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I’m Contained or For The Thrill Of It

by germinatrix | October 25th, 2009

a grouping of colorful containers adds so much punch to a patio

a grouping of colorful containers adds so much punch to a patio

When I look around my garden these days, few things make me happier than my containers!

Containers are no-brainers. Every garden needs them, wants them, HAS to have them! They are an opportunity to inject a little bit more drama into a landscape, one that I will happily take, every time.

j'adore a colorful pot or ten!

j'adore a colorful pot or ten!

When I use containers in gardens, I always think of glazed ceramic first. I mean, who can pass up the opportunity to get a big dose of happy color into an outdoor space? Certainly not me, but then again I am a fiend for the colorful and the dramatic – give me a cool pot in a jewel tone with a big amazing plant in it and I’m thrilled! Or better still, give me a dozen and I am in heaven!

Recently on twitter, garden pros/writers/bloggers Susan L. Morrison, Kerry Michaels and I were discussing the gardening catchphrase that inspired many a confused container – Thriller, Filler, and Spiller. What is THAT, you ask …  well, this rule states that when creating a planting in a pot you should use 3 plants. The first: a “Thriller” – a focal point; something great. The second plant, a “Filler” – a plant that gives you some mid-level volume; something puffy and leafy. The third, a “Spiller” – a drip; a lax plant that spills over the lip of the pot.

All of these are good things! I have a few pots that have thrillers, fillers and spillers in them, but I also have pots with millers and grillers and every once in a while I even use a chiller. I mean… come on…

I think many looking at this will see a thriller - I certainly do...

I think many looking at this will see a thriller - I certainly do...

Now, of course I understand that people like easy formulas to simplify complicated things like, um … putting plants in a pot … but really! Do we need a rhyme-y singsong ditty to make people feel like they’re “Doing It Right”? I say NO!!! Because there IS no WRONG when it comes to gardens – if you love it, and it’s thriving, RIGHT ON! It’s a success! The only thing that reads ‘wrong’ to me is when things seem forced and contrived, like what happens when the ThrillerFillerSpiller rule is applied across the board. Sometimes it’s fantastic to have a spill over the lip of a container; sometimes it’s completely weird. The ‘Filler’ is what REALLY gets me – why encourage someone to stick a random mid-level element in a container just to fill a perceived void? Why not encourage people to step back and look – to use their eyes and brains and intuition? Why give them a shortcut? Do we even WANT shortcuts when we garden? One of the things I love BEST about gardening is that I am usually thwarted when I try and take the easy way out – usually it’s time, patience, and thoughtful planning that is rewarded.

oh yeah - more pots! I just can't get enough!

oh yeah - more pots! I just can't get enough!

I get the fact that gardening can be tough at first, and that a little quip like thrillerfillerspiller can help to give those just starting a kind of ‘scaffold’ to hang a design on – but what that phrase doesn’t take into account is that containers have a relationship to each other, and you might want to play with that. If you follow a rule, it lets you off the hook. It short circuits the whole exciting THING about designing – which is looking, thinking, and playing! Making surprising decisions! Making a mistake that you absolutely LOVE!!!

So don’t give me RULES, whoever you are that made up this bogus planting trick … give me permission to HAVE FUN!

That is where the magic happens…

my rule - every container needs to be a KILLER!

my rule - every container needs to be a KILLER!

26 Responses to “I’m Contained or For The Thrill Of It”

  1. You took the words right out of my mouth, or actually off my page. I’ve never gotten around to posting my anti thriller/filler/spiller rant but you’ve done it for me and done it so much better than I could have. Your pictures are to die for, every single one. I am coveting your California lifestyle at this time when we are starting the long slide into winter. I’m living vicariously through you Germi…please keep me going through the winter months!

  2. My mouth is still open! I am just astonished! I admire all your pots, and I love this collection!

    succulents and cacti are near and dear to my heart! I say heck with rules too.

  3. Hello,

    What a great post! As a native Californian, I grew up growing succulents. I think they make great container plants and your pictures more then prove it! I think my favorite is the Agave victoria-reginae.

