Hanging baskets, pots and troughs: Thrillers, spillers and fillers

It’s mid-July. Very often, bedding plants are beginning to look a bit tired at this stage, if not half dead. Unless you are the conscientious gardener who always remembers to feed and water hanging baskets and pots of bedding, by this time they can be looking somewhat depleted and have often run out of nutrients in the pot/basket. On the other hand, this can be the absolute peak for bedding plants, and there are some fantastic arrangements on show around the UK.

It can be a time of intense hanging basket envy, wherby you spot your neighbour’s lush, colourful hanging baskets and wish you’d had the energy to pot something up earlier in the year! Perhaps this explains the many customers we get coming into the garden centre at this late stage frantically hunting out a fully potted up and blooming hanging basket. You guys will pay some hefty money to get that stunning, well planted hanging basket that will look just perfect for outside the front door.

As a qualified horticulturalist more focused on shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials, I don’t ‘do’ bedding. Well, I’ll qualify that – I do hanging baskets, made up from clearance reduced plug plants at the end of the plug bedding eight week season. I’ll then choose the last of them according to colours. I tend to go for a colour theme for each of my hanging baskets. This year, I have three hanging baskets and they are purple, white and deep pink themed.

When customers ask me how to plant up a hanging basket, I always use the same rule I was taught in horticultural college: you want a thriller, some fillers and lots of spillers. Each basket or pot arrangement of bedding needs a thriller, fillers and spillers. Easy, huh?

Your thriller is the main star attraction of the pot or basket. It is the biggest plant in the arrangement, and is placed centrally or to one side, depending on the location of the pot or basket. You only need one thriller. It ideally consists of your themed colour (either leaf or flower). Common choices of plant for a thriller might be a fuchsia, geranium, cordyline, perhaps a large begonia or fern, a dwarf conifer…whatever you want, so long as it’s the star of the show and can pack enough punch to pull the eye into the centre (height and spread is what you want). Ideally, it will be an upright plant, so if using a fuchsia choose a bush/upright variety and not a trailing variety. (Most bedding plants will be labeled upright or trailing.) Let’s say you want a dark pink themed basket, so you might choose a Fuchsia ‘Paula Jane’ as your thriller.

The fillers can be any number of a myriad of choices of bedding plants. It can be a bewildering choice. If so, keep it simple. Buy 4/5 of the same plant as your fillers if you want – there is no rule against it! Likewise, you can choose 4/5 or more of completely different, suitably-sized plants to plant around your thriller. I tend to choose 2 or 3 of the same type, and tend to use around 5/6 fillers in a basket. This creates some contrast but allows for a decent clump of the same plant in each basket. Remember the colour theme and stick to it. That pre-planned effect of an explosion of complimentary colours will be evident once they begin to grow and merge into each other. Typical, classic filler plants might be petunias, violas, pansies, nemesia, calibrachoe, bidens (bit of a trailer too), etc.

Lastly, you have your spillers – the trailing – sometimes seriously dangling – plant addition to every self-respecting, traditional hanging basket.

You can plant up veg or fruit baskets and pots too! Stick a tomato plant in the centre, some marigolds as companion planting around the edges, perhaps a few dwarf carrots, some dill or fennel, thyme and mint as your spillers. Just be prepared for these to run out of steam and space quite quickly regardless of feeding; they will need to be potted on or planted out eventually.

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Goodbye, my lover

I wrote this two years ago when I left my previous garden. Those who have created a garden and then moved, leaving your treasured plants and creations behind, may understand the sentiment:

“It’s a tough thing, as a trained gardener and enthusiastic plant-collector, leaving a garden behind. My ten-year old garden will soon be left in the capable or not-so-capable hands of a new owner. I’m moving on to gardens new.

When I bought this house, its modest 45 ft by 25 ft secluded and private garden was one of the defining attractive features that convinced me to commit to a mortgage and the responsibility of first-time home-ownership. It was then a five-year old house, lurking at the edge of Hell Brook (yes, it’s really called that). The garden consisted of an extended patio, an uneven lawn and some hastily planted conifers in what I considered to be a humorous excuse for an East-facing border. Oh, yes – there was also a leylandii hedge.

