to the intense sun and dry air of Denver just four years ago. We think she’s putting her new palette of sun-loving plants to good use.

THRILLER
Weeping yucca (Yucca recurvifolia, USDA Hardiness Zones 7–9)

FILLERS
Pencil tree (Euphorbia tirucallii, not hardy below Z 11)
Paddle plant (Kalan­choe thyrsiflora, Z 11)
‘Zwartkop’ aeonium (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’, Z 9–11)

SPILLER
‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Z 6–9)

Jane Horn, Prior Lake, Minnesota

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Jane Horn

This thriller is a spiller, too
Jane stumbled upon the rex begonia vine while searching the nursery for a thriller. Trained on a metal hoop, it makes an excellent centerpiece for her entry. She loves the purple and silver leaves, and chose the remaining plants to highlight both the purple tones in the vine’s leaves and the purple-glazed pot. Eventually, Jane trained the thriller into a spiller and visually pulled the plants together.

THRILLER
Rex begonia vine (Cissus discolor, Z 11)

FILLERS
Purple shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, Z 6–10)
Shadow Dancer™ Ginger fuchsia (Fuchsia Shadow Dancer™ Ginger, Z 9–11)

SPILLER
Velvet Moon™ wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri Velvet Moon™, annual)

 

FINALIST: Elizabeth Sobrevilla, Grantham, Pennsylvania

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Elizabeth Sobrevilla

A planting that fits the scale of its setting
Elizabeth is in charge of flower gardening for Messiah College, and each year, she graces the front of most of the main buildings with containers. When faced last season with the imposing entry of Boyer Hall, she decided to train a mandevilla vine up the building’s facade. The spiky phormium serves as a secondary thriller, helping link the lower plantings to the towering mandevilla, while the begonia blooms continue the red theme begun by the mandevilla blooms.

THRILLERS
Sun Parasol® Giant Crimson mandevilla (Mandevilla Sun Parasol® Giant Crimson, Z 11)
‘Amazing Red’ New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Amazing Red’, Z 8–11)

FILLERS
‘Giant Fantasy’ coleus
(Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Giant Fantasy’, Z 11)
Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus, not hardy below Z 11)

SPILLERS
Callie® Deep Yellow million bells
(Calibrachoa Callie® Deep Yellow, annual)
Bonfire® begonia (Begonia boliviensis Bonfire®, Z 11)

FINALIST: Rafael Sciullo, Ellwood City, Pennsylvania

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Rafael Sciullo

A bold planting for passersby
Rafael lives on a busy corner where multitudes of bikers and runners admire his garden as they pass by each day, so he designed a bold planting that was sure to be noticed. The strong contrast between the forms of the upright canna and the fluffy cabbage and kale creates plenty of interest. The red tones in these plants’ foliage give them something in common. The green leaves of the creeping Jenny complement the red hues and complete this exuberant composition.

THRILLER
Tropicanna® canna (Canna Tropicanna®, Z 8–11)

FILLERS
Ornamental cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea cvs., annual)

SPILLER
Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Z 4–8)

FINALIST: Renee Perst, Lebanon, New Jersey

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Renee Perst

Texture trumps color
Renee used a cutting of her 25-year-old fiddle-leaf fig as the perfect bold, beautiful thriller to grace this stately pot. Then she went to the garden center and just winged it. Though Renee didn’t intentionally avoid flowers, the lack of a strong splash of color lets the pleasing combination of bold textures and subtle greens grab the attention.

THRILLER
Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata, Z 11)

FILLERS
Jacob’s coat (Acalypha wilkesiana cv., annual)
‘Pineapple’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Pineapple’, Z 11)
Australian tree fern (Cyathea australis, Z 10–11)

SPILLER
Variegated oregano
(Origanum vulgare ‘Variegatum’, Z 4–9)

 

FINALIST: Miriam Darden Settles, Alexandria, Virginia

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Miriam Darden Settles

Variety in a small-space performer
Miriam creates about 30 pots each year on her small townhouse deck and tries to include a balanced mix of flowers, foliage, and herbs. The upright spikes of angelonia make for a colorful small-scale thriller in this pot, and its pink flowers make a surprisingly pleasing companion to the bright orange zinnia. The clean foliage of the variegated sage and the golden creeping Jenny contributes to making this a reliable, high-performance container for a small space.

