“Spillers”

June 14, 2016 pots 019

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Good garden design challenges us to think in many dimensions at once.  We plan for how the plants we use will fill the space, and for how those plants will change over time.  I am still intrigued by Jennifer Smith’s article in Horticulture Magazine, The Secret to Great Garden Design, in which she describes the design principles of ‘earth, man and sky.”

In that February article, she challenges gardeners to evaluate the layers of their landscape.  There should be interest at ground level, at the height of a man, and also at the ‘ceiling’ of the garden, creating a sense of enclosure.  Finding those layers harmoniously in scale with one another, even in the winter garden, constitutes the framework of a good design.

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July 20, 2014 hummingbird 006

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While this is a useful way to analyze each of the ‘rooms’ of our garden as a whole, I believe it can be applied to container plantings and container groupings as well.  Any time we choose to plant more than one plant in a container, we create a miniature landscape of sorts.  And remaining mindful of ‘earth, man and sky’ can guide us towards a more pleasing design.

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In this newly planted container, the Alocasia 'Stingray' will give several feet of height, representing 'sky.' The tuberous Begonias will grow to a medium height and constitute 'man.' Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us 'Earth.'

In this newly planted container, the Alocasia ‘Stingray’ and Caladium will give several feet of height, representing ‘sky.’ The tuberous Begonias and Coleus will grow to a medium height and constitute ‘man.’ Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us ‘Earth.’

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Some designers advise grouping ‘thrillers, fillers and spillers’ in a container garden design.  I’ve always found this a little confusing.  What if your thrillers also spill?  Why would I want to plant a plant which merely ‘fills’ space?  What if I want to plant a single plant in a pot:  should it simply fill, or must it thrill ?

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Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for 'sky,' Pelargonium and Heuchera for 'man,' and Dichondra for 'Earth.'

Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for ‘sky,’ Pelargonium and Heuchera for ‘man,’ and Dichondra for ‘Earth.’

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Maybe you, like me, often put one plant in a pot and happily let it grow.  Over the years, I’ve moved towards planting slightly larger pots, and combining several plants in a single pot for more interesting compositions. And in composing groups of plants, I’ve given ever more attention to ground cover plants and ‘spillers.’

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June 12, 2016 pots 003~

There are several good reasons to include a ground cover in a landscape, as well as in a container planting.  First, it presents a more ‘finished’ appearance.  Beyond that, it protects the soil in heavy rain or overhead watering so the soil isn’t compacted or splashed up onto the plant’s foliage.  A ground cover shields the soil from direct sunlight and slows evaporation.  It also can discourage squirrels tempted to dig in your finished bed or pot!

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This low pot includes both moss and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring's bulbs are dying back. I've tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.

This low pot includes moss, Sedum, and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring’s bulbs are dying back. I’ve tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.

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I nearly always finish off a newly planted basket or pot with a light covering of fine gravel.  Beyond that, I’ll also place larger decorative stones, marbles, minerals or glass in the pot.  Sometimes I’ll place these over the roots of newly planted cuttings to protect them and hold them in place as the plant begins to grow.

In recent years, I frequently establish a living ground cover, as well.  Whether moss, a low growing succulent, or a vining ‘spiller,’ this living ground cover adds color and interest to the planting.

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May 23, 2016 fairy house 001

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Repeatedly using a limited palette of color and plant material helps establish unity in a garden design.  Even a non-gardener can ‘read’ the design and understand it more easily when elements repeat.  Using a few ground covers and ‘spillers’ across many different containers helps to establish that unity.  It is economical, as well, since most of these plants root quickly and easily.  A small division will soon take off and grow into its new spot.

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Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.

Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.

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I’ve used golden Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘aurea’, for several years now.  It grows so prolifically that I haven’t needed to purchase a plant since that first season.  This is a hardy perennial in our area, often turning red in cold weather.

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Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the stony pond.

Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the shallow, stony pond.

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It overwinters easily in pots or growing on the ground.  New roots grow at every leaf junction.  It will scamper up and over obstacles, and forms a thick mat, dripping down the sides of pots in golden beauty.

