To mix or not to mix: that is the question



And a pretty trivial one it is, I am sure, to many of you. I do a lot of container gardening though, to soften the edges of my hardscape-filled space, so this is the type of dilemma I frequently ponder.

From last year: I think all 3 of these plants are trying to be the thriller, and I never liked the colors.

A few years back, mixed containers were IT; all the garden magazines gave instructions on color and contrast, while such vendors as White Flower Farms offered premixed groups of plants and the containers to put them in. One of the common formulas one heard (and hears) a lot was/is the “thriller, filler, spiller,” with one dramatic plant in the center, a bushy plant around it, and trailing plants falling over the edges of the pot. This makes sense, design-wise, but can look boring. Also the dramatic plants must grow dramatically and look spectacular and that doesn’t always happen.

We know now about how smart plants are; they consciously protect themselves and compete with each other. In this scenario, one plant falling by the wayside really hurts. So you have to choose really tried and true cultivars; little, delicate, iffy, or rarified types probably won’t survive the competition.

Now I am hearing and reading that a container well-filled with one great plant might be the way to go. Two plants that I think would fill that bill are a gorgeous coleus variety or maybe the fusion impatiens, which has orchid-like flowers and fast-growing, multi-branching stems, almost bush-like.

I meant to try single varieties or even single-colors this year, but I forgot. And the dramatic plants I often use really do need other plants around them; almost every one of my containers has either (for sun) oriental lilies, or (for shade) various elephant ear (Black Magic is shown above, though in a raised circular bed that acts as a container and also has impatiens). What I have given up on in some cases is the “spiller” concept; if you’ve spent a lot of money on a gorgeous container (like those we saw in Austin at the Natural Gardener), shouldn’t just a little bit of it show? On the other hand, overflowing plants are a great way to disguise cheap plastic containers.

Got a great container formula or a mix that’s worked perfectly for you? Do tell. I’ll send at least TWO new Timber Press titles to the most interesting or novel container solution (exact books to be a surprise).

I HAVE TWO WINNERS. I loved the comments from Chuck B. , Ginny Stibolt, Michelle D., and Mr. Subjective (ha!), but I only have two books, so Chuck and Ginny win. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on containers. I can see now that I really suck at them, but I have learned a bit here.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. You can approach container gardening like arranging flowers in a bouquet with the Japanese principle of three levels of plants. (The tall plants represent the sky, the medium level plants represent mankind, and the lower level plants represent the earth. This sounds more sophisticated than the thriller combo you mentioned.) In a container this still translates to: the tall or spiky plant, the bushy medium height plant, and the vining or trailing plant that will hang gracefully from the sides. Work with odd numbers of plants, and maybe add a nice rock or art object to enhance the arrangement. You can accomplish these arrangements in one large, stand-alone container or by using several containers of different sorts with a variety of plants. Mostly I’ve had better luck with single species pots.

    Here are some general guidelines for container gardening:

    Despite what we’ve been told all these years, covering the bottom of the container with inches of gravel or potshards is not recommended. Linda Chalker-Scott (in her book and on her website ) tells us that university studies have shown that this layer of gravel or potshards actually impedes drainage, because water does not travel well from the fine substrate of the potting mix to the coarse gravel mixture. Plus, plants are under enough stress in containers; so don’t reduce the depth of the soil in the pot with that generous layer of gravel. Prevent soil from washing out of the drainage holes by placing a piece of screen or non-woven weed barrier cloth, or even a few dried leaves over the holes before adding the soil. If you use a large piece of the non-woven weed barrier cloth so it extends up the sides of the pot, it can also discourage ants from using your outdoor pots for nests.

    For a long-term container use some compost in the soil mix and as an occasional topdressing, because all those good microbes create a better environment for the roots. The soil-less mixtures may be fine for a single-season planter, but you have to provide all the nutrients for these plants. Linda Chalker-Scott also has shown that those water-absorbent balls don’t do anything for your plants. I use half compost and half sandy soil for my pots, but I then use sterile soil for the top two inches and cover with mulch to keep down the weeds.