THRILLER
Angelmist® Pink angelonia
(Angelonia angustifolia Angelmist® Pink, Z 9–10)

FILLERS
Variegated sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Icterina’, Z 5–8)
‘Profusion Orange’ zinnia (Zinnia ‘Orange Profusion’, annual)

SPILLER
Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Z 4–8)

FINALIST: Brad Meryhew, Seattle, Washington

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Brad Meryhew

Red and yellow are perfect partners
‘Moonraker’ Cape fuchsia is the anchor for this planting in shades of red and yellow. Four different varieties of coleus, all in shades of red and yellow-green, act as fillers, as do the dahlia and petunia, which echo the colors of the Cape fuchsia and coleus. To finish it off, Brad chose deep reddish black ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine, which he prefers to other varieties because it isn’t quite as overpowering.

THRILLER
‘Moonraker’ Cape fuchsia (Phygelius X rectus ‘Moonraker’, Z 8–9)

FILLERS
‘Mocha Mint’ coleus (Solenostemon scutel­larioides ‘Mocha Mint’, Z 11)
Supertunia® Mini Rose Veined petunia (Petunia Supertunia® Mini Rose Veined, annual)
‘Aurora Raspberry’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Aurora Raspberry’, Z 11)
‘Religious Radish’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Religious Radish’, Z 11)
‘Dappled Apple’ coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Dappled Apple’, Z 11)
‘Figaro’ dahlia (Dahlia ‘Figaro’, Z 9–11)

SPILLER
‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, Z 11)

FINALIST: Julie Wetzler, Richland, Washington

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Julie Wetzler

Julie chose her elephant ear thriller for its sheer size. The caladium, whose leaves mirror those of the elephant ear, came next, and a green and white theme began to emerge. The silvery licorice plant melds the two colors, while the bacopa's green leaves anchor the jumbo thriller to the ground. The contrasting textures and forms within a limited color scheme result in a cool and pleasing combination.

THRILLER
Elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta cv., Zones 8-11)

FILLERS
'White Christmas' caladium (Caladium bicolor 'White Christmas', not hardy below Zone 11)
'Limelight' licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare 'Limelight', Zones 10-11)
Tuberous begonia (Begonia 'Fortune White with Rose Back', annual)

SPILLER
Snowstorm® Giant Snowflake bacopa
(Sutera cordata Snowstorm® Giant Snowflake, Zones 10-11)

 

FINALIST: Mary Lou Zbreski, Naperville, Illinois

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Mary Lou Zbreski

As Mary Lou's tastes change, she's slowly ripping out the traditional plants in her garden to make way for more exciting plants that still fit into her subdued palette. While she wasn't a fan of 'Black Magic' elephant ear in the past, this year its bold form called out to her as a thriller for her entry. Such a strong plant needs the balance of the soft and cascading plants that complete the arrangement. The result is a subtle, sophisticated combination.

THRILLER
'Black Magic' elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic', Zones 8-11)

FILLERS
'Accent White' impatiens (Impatiens walleriana 'Accent White', annual)
'Escargot' rex begonia (Begonia 'Escargot', not hardy below Zone 11)
'Amazon Mist' sedge (Carex comans 'Amazon Mist', Zones 7-9)

SPILLERS
English ivy (Hedera helix cv., Zones 5-11)
'Ace of Spades' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Ace of Spades', Zone 11)

Sue Haney, Peoria, Illinois

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Sue Haney

TRILLERS
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', Zones 8-11)
Caladium (Caladium bicolor cv., not hardy below Zone 11)

