Design garden like a party, with thrills, fills and spills

Thriller, filler, spiller. We have all heard these words when talking about floral design and container planting. I try to follow these three principals — with a few other tricks — as I begin filling my summer pots.

First the soil. I buy bags of potting soil rather than dig up dirt from the ground, because it’s easier for me to handle, and because it’s better for the plants. Packaged potting soil will contain a combination of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, sand and shredded bark. This will make the soil light and fluffy, much easier for the plant roots to travel through and much lighter for me to lift when I am ready to move the pot.

Next comes the color. As the temperatures heat up, so do the colors. Summer is the season of bright vibrant colors. These colors will stand up to the heat of hot summer days and contrast nicely with all the greenery of summer. The bright colors also serve to attract birds, bees and butterflies, who will get nourishment from the flowers.

I love container planting because I can control the soil, water, light and location — plus, I can move the pots to meet my entertaining needs. Friends on the back deck having an icy glass of tea or homemade lemoncello can be surrounded by lush pots. When more space is needed the containers can be shuffled to brighten another spot in the garden.

I love pots grouped together. They don’t have to match, but the flowers should feel like they are meant to be neighbors. Think back to the color wheel; side-by-side or opposite colors work best.

Now back to our thriller, filler and spiller. This is where the fun begins. Let’s talk about containers that will be in the sun.

After a visit to Capitol Market and a chat with the always pleasant Jamie Bostic of Evans Greenhouses, my new favorite plant is plumbago, a mounding shrub. This plant — in a beautiful imperial blue color — will be my thriller. That means it will be the tallest, showiest (the peacock) plant in the container.

We decided its filler should be madinia pink dipladenia, which will produce trumpet-like blooms all summer.

For a spiller, you can never go wrong with vinca. It will trail over the pot and keep going and going.

One other plant I love for sunny pots is geraniums. They were my mom’s favorite, and I plant them each year. They make me smile and bring back good memories of her cement planters and wooden front porch swing.

I chose moonlight pink zonals this year and paired them with diamond frost and dark blue lobelia. I tossed in yellow superbells as my spiller. (A note about geraniums: The blooms can be fragile. When watering, it’s best to water below the petals.)

There is no way I could talk about summer sunny containers and not talk about wave petunias. Use them as fillers or spillers. They come in a variety of colors — and with a little fertilizer and dead-heading of the spent blooms, they will reward you with glorious color all summer long.

My little house on a big hill is surrounded by trees, so container plants that will thrive in less-than-full sun are important to me. I have pots of coleus in different varieties and colors of deep red and green. Some of last year’s coleus plants came as a “Let Love Grow” favor from a bridal shower. They grew tall and full (just like the love of that young couple) and I was amazed at their beauty. I have planted more this year.

Other good choices for shade pots are spikes, New Guinea impatiens and sweet potato vine. The New Guineas come in several shades, and the lime-green vine will complement the colorful flowers. Diamond frost and vinca would also work for shade planters.

When buying plants and learning about what grows where and how, don’t forget to ask the owners and staff of the greenhouse. They are a wealth of knowledge. Living in Charleston, I have weekly conversations with the Capitol Market vendors, and I always learn something new. I expect Evans Greenhouse and others to be selling plants through mid-July, so there is still plenty of time to fill your containers.

Another opportunity to learn about plants and gardening is through the West Virginia University Extension Service’s master gardener program. Kanawha County is accepting applications for the fall session until July 25.

The class begins on Thursday, Aug. 23, and will continue through Nov. 15. Classes will be held at the West Virginia University Extension office, located at 4700 MacCorkle Ave. S.E., in Charleston. Classes are every Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. A $100 fee is required to cover costs of educational materials.

For more information or to receive an application visit: or contact the WVU Extension Service Office at 304-722-9573.