    If you use cloth pots (Smart Pots) as liners for your big containers, the roots will be air-pruned and won’t wrap around the inside of the pot. Being able to separate the plant and soil from a heavy pot also makes it easier to move in case a hurricane comes along. And it is hurricane season now here in Florida.

  2. When Taunton Press coined the term, ‘Thrillers, Spillers and Fillers’ , I thought it was an extremely clever description.
    It simply deconstructed in simple layman’s’ terms the basic aesthetics of designing a well balanced composition.
    Without getting into the anatomy of design theory these simple words painted a picture to visually assist anyone in planting an artistically pleasing planted container.

    To keep the concept of ‘Thriller , Spiller and Filler’, simple they did not get into the important role that the actual container contributes when creating a visually pleasing composition.

    To me, it is a affair de coeur ( affair of the heart) to artistically wed a beautifully proportioned container with plants that imbues the senses, inspirits the heart and inspires the eye of the beholder.

    You ask if we have a formula that has worked.
    I suppose I do but it is so second nature that I had to think about it for awhile in order to put it into words.
    First I look to the surroundings for any design direction clues.
    Color of the house and the architectural style (modern, victorian, cottage or craftsman bungalow ) are important elements to be taken into consideration in order to sculpt a seamless rhythmic flow.

    As a current example , I am working on a contemporary pan pacific theme for a rooftop container garden in San Francisco.
    The architecture is somewhat modern so some of the custom made metal containers have a sleek clean line look – . They will be planted with a single plant, Bambusa Alphonse Karr.
    I’ll also have a couple of stone accent pots that were hand carved in Java : link- – and they will be planted with a rhaphis palm, some bromeliads and some succulents.

    So I guess that is my formula. Look at the entire composition as a whole to achieve a flowing lyrical compilation.

  3. I’m with Ms. Dervis. I’m not one to buy art to match my sofa, but I do buy my annuals in pots & baskets to coordinate with their surroundings on some level.

    Out front it’s hanging baskets with various plants contrasting with the house color to stand out. Out back its baskets & pots with one plant each with flowers to match the colors in the “cabana” curtains hanging around the deck (reds, yellows & oranges).

  4. A couple ideas for you. . . .

    Propeller: Big splashy thing that’s going to sell the arrangement
    Roller: Low crawling thing that hides the dirt
    Biller (alternate: Comptroller): Something cheap / something you’re long on

    Killer: Something that’s going to crowd out the other two.
    Culler: Something that’s going to crowd out the other two.
    Queller: Something that’s going to crowd out the other two.

    Killer-Culler-Queller can be fun sometimes. All the excitement of a fight to the death, but really, really slow.

  5. I’ve always been a 1 type of plant per container person. Unless it is something really tall and boring at the bottom like a banana or canna (in that case I would add something for interest like hens and chicks, sedum or sweet potato vine).

    For my containers I usually use dramatic plants, like agave or tropicals, that wouldn’t live if put in the ground in my climate. These plants are so dramatic on their own that just a simple gravel mulch to hide the dirt and set off the plant is best. I also rarely put annuals in the ground but use them in pots to add a little color where needed, coleus is a favorite. The fabulous colors and patterns of the leaves are better seen up close, and it is harder for the slugs to destroy them.

    Pots that are crammed full of 3 or 4 different plants just look to busy to my eye. But then our gardens would be boring if we all agreed on things!

  6. I like to see trees in containers, that is, trees that are suited for container growth. The sight of a dwarfed cork oak (Quercus suber) growing in the same container for the last 30 years at CalFlora Nursery blew my mind.

    Now I have FIVE young cork oaks of my own that I intend to grow in just such a manner. (I may lose one of two of them, but I will be content to succeed with one or two, too.)

    I appreciate the visual value of planting 3’s and 5’s in the garden, but in the end that’s just another rule that cries out to be broken.

    In the case of the cork oak, I think one companion, or none, will suffice. Anything more would be too much.