FILLERS
'Kilimanjaro' Senecio (Senecio 'Kilimanjaro', Zones 9-11)
Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima cvs., annual)
Meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa cv., Zones 5-9)
'Patriot White' geranium (Pelargonium 'Patriot White', Zone 11)

SPILLERS
Purple heart (Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea', Zones 8-11)
'Sweet Caroline Light Green' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Light Green', Zone 11)
Supertunia® Royal Velvet petunia (Petunia Supertunia® Royal Velvet, annual)
'Bronzita' sedge (Carex flagellifera 'Bronzita', Zones 7-9)
Nemesia (Nemesia caerulea cv., Zones 9-10)
Bacopa (Sutera cordata cv., annual)

D.J. Schoenlein, Noblesville, Indiana

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of D.J. Schoenlein

THRILLER
Purple fountain grass
(Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', Zones 8-11)

FILLERS
'Victoria' mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria', Zones 8-11)
Dragon Wing® Red begonia (Begonia Dragon Wing® Red, Zones 10-11)

SPILLERS
Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea', Zones 4-8)
Bacopa (Sutera cordata cv., annual)

 

Jean H. Walker, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Jean H. Walker

THRILLER
Corn plant (Dracaena massangeana, Zone 11)

FILLERS
Mystic Spires Blue salvia (Salvia 'Balsalmisp', Zones 7-10)
'Icterina' sage (Salvia officinalis 'Icterina', Zones 5-8)
'Sedona' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Sedona', Zone 11)
'Big Blonde' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Big Blonde', Zone 11)
Osteospermums (Osteospermum cvs., Zones 10-11)

SPILLERS
'Sweet Caroline Light Green' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Light Green', Zone 11)
'Zinfandel' oxalis (Oxalis vulcanicola 'Zinfandel', Zones 9-11)

Paul Cady, Rockville, Maryland

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Paul Cady

THRILLER
Log fern (Dryopteris celsa, Zones 5-9)

FILLER
Cocktail Whiskey wax begonia (Begonia 'Cocktail Whiskey', annual)

SPILLER
Variegated vinca vine (Vinca major 'Variegata', Zones 7-9)

Kathy Mackenzie, Abington, Massachusetts

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Kathy Mackenzie

THRILLER
Tropicanna® canna (Canna Tropicanna®, Zones 8-11)

FILLERS
'Silvery Sunproof' liriope (Liriope muscari 'Silvery Sunproof', Zones 6-10)
Geranium (Pelargonium cv., Zone 11)

SPILLERS
'Sweet Caroline Red' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Red', Zone 11)
Calibrachoas (Calibrachoa cvs., annual)
'Lemon Symphony' osteospermum (Osteospermum 'Lemon Symphony', Zones 10-11)

 

Blanche Ropars, Naperville, Illinois

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Blanche Ropars

THRILLER
'Red Star' cordyline (Cordyline australis 'Red Star', Zones 10-11)

FILLERS
'Christmas Candy' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Christmas Candy', Zone 11)
Marguerite daisy (Argyranthemum cv., Zones 10-11)

SPILLERS
'Blackie' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie', Zone 11)
'Lava Rose' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Lava Rose', Zone 11)

Janice Mussell, Robins, Iowa

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Janice Mussell

THRILLERS
Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum', Zones 8-11)
'Black and Blue' blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue', Zones 7-10)

FILLERS
'Fishnet Stockings' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Fishnet Stockings', Zone 11)
'Dizzy Gillespie' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Dizzy Gillespie', Zone 11)
'Dipt in Wine' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Dipt in Wine', Zone 11)

SPILLERS
Superbells® Red calibrachoa (Calibrachoa 'USCALI28', annual)
'Sweet Caroline Red' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Red', Zone 11)

Gracelyn Tuoti, Buffalo, New York

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Gracelyn Tuoti

THRILLERS
King TutTM Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus King TutTM, Zones 10-11)
'Indian Summer' black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer', Zones 3-7)

