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Thursday, February 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Home and garden

In the Garden: After choosing right container, think thriller, filler, spiller

The sky’s the limit when it comes to selecting plant combinations for containers. (SUSAN MULVIHILL/SPECIAL TO THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The sky’s the limit when it comes to selecting plant combinations for containers. (SUSAN MULVIHILL/SPECIAL TO THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Whenever I visit a garden, I’m always drawn to artfully planted containers. It doesn’t matter whether they’re filled with flowers or vegetables, a pleasing combination really inspires me.

Creating your own garden masterpiece isn’t that difficult once you understand the basics of planting containers.

Water is the most important aspect of container gardening. Pots tend to dry out quickly so be sure to check the soil moisture often. Despite this, pots should have drainage holes so the soil doesn’t remain waterlogged. If you’ve found a pot that you cannot live without but it doesn’t have holes, there are two options: drill holes in the bottom or fill the bottom of the pot with gravel and put your plants into a smaller pot (with holes) that fits inside.

Another option is a self-watering container. They have a water reservoir below the planting section. The soil wicks up water from the reservoir, keeping the plants happy. This cuts down on the watering frequency.

After choosing a container, you’ll need some sterile potting mix. I never use garden soil since it can be difficult to keep moist and might contain pathogens or other problems. You can choose a mix that contains fertilizer or sprinkle in some slow-release fertilizer after planting. Some mixes also have water-retention crystals to keep it moist for longer periods. I use an organic potting mix for growing vegetables in containers

Now it’s time to select plants, which is always my favorite part of the process.

Annual flowers can be planted after the danger of frost has passed. You will want a thriller (the focal point, usually a vertical plant), several fillers (those planted around the base of the thriller) and spillers (plants to trail over the edge of the pot). My advice is to play with different combinations at the nursery until the plants speak to you.

Thriller suggestions include purple fountain grass or other ornamental grasses, canna lilies, elephant ears (Colocasia), Dracaena, cordyline and flax (Phormium). Fillers could be coleus, lantanas, begonias, geraniums, impatiens, succulents or zinnias. Attractive spillers include sweet potato vines, Torenia, Vinca, Calibrachoa and Bacopa. But don’t let these suggestions limit your creativity.

When planting annuals in a container, I crowd them for maximum impact. After all, they’re just going to live for a single growing season.

Growing veggies in containers is a great solution if you don’t have space for a conventional garden. They can be right outside your kitchen door for easy picking, too. Make sure they’ll get at least six hours of sunlight daily.

There are plenty of vegetable crops that do well in pots; refer to the information box for ideas. If you’re growing crops that require support, be sure to add a cage, small trellis or obelisk prior to planting.

No matter which types of plants you’re growing in containers, remember to water them in well and apply some fertilizer if the potting soil doesn’t include it. Above all, don’t let your container dry out. Then sit back and enjoy your masterpiece.

To learn more about container gardening, watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video, on my YouTube channel,

Susan Mulvihill is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Pat Munts. Contact her at

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