  4. The term chiller, spiller, thriller was coined by one of those male gardeners who is also a photographer. You are to guess his name because I can’t think of it right this minute.

    Nice containers you have!

  5. I tend to plant single specimens in my pots just because it’s easier. But I often admire pots that fit the thriller, filler, spiller recipe. Whatever floats someone’s boat, like you said.

    I think Steve Silk coined the formula. See his article in Fine Gardening magazine.
    Steve is also a blogger, at Clatter Valley. I’m a regular reader and enjoy his pictures of big, bold plants and Fab Foliage Friday” series. Check it out sometime.

  6. These are absolutely gorgeous. The composition of the first photo is especially striking, the papyrus and plumes of ornamental grass (I’m racking my brain going through all the grasses I can remember – please help!) behind the sculpture of aloes and agaves…I could stare at that for hours…sigh…I’ve always wanted one of those kalanchoes.

    Thanks for the inspiration, I’ve been silently appreciating your blogging since the domino days. Having had to downsize recently and lose my own private gardening space, seeing these lovely specimens each growing so proudly in their own beautiful pots makes me appreciate my own container refugees more!

  7. Sweetest one…
    You’ve provided the next best thing to an in-person visit!
    Shall we say.. I’m more than a little inspired to shake things up in my own bitty sanctuary?
    Only recently have I been incorporating glazed pots, and I love the zing that goes along with their shiny, reflective, richly hued surfaces and varied shapes. Your plantings combine beautifully with the chosen containers.
    Am I surprised that Germi’s garden has stunning arrays of containers with multitudinous textural specimens? Not in the least!
    p.s. Now that I know you’re from TX, I’ve been trying to imagine the sound of your voice. Don’t be surprised if you pick up the phone one day and it’s your tendril cohort from the SF Bay!!

  8. What a wonderful display! I lust for the size and temperate denizens of your pots. The colors work so beautifully in your bright California setting with your stucco and tile backdrops. Be grateful and happy you don’t have to truck them indoors as we must in Portland (a definite limit to the size of any potted plant.)

    Thank you for the inspiration. We can dream of these beauties as we wrap up the outdoor living season for a few months in Portland!

  9. I love a good rant and yours is spectacular. I have been grumbling about the ungainliness that the whole thrillerspillerfiller theory has wrought for awhile, and you have spoken it beautifully. I think I will print it out your container gardening manifesto and hang it on the door to my office so that anyone who dares enter will be warned.

    One of the points of doing containers and why I love it, is that you don’t have to follow rules. Each pot can be an adventure – with some clearly more satisfying than others. Also, the beauty is that if you make mistakes – if it’s ugly – you just move things around or start over.

    When my kids were little, there was a teacher who wanted to only give them one color to paint with at a time, so they wouldn’t make mud. I told her that they would learn a lot more from making mud than making pristine pictures. I feel that way about container gardening too.

  10. I must confess – I’ve used this phrase before at a nursery, while walking around with clients who absolutely could NOT figure out what they’d like to put in a pot. It was baffling to me, but they clearly needed some basic help. I distinctly remember uttering this phrase under my breath, in fear that another designer might overhear me and think ‘Oh…come ON…’. While it helped them, it definitely made me cringe!!

    Such beautiful pots you have – and I LOVE your tiled wall! I MUST figure out a way to visit you – I might never leave!!

  11. I’ve never heard of this phrase. I kind of like the way it rhymes. Sounds more like a Dr. Seuss book title than a mantra for planting containers. Lovely displays of pots.

  12. Oh, Germi, you’ve done it again. Great post, and FABULOUS containers! I love the tiled wall, too.

    I confess I use these kinds of nursery-rhyme “rules” to remind myself about the basics (a fave is “first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap” when talking about perennials). But I just like to know the “rules” so I can break them!

    Right on.

