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

Create a Stunning Herb Container Garden

Make it easy to snip a handful of fresh herbs while you're cooking — keep this fragrant herb garden on the deck or patio.

How to Grow an Organic Container Garden

Tips for nurturing healthy plants and flowers the organic way.

How to Water Container Gardens

Learn the basics of watering container gardens—including simple tips for making it less of a chore.

Maintaining Container Gardens

These simple maintenance tasks keep your patio planters and window boxes looking their best throughout the growing season and help cold-climate gardeners prepare for winter.

How to Plant a Cactus Container Garden

Look sharp. You can make a cactus container garden in about an hour.

How to Start a Community Garden

Expert Bill Dawson offers tips on starting a shared community garden in your neighborhood.

How to Grow a Beer Garden

Grow your own ingredients inspired by a love of the frothy beverage.

How to Make a Container Water Garden

To grace an outdoor setting, a table or even an office, create a pond-in-a-pot with these simple step-by-step instructions.

How to Make a Patriotic Container Garden

Show off your love of country with these red, white and blue container gardens for sun and shade.

How Do I Ensure Good Drainage in Container Gardens?

Should you put gravel or other coarse materials in the bottom of pots? It depends.

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.