How to Design a Container Garden

Follow this simple design concept and boost the impact of your container gardens with plants of various sizes, textures and color combinations.
Potted Plants on Front Porch

Potted Plants on Front Porch

Gardening with containers allows you the opportunity to experiment with color combinations and plant choices before committing to those plants in the garden. There are many ways to plant containers, and that can be quite intimidating, especially for beginners.

Combine Various Plants

The easiest way to begin is to combine these categories of plants: thriller, filler and spiller.

"You want to have a bold, upright, architectural plant; that's the thriller," says garden designer Steve Silk. "It really gets your attention."

The filler is the plant with medium height in the pot, or the next step down from the thriller. The spiller tumbles out of the edge of the container and falls toward the ground.

When considering plants to use as your thrillers, fillers and spillers, think about their texture, fragrance and color combinations. Individually, each plant conveys color, texture, shape, and dazzle. Yet when combined in one container or a grouping of pots, examine how the plants interact with each other. Do certain colors in one plant bring out subtle complementary colors in another? How do the various leaf shapes, sizes and textures carry through the container plantings? Is there an underlying theme that connects all the plants together?

Choose a Thriller

So how do you combine form and function into a fabulous container? Start with your focal point, or thriller. This is the plant that provides architectural structure in the pot. "Thrillers are the big, bold element, so look for shapes that are strong and pronounced," says Steve. Good options for thrillers are bananas, elephant ears, cannas and ornamental grasses.

Plants add Jungle Feel to Garden

Plants add Jungle Feel to Garden

Choose a Filler

Fillers are the plants in the middle that connect the thrillers to the spillers. "Fillers are mounding, billowy plants that I like to put around the thriller. They disguise the base of the thriller and fill up the pot with neat shapes," says Steve. Consider using plants of moderate size, such as coleus, pentas and lantana.

Zinnia Combined with Foliage

Zinnia Combined with Foliage

©Image courtesy of Susan Morgan

Image courtesy of Susan Morgan

Choose a Spiller

Spillers are the final element to consider when designing your pots. They cascade to the ground, softening the edges of the pot and anchoring it in place. They provide a colorful skirt around the combination of thrillers and fillers. Sweet potato vine, million bells (Calibrachoa) and verbena are good examples of trailing plants.

Pink and White Floral Bouquet

Pink and White Floral Bouquet

©Design by Rate My Space user kmphelps

Design by Rate My Space user kmphelps

Select a Container

Before selecting a container, think about where you want to put it in the landscape. Will it soften the corner of a patio? Do you want to place it within a grouping of containers? These are important options to consider when choosing a pot and will help to determine if you need small eight-inch pots or big four-foot containers. You should also consider color combinations, formal vs. informal, style, access to a water source, general care and maintenance, and plans for winter care.

Terra Cotta Pots for Container Garden

Terra Cotta Pots for Container Garden

Plant Your Container

Good soil is vital in containers. Steve recommends using a mixture of one part high-quality potting soil, one part compost and one part shredded pine bark.

Once the soil is in place, start planting the container. You can assemble the container in any way you see fit, but it's helpful to plant the biggest plant, the thriller, first so you don't have to make room for it later. Then add the fillers around the base of the thriller, followed by the spillers trailing over the edge of the pots.

As you arrange the plants in the pot, symmetry isn't essential, but picking up color echoes to tie the plants together is always nice. The thrillers, fillers and spillers concept works the same for small and large pots as well as pots clustered together in groupings.

Water the pots as needed and feed with a liquid or slow-release fertilizer every two to three weeks.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Garden Design: Connect Your Indoor and Outdoor Spaces

Let your indoor space inspire your landscape design plans.

How to Plant a Cactus Container Garden

Yee-haw! Turn a container into a desert landscape by filling it with prickly cacti and other succulent plants.

Create a Relaxing Garden Space

Use these design tips to help create the outdoor oasis you've always imagined.

How to Make a Window Box Container Garden

Create a window box that will beautify the outside of your home and attract wildlife at the same time.

A Modern Container Garden for the Patio

In this contemporary display, the slim vase-shaped container balances the tall spiky cabbage palm and drooping ferny foliage, while pineapple-like flowers lend an exotic touch.

How to Grow Flowering Vines in Containers

Many compact climbers, such as jasmine and some clematis, are well suited to living in pots. All they need is a good-sized container, suitable support and regular watering and feeding.

How to Plant in Gardening Containers

To ensure that plants in gardening containers grow and perform as well as possible, you need to plant them properly.

How to Grow an Organic Container Garden

Tips for nurturing healthy plants and flowers the organic way.

Container Gardening in the Spring

This elegant spring show builds up from the alternating white and blue hyacinths to the blue grape hyacinths (Muscari ), hidden in their grasslike leaves, and up to the beautiful Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai').

How to Grow Ginger

Enjoy this ornamental houseplant for its beautiful foliage, then savor its tasty roots.

1,000+ Photos

Browse beautiful photos of our favorite outdoor spaces: decks, patios, porches and more.


Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.