Another easy perennial favorite in our climate is Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina.’ 

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June 12, 2016 pots 016

S. ‘Angelina’ pokes up through Ajuga in this pot. Ajuga holds its good looks all year round, blooming in mid-spring.

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Any little piece of this plant which breaks off can quickly root on moist soil.  It holds its golden color throughout the year.  It also forms a thick mat and cascades over the sides of pots.  Drought tolerant and happy in full sun, it ‘volunteers’ and grows happily on in unlikely spaces.

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S. 'Angelina' has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, and Ivy.

S. ‘Angelina’ has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, Germander, Senecio cineraria and Ivy.

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I noticed a beautiful silvery grey ‘spiller’ flowing from hanging baskets in Gloucester Court House last summer.  Shimmery curtains of silver hung down  several feet below the edges of their bright summer baskets along the main street of town.  From a distance, it looked almost like Spanish Moss.  But Spanish Moss is rare in our area and isn’t used in hanging baskets!

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Dichondra spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.

Dichondra argentea spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.

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I learned the designer had planted Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ around the edges of those beautiful baskets.  And oh, how cool and elegant the baskets looked hanging from the light polls along the street of this historic village!

Dichondra is grown as an annual in our Zone 7 region.  Native to the southwestern United States, it grows in full sun to part shade, and is reasonably drought tolerant.  Further south, Dichondra repens, a green leafed relative native to Australia and New Zealand,  is used as a lawn substitute ground cover.  It is a perennial in zones 10 and south.

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June 14, 2016 pots 005

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I’ve bought several small pots of Dichondra argentea this spring.  Each clump is easily divided into four or five smaller clumps, which may be planted around the perimeter of a pot or basket.

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June 14, 2016 pots 018

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These have grown very quickly for us, filling in on top of the soil, as well as draping gracefully over the container’s edge.  I intend to keep this plant in our repertoire for future years.

Other good ground covers for pots include the many Ajuga cultivars; and for shade, ivy, moss, and Leptinella.   Each of these plants gives a finished look and added elegance to an otherwise ordinary container planting.  Most will happily fill the container all winter.

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Lept

Leptinella grows in the foreground, with mosses and ferns.  It will eventually form a thick mat and can be used as a ground cover in place of grass.

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A beautifully glazed pot brimming with golden Lysimachia or purple Ajuga remains lovely through our mild winter months.  In fact, the only caveat for using these ground cover plants remains their hardy exuberance.  At some point, you either give them the pot, or empty it and start over with fresh potting soil.

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S. 'Angelina' in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.

S. ‘Angelina’ in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.

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I’ve had to empty several pots this spring, clogged with roots from the ground cover plant.  I divide the ground cover and either add little bits back in to begin growing again around my new ‘thriller’ plant, or find places to plant it out in the garden as a permanent ground cover.

Either way it is a ‘win-win’ as these beautiful plants continue to expand and fill their niche of covering the Earth.

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June 14, 2016 pots 001

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils.  We let it run through much of the garden.  Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow.  Could this be C. 'Blue Hawaii,' back after our mild winter?

Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils. We let it run in many areas, where it eventually grows thick and dense. Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow. Could this be C. ‘Blue Hawaii,’ back after our mild winter?

 

 

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

7 responses to ““Spillers”

  1. Your pots are a bit of an inspiration. I used to combine (although I never thought in terms of ‘fillers’ and ‘spillers’ etc.) Today I am more in a rush and tend to admire one plant to a pot. Maybe when I stop digging new borders!

    • Thank you, Cathy. Often the pots look good in early summer, but within a few months some begin to crowd out others. I’m not sure whether there is more competition above the soil line or below, but the spillers often win out in the end! We still try to plant for progression of bloom and keep a pot over for several seasons in a row-

  2. That is a beautiful petunia with the Dichondra argentea, it looks like velvet. I’m still charmed by your little fairy house – so sweet!

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