Container Gardening: Thriller, Filler, Spiller

By Kate Riley April 12, 2012

One of my favorite things to do each growing season is fill the several planters on the front porch and around the yard.  I have a few that are larger in scale and lend themselves well to a grouping of plants in a single pot.  Just as decorative objects on display in the home look better in odd numbers, plants arranged in a trio look equally beautiful.  In container gardening, the technique is called the “thriller, filler, spiller” and its application never fails to create an interesting yet harmonious container.

The showy centerpiece or “thriller” grows tall and proud, the “filler” flowers up next to it provide fullness and complement the main attraction, and the “spiller” creeps out of the pot towards the ground to create one full and lush container.

spiller filler thriller cg



Thrillers are the starting point since they’re the attention grabbers and typically the tallest plant. I always begin the design with the thriller first, choosing it at the nursery, then selecting the annuals that go around it after the thriller is chosen.

The pot is filled up one third with fresh container soil then the thriller is placed in the middle (in this case it’s bicolor blue Senetti), planted so that it takes center stage.

add thriller


More soil is added and in come the spillers.  I’m in the habit of adding the trailing flower next then squeezing in the fillers last when I know how much room I have to spare, but it’s really up to the gardener as to which goes next, filler or spiller.

Because I’m using white Petunias as a filler, I chose another cool tone for the spiller in the form of trailing blue Calibrachoa.  Spillers are equally important because they grow  over the edge of the pot spilling down towards the ground to soften the look of the container.

add spiller


Finally Petunia fillers are woven into the space between, and more soil is carefully placed on top.  I picked petunias because they’re such a friendly tolerant flower and actually grow more than one season if I’m lucky.

The use of white adds a nice contrast to what would otherwise be a grouping of blue, but plays well with the white centers of the bicolor Senetti.  Fillers also hide the stalks of the thriller and add mass to the entire structure.

fill with filler


I enjoy having the dirt under my fingernails during the warmer months, beautifying the yard with new annuals and perennials.  I keep most of the plantings in the cooler shades of blue, white, and sometimes pinks for a harmonious palette, but I’m always looking to create interest by varying the sizes, textures, and growing stages of the plantings.

thriller filler spiller cg


Over the years I experiment, planting different combinations of thrillers, fillers, and spillers to come up with different compositions each year.  Scale is important, so I try to combine plants that will continue to be proportional during the growing season.

There really are no rules when it comes to arranging flowers in containers.  Planting what you love and what will thrive in your zone is most important, and your local nursery is the best place to study up on what will grow well in your garden.  No matter what you choose to plant, using the thriller, filler, spiller technique is pretty much a guarantee of success.

One of my favorite resources that I turn to time and again is the Sunset Western Garden book.  It’s tabbed with all my notes over the years, and I highly recommend it for anyone living in the western United States, it has taught me a lot.

sunset western garden


Now for those of you with green thumbs (or wannabe green thumbs!) in Northern California, I have great news so mark your calendars!  I’ve partnered with Home Depot to co-teach a Do-It-Yourself Gardening Workshop in Roseville on Thursday May 3rd.  There will be a gardening expert present and I’ll handle the creative ideas presentation.  We’ll be talking about herb gardens and terrariums, and it will take place in the evening (6:00 ish) – I’ll share more details in the upcoming weeks.  Hope to meet some of the local readers there!

What’s your latest spring planting project?   Got any seeds growing in your windowsill or new annuals in pots?  What’s your favorite planting combination in your zone?  Do share.




  1. I’m so glad you posted this – I have a good handful of containers around my new yard just screaming for attention! I’m happy to some guidance!

  2. Aaaahh! I so envious that you can are able to start planting already! We can’t even THINK about planting until the end of May around here and even then, things won’t start to take off until July. Boo! Not that it stops me from dreaming though… ;)

  3. What a great way to remember how to put them together. I’ve tried in the last couple years to put more than petunias in my containers and it definitely makes a huge difference. I love the thriller flower in your pot – what a beauty!

  4. Thanks, Kate. This just gave me some inspiration for a pot between my two new rocking chairs. I am slowly giving my boring front porch a make-over. We added two ever-greens in pots next to the front door and they are beautiful but we need a little more color and this is just the tutorial I’ve been looking for. Lesley

  5. I use many contaiers on my deck that is where I really can plant some great annals that thr deer can’t get to them. I can’t wait until May to plant.

  6. Oh man, I’ve always used this concept, but never had such a fantastic way of describing it, I love how clever you are.

  7. Sunset is a fantastic resource for gardeners in the West. When I lived in SoCal I had every updated book of theirs! I love your new flowers! They are so pretty! My latest planting project was planting flowers in containers on my front porch and deck. I love to garden and am always planting something…even if it’s sprouting seeds to eat in December!

  8. What a beautiful arrangement! I’m starting to prep my garden for this year, it’s our first spring/summer in this house so it should be interesting! I got some peppers trying to grow from seed on my windowsill for it!