    I have one oak with low-growing purple-esque succulent Graptopetalum pentandrum, and another with a purple-flowering gray senecio whose name I can’t recall.

    One day, when I’m old, I imagine these dwarfed cork oaks will be fabulous framing a walk in my garden, or placed on either side of a door or passageway.

  7. My favorite pots contain one plant variety. But something that has matured and really fills the space – I love my mature Desert Rose and can’t imagine making it share the stage with anything else. The same goes for hanging pots. I have a number of mixed succulent hanging baskets – but the ones that catch my eye contain one plant.

  8. i was a major mixer for years, spurred on by HG imagery and the like no doubt. it really got out of hand there for a while. but as i’ve “mellowed” i find the simplicity of one fabulously robust annual/perrenial in a pot really hits the spot. the only mix for the moment in my oakland, ca garden: have two large pots of aeonium ‘schwartzkopf’ (black), two sweet ‘tater vines, one chartruese, one black and a euphorbia ‘dolce vita’. splendid. one thing that i will say i’ve stopped doing is using plastic pots – took years to wean off the cheap accesibility of plastic but the look if real pots is SO much better. i also use fewer pots ($$$) these days and when i do they are much bigger than in my early gardening years.

  9. Chuck, I love that Flickr pic… but seriously, I couldn’t even READ “dwarfed cork oak” more than once without tripping over my tongue! lol.

    I tend to mix, and I tend to favor foliage over flowers for my containers, but I love the idea of not mixing. For the past two years I’ve planned to take out half of the dirt in my big urn, plant golden creeping Jenny inside, and lay a couple of glass balls on top. So that you couldn’t see what was in the urn until you literally were right up on it and snuck a peak inside. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    And yet, this year I ended up throwing everything but the kitchen sink in that urn: ‘Red Sensation’ cordyline, ‘Marcus’ salvia, silver lotus vine, ‘Firecracker’ begonia, ‘Totally Tempted’ cuphea, eucalyptis, ‘Golden Delicious’ pineapple sage, and something called “Dog Gone,” which was labeled “Coleus Canina” but looked for all the world like a plain old plectranthus. I just liked its chunky leaves and the fantastic-looking flower buds on it.

  10. Howdy Ranters,
    It’s always a pleasure to contribute to the blog.
    I totally enjoy the entertainment and educational value.
    I thought I would pass along two links that have photographs of some container plantings.
    The first link has about a dozen photos of a few planters that I worked on : –

    The second link is to the Grand Master of Container Planting located in San Francisco.
    Piotr Mazurek designs, plants and maintains all of these horticulturally rich gardens.

  11. I’ve been reading about the one-plant-per-pot trend and it’s gotten me thinking. Is gardening as trendy as fashion?

  12. I feel so out of the loop! We’ve been doing one plant/pot for ages now and just yesterday I gave in (to what is evidently now totally passé) and started planting up some mixes. Maybe some of each is the up and coming cutting edge trend…

  13. Elizabeth,
    Wow! I’m a winner… I look forward to receiving the book. Thanks so much! In return I’ll send you a copy of my book, “Sustainable Gardening for Florida” next year when it comes out. Even though you’re not in Florida, there’s a lot of good solid gardening advice and since it’s being published by a University press, it’s been thoroughly vetted. It’s been an interesting project. Thanks again. Ginny

  14. Passé or not, I love mixed container plantings, especially on stairs where multiple containers can be used for a really dramatic stacked and staggered effect.

  15. I never got containers right until I read the Renegade Gardener’s article on them this year. This year, I have 3 identical pots in a row to look like one planter. I have dark foliage cannas, a chartreuse and red coleus and some blue sutera in the center pot. In each of the flanking pots, I have some tall red grass (no name on it) and two sweet potato vines – one chartreuse and one black. They look great. I may never have a good combo again, but this year I got it right.

  16. Geez Elizabeth. I guess I’m too late to win a book by discussing my theory about how a good container mix is like Dread Zepplin — the reggae Led Zepplin cover band featuring an Elvis impersonator as lead singer. Maybe I’ll post that one next container season.

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