  13. Loree my dear, I am at your service … please feel free to enjoy the spikes here at Chez Germi while you are indoors this winter – goodness knows I’ve had the pleasure of oggling your goodies all summer! (I’m aware that sounded a little salacious, but oh well!) I was so inspired by the twitter exchanges between Kerry, Susan, and myself that I just HAD to let it fly… I KNEW others felt the same! XOXO!

    Hi Janie! Wow – THANKS for the sweet words! I blush! And coming from a fellow cacti/succulent fan, very high praise…

    Nozelle you spied my Queen! I love her SO MUCH – I believe she was the first agave I ever purchased, and she was mini. Now she’s just a beauty! Thanks for stopping by and commenting – hope to see you in these parts again!

    Hey there Nell Jean! Both Kerry and Pam say the culprit is Steve Silk – and Pam says he has a great blog that she enjoys … and since Pam is one of my heros, I won’t be too hard on Mr Silk (or at least not harder than I just was). I just have a knee jerk reaction when someone simplifies what is already fairly simple!

    Pam! My pal! Do you think I’m being mean? No disrespect to Steve Silk (oh that sounds SO disingenuous after I’ve trashed his little phrase up and down) and I WILL check out his blog. I thought it was J Paul Allan (or is it T Paul Allen?) because he used the phrase with alot of propriety on the Today SHow a couple of months ago. Maybe Mr. Silk should know that T. Paul is biting his catchphrase!

    Romina how sweet you are! Thank you for the props! I must also give props to my trusty Minion, who recently re-potted all of these beauties at much risk to his well-being; re-potting agaves and cleistocactus is NOT for the faint of heart!
    The grass behind the Aloe marlothii is fantastic, isn’t it? Miscanthus floridulus – an absolute wonder, and evergreen, too! And I am very lucky to live in a zone where I can grow Kalanchoe beharensis- it is very tender! Thank you so much for following me from Domino! You’re an old friend, then! And how wonderful that you took your special plants with you when you moved, so you could have old friends with you as well. I love that you referred to them as refugees! HAHAHAhahaha! Thanks for commenting, Romina – come back and chat soon!

    Tendril! Hi! I am so happy to return the favor, since you inspire me every time I visit your blog. Aren’t glazed pots the best? They bring an area to life in such a dramatic way – I LOVE!
    You will be surprised at my voice – no accent at all, but “y’all” pops with alarming frequency. I sound very much like a Californian who has a southern affectation! You love accents! I’ll bet there is an actress lurking around in you, Tendril! The impulse to make beauty (which you have in spades) is a dramatic impulse! And I can’t wait for the day it’s you on the other end of the phone – I’ll actually ANSWER it then! XOXO and a MWAH!

    Hello, Jane! It’s so funny, for much of my life as a gardener I’ve wanted nothing more than the climate YOU have! It’s just like the struggle I’ve had with my curly hair – it took me years to become comfortable and happy with what I have! Now I LOVE my climate and it’s specific needs and constraints.
    I must say – even though we can garden year round, there’s alot to be said for the winter nap! But you are right – I don’t envy anyone having to lug their pots indoors! Thank you so much for your lovely compliments – I very much appreciate every word!

    Kerry, one third of the twitter triumvirate that started this ball rolling! I would be SO HONORED to be posted on the door of your office – a warning to those who DARE to be trite about container gardening! You are so right – the best thing about containers is that you can play and change; why hamstring someone from the get go? Let them color with ALL the colors and make MUD if that’s what happens! Because mud is a beautiful, valuable step to whatever is right past mud … maybe a cool smeary rainbow! (as you can tell I loved your story and have gone off on a tangent with it…) I’m so glad THE Container Garden Guru was in my camp! Right on!

    Sweetest! You know you can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Since it was under your breath, and since you were careful NOT to be overheard, I will not consider you to be a follower of the thrillerfillerspiller mentality. One look at your work tells us THAT, though! But I’m not heartless – I DO understand that sometimes the new gardeners feel insecure about making their own choice, and this little ditty can be helpful. I just think that even the mistakes are cool, and I’d rather encourage something authentic.
    Isn’t the tiled wall cool? It was given to me by the artist I’m working with on the Yucatan project. It is my most prized possession! And WHEN you come to visit me, I might not let you leave!

