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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