FILLER
Dragon Wing® Red begonia (Begonia Dragon Wing® Red, Zones 10-11)

SPILLER
'Margarita' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Margarita', Zone 11)

 

Michelle Titterton, Lake Zurich, Illinois

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Michelle Titterton

THRILLER
'Purple Majesty' ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty', annual)

FILLERS
Geranium (Pelargonium cv., Zone 11)
'Tabasco' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Tabasco', Zone 11)
Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia cv., Zones 9-10)

SPILLERS
'Margarita' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Margarita', Zone 11)
Petunia (Petunia cv., annual)

Diane Bossert, Hancock, Maine

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Diane Bossert

THRILLERS
Pink gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii cv., Zone 11)
Black BeautyTM Sambucus (Sambucus nigra 'Gerda', Zones 6-8)

FILLER
Diamond Frost® euphorbia (Euphorbia 'Inneuphdia', Zones 10-11)

SPILLER
'Summer Snow' bougainvillea (Bougainvillea 'Summer Snow', Zones 9-11)

Linda Davis, Leesburg, Virginia

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Linda Davis

THRILLER
Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica', Zones 2-6)

FILLERS
Geranium (Pelargonium cv., Zone 11)
Calibrachoa (Calibrachoa cv., annual)
Intensia® Lavender Glow phlox (Phlox 'USPHLO304', annual)

SPILLER
Licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare, Zones 10-11)

 

Sara Legler, Demotte, Indiana

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Sara Legler

THRILLERS
'Purple Majesty' ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty', annual)
'Prince' napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum 'Prince', Zones 8-11)

FILLERS
Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus, Zones 9-11)
'Kona Red' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Kona Red', Zone 11)
'Icicles' licorice plant (Helichrysum thianschanicum 'Icicles', Zones 10-11)

SPILLERS
Moss verbena (Verbena tenuisecta, Zones 8-11)
Lotus vine (Lotus berthelotii, Zones 9-11)

David Colan, Grand Island, Nebraska

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of David Colan

THRILLER
Mandevilla (Mandevilla cv., Zone 11)

FILLERS
'Festive Dance' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Festive Dance', Zone 11)
Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus cv., annual)
Diascia (Diascia cv., annual)

SPILLERS
Petunias (Petunia cvs., annual)
'Blackie' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie', Zone 11)

Dean DelGuidice, Plantsville, Connecticut

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Dean DelGuidice

THRILLER
Corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa', Zones 6-9)

FILLERS
'Blue Angel' hosta (Hosta 'Blue Angel', Zones 3-9)
'Schizo' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Schizo', Zone 11)

SPILLER
'Blackie' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie', Zone 11)

 

Christy Erikson, Lake Forest Park, Washington

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Christy Erikson

THRILLERS
Flowering maple (Abutilon cv., Zones 8-11)
Black LaceTM  Sambucus (Sambucus nigra Black LaceTM, Zones 4-7)

FILLERS
Rocky Mountain® White geranium (Pelargonium Rocky Mountain® White, Zone 11)
Lantana (Lantana camara cv., Zone 11)

SPILLERS
Sun Parasol® White mandevilla (Mandevilla Sun Parasol® White, Zones 9-11)
'Margarita' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Margarita', Zone 11)
'Sweet Caroline Bronze' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Bronze', Zone 11)
Bacopa (Sutera cordata cv., annual)

Moira McQuarrie, Hanson, Massachusetts

Photo/Illustration: 
Courtesy of Moira McQuarrie

THRILLER
'Red Majestic' contorted hazel (Corylus 'Red Majestic', Zones 4-7)

FILLERS
'Velma Cox' geranium (Pelargonium 'Velma Cox', Zone 11)
'Gay's Delight' coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Gay's Delight', Zone 11)

SPILLERS
Superbells® Tequila Sunrise calibrachoa (Calibrachoa 'USCALI53M', annual)
Lotus vine (Lotus berthelotii, Zones 9-11)

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