    Hi Kate – yes it is Seussian, and on that level and that level alone I can live with it. If it were a poem or a children’s book, I would be its biggest fan! I’m glad you like my pots – They are very happy right now!

    The fabulous Ms. Bellamy! How are you my dear? The fact you like my stuff makes me giddy happy, because you have the best taste EVER.
    You know … I’ve used the ‘sleep creep leap’ phrase – but I think THAT one is okay because it’s a reminder, like you said; it isn’t a rule or a design trick. Or am I just rationalizing? Oh whatever. Rule breakers like us have to have some contradictions to them, to make things interesting!

  14. As always, I’m swooning over your beautiful photos!

    I agree, throw out the rules! Containers are fun mostly because they are self-contained little art projects. Unlike the rest of the garden, no worries about repetition, unity, how big will this get, blah, blah, blah. Much easier in that respect, plus the bonus of instant gratification.

    But I also have to agree with Rebecca – sometimes explaining things to clients using a template like thriller/filler/spiller IS useful. Plus I like stupid catchphrases.

  15. I may be in the minority, but I don’t hate the catch phrase. I think it makes it easy for people that are new to container gardening feel comfortable with their selections. I do, however, think of it as a suggestion rather than a rule. And I do agree with your idea that if you love it, then do it. Sometimes, however, people just need some structure from which to branch out. To me it’s like the phrase “righty tighty, left loosey.” If it helps get the job done, what’s the harm?

  16. Call me crazy and tasteless, but I LOVE the whole Thriller, Filler, Spiller formula. It could be that I absolutely adore Steve Silk (he’s my tropical plant hero) and edited his entire special issue of FG on the subject… Anyway, I’ve talked to a lot of garden club ladies about container gardening, and when they come in, they’re totally confused about container gardening. When they leave they want to rush right out and create something fabulous. It’s an “a-Ha!” concept that gets beginners pumped and confident about an aspect of gardening that anyone can do, but that few do really well. It does it’s job quite well, I think. Of course you guys don’t need it. You’re all fabulous gardeners already!

  17. Dearest Susan! I’m so glad you like my pots! Like I said, they are my favorites right now, because so much of my garden is in a funky sort of transition. I’m not having the usual fall color explosion, more of a little bang here and there. But the pots!
    I LOVE that you love stupid catchphrases! That made me look at this in a whole new way – why not embrace the silliness of it?
    I’ll bet next time I’m consulting with someone about a container garden I’m going to use the phrase and be a total hypocrite! It is so stuck in my head now it would be impossible not to refer to it!
    Maybe I need a t-shirt – Thrillerfillerspiller.
    I like that idea – when in doubt, turn it into a t-shirt!

    Hi Kat! You are definitely NOT in the minority! I’m just a knee-jerk short cut avoider. I really like to get people exploring, and I think that usually that means avoiding “suggestions” that can stick in your head. I know people who would never plant a pot without something spilling over the side, for instance, because they think that is the only way to make a beautiful container. In reality, when I’m being a pragmatist and not an idealist, I understand that this catchy saying can get people started, and that is ALWAYS a good thing! I just hope that they can get crazy after they are comfortable, you know?

