Breaking botanical boundaries in container planters

Garden center retailers should encourage consumers to break the botanical boundaries and combine annuals, perennials and foliage plants for some eye-catching containers.

Colorful deck boxes with a spider plant and colorful impatiens. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Colorful deck boxes with a spider plant and colorful impatiens. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Savvy gardeners and garden center retailers know the common tip to creating beautiful, eye-catching containers: “thriller, filler and spiller.” Combination planters or deck boxes should always combine a “thriller,” which is a plant with height to add vertical appeal to the containers, and “fillers,” which are plants that are low growing to fill out the pots. Common thriller plants include canna, caladium, croton, false Dracaena and ornamental grasses (purple fountain grass, ornamental millet). Common fillers in combination planters include double begonias, impatiens, petunias and geraniums. The “spiller” plant is a draping or vining plant that creates interest by falling over the edge of the container. Some common spillers are licorice plant, wandering jew, bacopa, Scaevola, sweet potato vine, creeping jenny and Dichondra.

While these combinations are beautiful, Michigan State University Extension urges garden center retailers and consumers alike to be brave and break those botanical borders! Garden center retailers still use the concept of “thriller, spiller and filler,” but have gone a step beyond that: using color, form and texture to create awesome combination planters.

When visiting some garden centers during the last week, all growers offered a variety of unusual and common species and “broke those barriers.” Who says you can’t put a foliage house plant in with other shade-loving plants? Wenke Garden Center demonstrated this by planting these colorful deck boxes (Photo 1) with a spider plant (typically grown as an indoor houseplant) with the colorful impatiens. Also, can you plant a combination planter emphasizing foliage? Check out this stunning planter in Photo 2 by River Street Flowerland that showcases plants with green and yellow foliage that are set off by the mustard-colored container.

Mustard-yellow flower container

This mustard-yellow flower container highlights plants with green and yellow foliage. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Perennials can also be gorgeous when mixed with annuals in containers. This gorgeous combination planter (Photo 3) at Wedel’s Garden Center had a dark coral bells plant (Heuchera) mixed with creeping jenny, sweet potato vine and a purple and white petunia.

Combination planter with coral bells, creeping jenny, sweet potato vine and petunias.

Combination planter with coral bells, creeping jenny, sweet potato vine and petunias. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Vegetables, fruits and herbs continue to be more popular. For example, Schuring’s Retail Greenhouse offers okra and edamame (soybean) plants. Riverstreet Flowerland offers trellised hops for the home brewer (Photo 4). Garden Spot Greenhouse is selling herb planters that include sweet basil, chives, oregano, parsley and sage (Photo 5).

Trellised hops

Trellised hops are great for the home brewer. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Planter containing a variety of herbs.

Planter containing a variety of herbs. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Numerous retailers, including Schram’s Greenhouse, are offering the in-demand hot peppers, such as the ghost pepper (Photo 6). Key Blooms Greenhouse offers 150 species of tomatoes! Wedel’s Garden Center offers many cultivars of berries including blueberries and gooseberry (Photo 7).

Ghost peppers

Ghost peppers are becoming popular in garden centers. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Berries

Many cultivars of berries are available at garden centers. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

With so much interest in the fruits, herbs and vegetables, why not mix the edibles with some other matching eye-catching plants? Wenke’s Garden Center is selling a striking planter with Swiss chard, celosia and snapdragons (Photo 7). If any of the cooler-season plants begin to fade or if they come in and out of bloom, be sure to mix in continual bloomers. Another great example is a lettuce bowl with pansies to provide spring color and a home-grown salad (Photo 8)!

A planter containing a mix of Swiss chard.

A planter containing a mix of Swiss chard, celosia and snapdragons. Photo: Heidi Wollaeger, MSU Extension.

Lettuce bowl with pansies.

This lettuce bowl with pansies provides spring color and ingredients for a salad! Photo: Bridget Behe, MSU.

As the weather is finally breaking, think spring and remember there are no rules when planting your combination planters for your outdoor living spaces. Don’t be afraid to mix it up! 

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