In a recent column, Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins addressed the long-hallowed “thriller/filler/spiller” theory of container gardening. He defended it and debunked it at the same time, which seems right to me. While it’s true that the drama of a tall plant is heightened by contrasting plants that spill over the sides and fill in the middle, there are plenty of other ways to create great containers. One big beautiful plant—papyrus, coleus, colocasia, banana—or a colorful array of dense annuals can be glorious in a good container. Ordinarily, however, I do like color contrast. My favorite contrasts are various permutations of yellow/purple/white, and green (light green). It tends to work better if the contrasting plants have different forms and textures, so you find yourself following t/f/s almost by default.
There are other elements where I agree and disagree with the how-tos.
The recommendations are always to provide brand-new potting soil with every planting; problems such as disease, compaction, and too many fertilizer salts are cited. Often I have no choice, because when I take old plants out, their roots have completely taken over and there’s no soil left. But if there is soil, I compromise, mixing in some new, but keeping the old, and fluffing it up a bit. I’ve never seen a problem. I always use some type of potting mix.
My personal rule is the bigger the better, in most cases, and I hate plastic. So that lands me with some heavy containers. I’ve tried to use fewer and better pots over the years; I’ve also found that if I cover them with tarps, I don’t have to store them over the winter. They survived Buffalo’s recent winter with no problem. That helped when it came time to set them up.
Please note: the whole idea of putting shards, gravel, packing peanuts etc. in the bottom of pots for drainage has been thoroughly debunked by our friends, the Garden Professors, many times. Just google it.
It’s fun to have a few of these, but not too many. Every Garden Walk, I get comments on the old metal milk delivery box I use for a big shade plant or summering house plant and the old coffee pot that holds … whatever it holds that year. It’s as close as I get to the dreaded garden “whimsy.” (Hate this word.)
I know that some gardeners think of containers as high maintenance or otherwise troublesome. Not me. They’re excellent vehicles for experimenting with new annuals, enjoying tropicals outside, and having fun with color. Agree?