    Michelle!!! I’m so glad you weighed in on this! And I would NEVER call you crazy and tasteless!!! (Unless it was Halloween, and you were wearing a costume that said “I am CRAZY and TASTELESS”)
    On Pam’s (Digging) suggestion, I took a look at his stuff and he is super super talented. He DESERVES an awesome reputation! And FG highlights the best! I always want to support fantastic gardeners/designers/writers – but I also love dialog, and this is a good one! I am so happy that so many really smart, talented, thoughtful plant fiends have different opinions on this.
    I think anything that gets anyone gardening is a SUPER good thing, so first off … GO Thrillerfillerspiller for getting people who may have been uncomfortable about making mistakes to put things in pots and feel good about it. I guess my way of thinking, which I like to advocate whenever I can with baby gardeners is that there really ARE NO mistakes – if plants can work together culturally, and you like what is happening, then you have a success on your hands. I am someone who loves the PROCESS of gardening so much, often the result is just a bonus! That is a weird thing for a garden designer to admit, I know… I guess I want to encourage play, especially from people who are intimidated to take that first step. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and do it … see what happens! I think that is the way we develop our eye, our sensitivity to balance and color … and it’s how we learn about what WE like.
    But like you said, it’s truly about whatever gets people motivated to create something fabulous, and how could I be against that?
    CRAZY Michelle!!! XO!

  18. I’m still trying to absorb the shock of an outdoor tiled wall backdrop. Gorgeous!

    About Silk’s catchy phrase, I’d venture a guess that’s more useful advice for cold-climate gardeners. My pot groupings are more “monopots,” and like you I use lots of succulents, because here in zone 10 the pots are features year-round and get shuffled, regrouped, and moved constantly. And plants get big here! as your pots will attest, and can quickly outgrow pots, so no need to crowd from the get-go And there’s so many cool specimen plants for pots in frost-free zones that working out extra spills and chills isn’t necessary. I say it’s a zonal thing…

    Great input from the comments

    (And love your standard Kalanchoe beharensis!)

  19. Hi Ivette.

    I for one most definitely do not see a “thriller” in that pot! Yikes! I won’t ask what the two rosette succulents represent! Germi…what are you like!!!

    All your containers look great, and you have so many. My containers took a royal beating in this year’s summer drought and perishing heat. The only things still alive are my agaves, succulents and one oregano.

    Interesting post, like you I like the more free-form approach to containers, it is always a lot more fun to break the rules anyway. That what makes growing things exciting, the unknown, no? I have had containers that have made me crack up laughing, they were so ridiculous!

    Your papyrus is looking mighty grand, and I love that “purply” miscanthus? behind your large agave in the first shot. So many textures and funky shapes. Talking of funky…your wall!!!

    Cheer Ivette.

  20. domesticgodess says:

    I love your posts, because I love your style. They basically make me look at what I have done in my garden and tweek it accordingly, as I think about it differently! Pots are a love of mine too, although pretty much all my pots are scavenged from here and there, and pretty much all the plants are scavenged to – it was a very proud moment when I realised that I COULD GROW SOMETHING FROM A CUTTING, yes even me! Some of my container plants are nearly twenty years old (geraniums and aloe) that I stole from my mother when I first moved out of home (ofcourse repotted now!) On inspection this afternoon, I seem to have parsley growing amongst pretty much all of them (and betwen all the cracks in the paving, I didnt know it was so hardy) – I guess that is my “filler”!

  21. I too love containers especially since my yard is mostly DG. Thank you for showing the beauty of drought tolerant plants. Many forget we live in a desert!

    PS, I have the same tall Kalanchoe!


  22. Oooh, I love papyrus. I tried to grow some and the cats loved it so much they pulled it off the pedestal and killed it. They loved it almost as much as they love lemongrass (I had to give my lemongrass plant to my mom because of this: )

    As for the TFS rule… I don’t object, but then, I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it, so I guess I don’t take it seriously enough to trash it. It’s not a bad way to start if you want a ‘natural’ looking container.

  23. … but I do love your ‘killer’ rule!

  24. Love your dramatic container arrangements.
    Well in the tropics I think that’s one thing people do well-dramatic single plants in containers. The thriller/spiller/filler look I think is good for short seasonal displays when people want something quick to look pretty.

  25. Germi, how did I manage to miss this? Such scrumptuous plants and pots! I’m feeling smug that I know what that gorgeous agave is—Agave attenuata ‘Variegata’. Very hard to find in nurseries because it seldom offsets and doesn’t tissue culture worth a dang. I’m surprised you haven’t been deluged with requests asking where to buy it. I’m impressed!

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