Container gardening using thrillers, fillers & spillers

Whether you have a small balcony or a sprawling country estate, containers can be a really useful way to add year-round colour and interest to your garden.

You can grow plants in just about any kind of container, as long as it’s large enough to hold compost to suit the plants’ needs, and it has drainage holes in the bottom. If you live on a windy site, consider the stability of the plant and the pot, particularly if you’re growing something tall.

Containers are great in that you can move them around the garden to fill empty gaps and create seasonal displays. Concrete or stone pots are more difficult to move but are sturdier. Plastic pots are less stable, but easier to move. One way around this is to place a plastic pot inside a stone pot to make it easy to interchange plants through the seasons.

When I’m creating a garden, I take into consideration the plants, the pots and their location, along with colour schemes and style. There’s a lot to think about! Here’s an example of how one plant – a pittosporum – can look different depending on the container and the background. The traditional terracotta pot stands out much more against the blue background than the brick wall, while the white pot contrasts well with both backgrounds and has a more modern vibe.

For drama and impact, choose colours opposite one another on the colour wheel such as red and green, yellow and purple, or blue and orange. For harmony and tranquillity, choose similar colours that tone well together, such as purples and blues. Here’s an example of a harmonious pot, with a burgundy phormium combined with pink scabiosa and forget-me-nots.

So, what do we mean by thrillers, fillers and spillers? The thriller is the star of the container – the attention-grabbing, dominant eye-catcher. The fillers do exactly that, and fill the pot around the thriller, while the spillers are the trailing plants over the side of the pot.

Now the weather is warming up and frosts are less frequent, you can fill your containers with summer bedding plants. Try a pelargonium (thriller), combined with petunias (fillers) and trailing lobelia (spillers). If you need plants that are pollution tolerant, try dwarf buddleia, or evergreen skimmia, yew or berberis. For hotspots, you can use more exotic plants such as cannas or ginger lilies.

One last thing to bear in mind is watering. Container plants need watering more than those in the ground, so add water-retaining crystals to the compost and mulch the surface to minimise evaporation. Smaller pots will need watering more often than larger ones.


summer bedding plants in a pot

patio pots in a large garden

white flower pot with plants blue background




Tree Ferns at Pershore Horticulture College

Beautiful Tree Ferns at Pershore Horticultural College

Tree Ferns at Pershore Horticulture CollegeFollowing an investment of £5.8m in the college facilities, a group of 100-year-old New Zealand tree ferns are now taking pride of place within the Collections House at Pershore College. After meeting the Director of Horticulture, Diane Whitehouse, and Commercial Manager John Farmer; it’s easy to understand their enthusiasm for the project.

The new Collections House is an imposing glass-fronted building on the north side of the college, which creates a semi-Mediterranean climate for growing a number of carefully selected plants. Its sophisticated censor-controlled system maintains a constant 19-20 degrees centigrade, single-glazed windows maximise the natural light, and there are also automatic ‘grow lights’, as used in the tomato farming industry.

Living Wall

Within its new reception area there’s an impressive living wall, but the main eye-catcher is the collection of Dicksonia squarrosa, commonly known as the tree fern, some of which are already 5.5m (18ft) tall.

To stop the ferns drying out, vertical hydroponics have been installed to drip water down the fibrous trunks, in efforts to mimic the growing conditions of their native New Zealand rainforest.

If you’re thinking of growing your own tree fern, remember they only grow about 2.5cm (1in) per year, but can eventually reach up to 6m (20ft) with a spread of around 5m (16½ft).

They can be situated in containers, outdoors, or in a large greenhouse or conservatory, but will need a sheltered spot and winter protection if grown outside. Water the trunks but avoid watering the crowns. They are generally pest free, but remove any damaged or dead fronds.  They prefer a part shade or full shade garden. They like a sandy or loam soil with a pH of acid or neutral soil.

To see the tree ferns for yourself, and to find out more about the courses on offer, contact the college directly for more details, visit

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Nikki HollierFounder of Border in a Box
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