Recipe for Successful Container Gardens - U of I Extension

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Recipe for Successful Container Gardens

This article was originally published on May 20, 2013 and expired on May 27, 2013. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Every year I seem to add another container to my gardens. Containers add new dimension, emphasis, and interest to existing gardens. They extend gardens to windowsills, balconies, porches, or other small paved areas. Containers are also a good alternative for those with limited garden space and time.

Anything can be used as a container as long as it has a drainage hole. I mostly use blue ceramic pots around my pool. Various other types are carefully arranged on my patio and porches.

Have fun with containers by using unusual items as plant containers. Anything that will hold soil and provide drainage can be used as a container. Examples might include boots, baskets, tins, kid's toys, and so much more! Don't overdo these though. Overuse of unusual containers can lead to a gaudy, unattractive garden.

Design principles for plants and containers are fun to play with too. Use a mixture of companion plants in a container to create a desired color or texture theme. Similarly, the containers themselves can be grouped by texture, type, or color. Anything is possible.

A basic recipe for successful container gardening includes thrillers, fillers, and spillers.

Thrillers are the centerpiece of your container. In small containers, you might only use a thriller. I have several small containers with gerbera daisies each year that make a statement with their bright, cheery flowers. My largest container has a mandevilla growing up an obelisk.

Anything big, bold, and beautiful works as a thriller. In larger containers these might be tall and upright like a purple fountain grass or tropical canna. Sometimes just big or colorful flowers give the thrill effect.

Fillers complement the thriller plants. These can be foliage or flowers that highlight the focal points in your container garden. Leaves with interesting color and texture provide season-long interest. I particularly like asparagus fern, euphorbias, dusty miller, alyssum, coleus, Persian shield, and many of the smaller flowers like bacopa and nemisia.

Spillers do just what the name implies – they spill over the edge of the container. Old standbys include vinca vines and various ivy plants. Others that work well include Lysimachia (golden creeping jenny, moneywort), Helichrysum (licorice plant), and lobelia. Trailing houseplants work well too if they have the same growing requirements as other plants in the container.

Try something new in your containers this year. Additional blueprints for building containers are found on our University of Illinois Extension website at

Source: Rhonda J. Ferree, Extension Educator, Horticulture,

Pull date: May 27, 2013