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For pots with impact, go for thrill, fill and spill

Sun., June 8, 2014

Coleus plants, with their wildly colored leaves, are well-suited as fillers for eye-catching containers.
Coleus plants, with their wildly colored leaves, are well-suited as fillers for eye-catching containers.

To create an eye-catching container full of annuals, you need a thriller, a filler and a spiller. But what does that mean, and which plants make stunning choices?

Thrillers are the focal points of the pot. They tend to have tall, erect growth and should have interesting texture.

Dracaena spikes are probably the most commonly used plant for this purpose because they grab your attention. They grow in part to full sun and are pretty much bombproof. Buy why not branch out a bit by choosing something different?

Canna lilies are stunning with their bright flower clusters and equally attractive large leaves. The cultivar Australia has deep burgundy leaves and red blossoms. Pretoria has green-and-white variegated leaves, while Tropicana features brilliant foliage with orange, green, purple and pink stripes.

If your container is going in a shady spot, try Caladium. Prized for exotic-looking foliage, the leaves come in combinations of pink, green, white or red, often with mottling or contrasting veins. At the end of the season, you can repot it and grow it indoors as a houseplant.

When it comes to my thriller of choice, I have to admit to being in a rut for the past three years. I’m hooked on purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum rubrum) with its rustling purple foliage and fuzzy purple seed heads. It is fabulous.

Fillers are plants that fill in the gaps. They tend to have a mounding habit and are often selected for blossom colors that will pick up the tones seen in the thriller and spillers.

Coleus is one of my favorite fillers because there are so many amazing foliage colors available. Their small flower spikes should be pinched off to keep the plants growing all season.

You can find plants with pink, chartreuse, bronze, gold, deep purple, red and/or green foliage in a wide array of patterns. Coleus grows in most light conditions, although some cultivars tolerate full sun better than others.

Two other great fillers are Lantana and the profusion or Zahara series of zinnias (Zinnia angustifolia and marylandica, respectively). Lantana has rounded, multicolored flower clusters and attracts butterflies. The zinnias have a daintier growth habit than the old-fashioned garden zinnias we all know and love. Flowers come in cherry red, salmon, orange, yellow and white and are long-lasting.

As you’ve probably already guessed, spillers are plants that cascade over the edges of pots. There are a lot of attractive options for this category.

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) has become very popular in recent years. The foliage is lime, chartreuse or blackish-purple in color and is now available with heart-shaped, palmate (hand-shaped) or lacy leaves.

Million bells (Calibrachoa) is also well-loved for its profusion of blossoms in gorgeous colors. It comes in yellow, peach, red, purple, burgundy, orange, pink, magenta and bi-colored. Many have contrasting center eyes that are just stunning. The flowers are self-deadheading, meaning they drop off by themselves so you don’t have to deal with that tedious chore when you consider the quantity of flowers they produce.

Torenia is another great spiller because of its tubular bi- or tri-colored flowers. They come in shades of purple, pink, yellow, dusty rose, burgundy, blue and white. While its common name is wishbone flower, it’s referred to as Torenia at most nurseries. The plants prefer part to full shade.

To get the most enjoyment out of your plants all season long, remember to feed them with a slow-release fertilizer at intervals recommended on the label.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at inthegarden@ her blog at and Facebook page at susansinthegarden.

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