  9. What are your recommendations for some other types of plants to use in each category?

    • Hi Kristle, it just depends on what’s available in your zone and also your color and style preferences. I love tall ornamental grasses as the “thriller” too, with other non flowering leafy choices surrounding it. My best advice is to visit your local garden center, pick the “thriller” you love and then play around with complementary plantings, mixing in whatever suits your tastes.

  10. The pots look so much better when planted enmasse don’t they, great for the front entrace to make a first impression. Im in the midst of a garage extension and on the hunt for ideas fo the front door and entrance, thanks for sharing :)

  11. Yeah! I live in Roseville and love your blog! I think I will mark my calendar and plan on stopping by on May 3rd!

  12. Your planter turned out beautiful. We live in Alabama and my favorite flowers are purslanes. We buy them every year and line the sidewalk with them. They are very heat and drought tolerant… perfect for the gal who forgets to water the plants. The purslanes remain low to the ground and spread about 18″. They are covered in pink blooms that open and close everyday. I love getting some every year because they are so beautiful!

  13. I’m from Zone 7 {NY} and we usually put a Spike plant in the center as the Thriller, sometimes it’s a green one, but sometimes we do a red one even though they look like they are purple leaves. Wave Petunias for our Filler & Spiller. I never thought about a Filler, but I might have to do that this year. I love the look Kate. We also have used “Sweet Potato Vine – Chillin’™ Limeade” and Creeping Jenny as our Spillers. In Zone 7, the Creeping Jenny actually comes back each year. Thanks for sharing Kate….your pots are gorgeous. Love the color of the flowers you picked out. :)

    • LOL Aubrey, I swear that song is in my head EVERY TIME I repeat the mantra as I plant. “Cause this is Thriller!….” Yep, I bet a lot of others have it in their head too!

  14. Hi Kate
    I was just thinking about doing this over the weekend! Hopefully here in NorCal we will get some sun! I want to put some containers on my porch, it doesn’t get any direct sunlight because of the overhang do you have anything you have had success with? I would love to have some color on my porch!

  15. So awesome that you’re coming to Roseville! But which HD? There are two. :) Love the thriller, filler, spiller idea. Thanks!

  16. Hi Kate!

    I’ve been with your since the early days of your blog! I live near Lodi and hope to make it to the Home Depot presentation in Roseville.

    Oh yeah, another reader who now has Thriller rattling around in her head :)


  17. Thanks for this post! I found it very informative and will definitely apply the “thriller, filler, spiller” technique to my flower pots. Yours came out beautifully!

  18. Love the look of this container! I’ve got a couple of them out – one on the deck and one on our front patio. When we’re past the threat of frost at night, I’ll do a couple more.

  19. Oh, that is a great formula for assembling a larger container. Home Depot is having their workshop on Container Gardening in the first week of May. Of course in MA there’s no need to do it any sooner. Brrrr…poor plants that people have already stuck into the ground. Coincidentally, in the mid 90’s I was part of the start up team for the Boston Chicken in Roseville. I remember there being an Albertson’s in the same shopping area. I know they are now called Boston Market. Is it by any chance still there?Thanks you and have a nice day.

  20. Kate…what a great way of remembering! Here in SC we use a lot of different things for the thriller, a boxwood, roses or geraniums. We love to put our flowers in the big gothic urns….just like in Gone with the Wind!
    Take care and Great Job!

  21. Oh just one more thing….an easy and cheap spiller, is the sweet potato vine. Cut your sweet potato in half or thirds, put three toothpicks around the sweet potato, and let the bottom sit in water for a week or two. You will soon see small roots, growing from the bottom. Put these in your planters, and you will have the most prolific spillers ever!

    • Great tip Tilara! We have potato vine growing over our fence, it’s about ten years old, and totally gorgeous, a great plant for a giant green wall!

  22. Hey, you are TALKIN’ my LANGUAGE! THousands of container gardens going out of the greenhouse right now and they are FILLED with Thriller’s, spillers and fillers! Very catchy idea

  23. Yay! I’m going to totally hit Home Depot on the 3rd! I’m so excited you’re local. I feel like I’m the only one in this area that doesn’t know a thing about gardening. I’m so intimidated. LOVE the thriller,spiller, filler idea and am excited to learn more.

  24. Wow! I opened your email today and pinned it right away. I do not have a green thumb and it took me almost two hours just to find the flowers (because I do not know any thing about fillers and spillers, lol). Anywho….I did it! I couldn’t wait for the weekend, it’s done. Thank you for the step by step. Now if I can just keep them alive!!!

  25. Wow, I just do not have a green thumb. Never heard this about “thrillers, fillers and spillers” but it makes perfect sense! Might just have to try that : ) Thanks for the advice!

  26. Thanks for much for posting. I have always wondered how to achieve that look. Thanks for showing me how! :)

  27. Thank you for all of the tips. I feel like I can now do this with some idea of success.
    I am so happy I found your blog.
    Thanks, again.

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