Adherence to rule a recipe for boring container design

Erin Schanen

Thriller, filler, spiller. If I never hear it again, I’d be a happy gardener.

What started as a clever mnemonic device to help people design container plantings has become something held as gospel that gardeners ignore at their own peril. To me, it’s the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

I find rules that exist for any reason other than safety or the good of society to be incredibly irksome, and even more so when they are applied to creative pursuits. Would we know their names if Picasso, van Gogh or Pollock followed the rules? Probably not.

So let’s stop pigeonholing our container designs, because while something tall, something wide and something trailing can make a good design, there are a lot of times when it doesn’t.

Thriller, filler, spiller rarely works for window boxes without some creativity. A lone thriller (and that is the insinuation) would look ridiculous in a window box, not to mention block the view. I have used vines on either end of a window box with some bamboo canes so they appear to climb up window frame. Maybe those are goalposts, or upside down curtains.

Sometimes a beautiful and bold container deserves to be seen without the obstruction of trailing plants, which can create a Cousin It-type look by late summer.

A far better way to design a container is to start with a pot and work from there. The rule of thirds is something our brains recognize even if we don’t consciously know anything about it. When the plants or the pot represent one-third of a total container design’s height, leaving either shorter plants in a taller pot or taller plants in a shorter pot, our brains find the overall look to be aesthetically pleasing.

Of course that’s another rule I feel the urge to break, and one way to do that is to group pots with one type of plant in each pot together. Think of it as a deconstructed container design.

I’m not alone in my dislike of this rule gone awry. Garden book author C.L. Fornari recently thumbed her nose at the thriller, filler, spiller construct by encouraging gardeners to design containers with a chiller (an easy-care plant that blooms all summer), a killer (something big, bold or very cool) and a Phyllis Diller (something a bit wild and against the grain).

Fornari’s mnemonic device allows for plenty of creativity on behalf of the gardener, which is exactly how it should be.

After all, thriller, filler, spiller gave us the most ubiquitous and arguably boring container design of all time — a dracaena spike, geraniums and vinca vine. Gardeners can certainly do better than that when they design their containers. Rhyming not required.


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