Container Garden Design Basics

Bring color and texture to your yard with this easy container garden formula.


Working with colorful plants destined for containers can be one of gardening's most enjoyable tasks. By applying the principles of color blending and mixing leaf textures and plant shapes, you can follow one simple recipe to create endless foolproof winning combinations. Three ingredients are all it takes to plant one gorgeous pot after another—it's as easy as one, two, three.

One: Thriller

The first ingredient is an attention-grabbing plant, also called a thriller. This plant takes center stage in a container, serving as the star of the design production. All additional plants relate to this player in some way. Usually, the thriller plant features an in-your-face shape with a strong upright growth habit. Thrillers typically unleash flower power by blooming nonstop all season, or they unfurl dramatic leaves. In containers viewed from all sides, place a thriller in the center. In containers placed against a wall, position them in the back.

Two: Filler

The second ingredient, known as the filler, complements the thriller but never steals the spotlight. These supporting players typically have rounded mounds or misty shapes. Fillers accomplish several tasks. They complement the thriller with leaf or flower color, texture, or other special characteristics. They help disguise the thriller's base and add a colorful substance to the space between the soil and the thriller. Aim for fillers that grow to one-third to two-thirds the height of the thriller. Place fillers around the thriller, and between it and the pot rim. For a pot that looks instantly full, use three fillers in a 14-inch pot. If you're willing to let plants slowly fill in, you can plant just two fillers: one in front and one in back, or, if they're in pots that will be in a corner or against a wall, one on each side of the thriller.

Three: Spiller

The third ingredient is a plant that trails over the edge of the container and helps tie it to its surroundings. It's called a spiller plant. When you're looking for a spiller, seek a plant with a sprawling shape. Leaf or flower color should contrast or echo that of the thriller and/or filler. Plant the spillers along the pot's edges and in the openings left between the fillers. It might be a tight squeeze, but feel free to shove and shoehorn plants into place. Anticipate using two spillers for a 14-inch pot viewed from one side, or two or three spillers for a container viewed from all sides.

Other Keys to Success

Get inspired. Look for container ideas in plant catalogs or garden magazines. Choose colors that match your outdoor furnishings, or your home's exterior. Or simply find a plant you like, and build a custom design around it. Test it out. Give your design a dry run at the garden center. Arrange plants in your cart the way they'll appear in the container. Change as needed. Scale is relative. A plant used as a filler in one pot might make a nice thriller for a smaller pot. Typically, a thriller should not be taller than two times the height of the container. Think texture. To create the most designs, mix leaf and flower textures.

Favorite Combinations

Find inspiration for your designs in these classic combos. You don't need to exactly duplicate what's shown. If you like the color scheme, feel free to use different plants to produce that look. Be creative and adaptive, selecting plants that inspire you.

Sun Container


Black-eyed Susan serves as a thriller, Dragon Wing begonia, and 'Buddy' Gomphrena as fillers, and silver thyme as a spiller.

Shade Container


Pink-and-green caladium is the thriller, Infinity Pink Frost New Guinea impatiens are the filler, and variegated ivy is the spiller.

Tropical Container


Elephant's ear towers as the thriller over orange impatiens, which act as both filler and spiller in this combination.

Foliage Container


A low thriller, a deer tongue fern, is surrounded by 'Dark Heart' coleus and Alternanthera serving as fillers and spillers.

More Great Container Garden Ideas

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