As with all new partners, some things were not ok. The Cupressus x leylandii had to go. I brought some baggage with me, too – some mature plants from a previous garden. Those were the plants that I couldn’t bear to part with (I have issues with saying goodbye), namely a Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, a Corylus avellana ‘Purpurea’, and various euphorbia and hardy geraniums. From a basic structure of newly expanded borders and the addition of trees for height and some larger shrubs for form, my garden grew. It grew slowly, mostly out of the odd spare fiver and a whim on a visit to a garden centre. It was added to with cuttings taken from friends’ gardens, and unwanted divisions of hostas, bamboos and hardy geraniums from other friends’ gardens. All gradually joined together, like a dot-to-dot, to create something unique and pleasurable.

It’s been far from perfect. There was no grand plan for us. We built on very little – slowly – border by border, until there was something imperfect yet somehow complete. It wasn’t an instant haven. It has only been in the last year or so that I have looked upon my garden, in its full June/July glory, and been satisfied with the result. Typical, now that I’m leaving, that the Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Purple Dome’ which has resisted, struggled and looked miserable since the day I planted it in the ground eight years ago, now decides to look gloriously healthy and finally accept its place in the garden. It will flower well this year, but I won’t be here to see it.

Creating a garden from scratch involves imparting a piece of yourself into the ground. Starting with a blank canvas, you allow your eye to wander and your mind to build on fancies, wishes and desires. You commit to something, and over time the garden becomes a fundamental aspect of your life. It becomes a sanctuary, a quiet space, a safe haven, a spot to sunbathe without prying eyes, a place to have a sneaky cigarette, a heart-felt chat, a quick snog with your other half… Whatever, it is always there; a quiet, safe and pleasurable space. And whilst your garden belongs to you, it is never fully owned by you. Because you may have bought the plants, lovingly planted each one in its carefully chosen location, dug the ground each Spring and Autumn, weeded and mulched and generally maintained, but once in the ground, a plant reunites with its true master and does only what Nature dictates. That aspect of a garden is somehow reassuring to me. I have created my garden, and I nurture it, but ultimately it doesn’t answer to me. I admire self-sufficiency and independence in a partner, and I admire it in a garden too.

I wander around my garden in the morning light, inspecting new growth and inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) exclaiming at the apparently magical appearance of buds and flowers where there was just bare stem days before. I take close-up photographs, trying to capture and preserve the essence of beauty and wonder in images, and invariably failing. Ever-loyal Hostas have emerged from the ground, with their elegant, sophisticated, juicy green leaf spikes. Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’ has exposed itself in all its regal, dark and velvety glory in the space of what seems like a week. Liberally scattered daffodils and tulips are only now finally budding, ready to flower. What a difference sun, rain and warmth makes. Spring was slow to arrive, but as many an article in the Guardian or Indie Gardening Sections has informed us, the delay was just a delightful build-up to a month of orgasmic explosion of unusual combined growth and colour. Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ arches and prepares to blossom beneath Prunus ‘Shirotae’ (Mount Fuji), while Viburnum x burkwoodii rubs itself against Daffodil ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’. Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ (Mourning Widow) soberly looks on. It’s all a slightly bizarre union.

Meanwhile, newly emerged butterflies drift in and out of the borders, a hoverfly surveys the garden from above, a large bee pushes its way in and out of the creamy yellow flowers of a Lamium galeobdolon. They all seem to be telling me, “Go on, leave. We don’t need you. Life goes on, with or without you.”

So now, I’m in love with my garden all over again. Yet I must leave it. Even the dog looks sad at my change of heart. Ridiculous, as I meander across the lawn to bend over and wonder at yet another emerging shoot, or zoom in on some dew-spattered daffodil petals, that I feel incredibly sad. The lump in my throat and watery eyes confirms it. I’m almost overwhelmed with sadness at my choice to leave this space I have clumsily explored, admired, fondled, nourished and protected for almost ten years… Or it could just be the dreaded hay fever returning.”

Sniff.