Why thriller, filler, spiller isn’t one-size-fits-all 

Thriller and spiller feature image

If you’re interested in plant styling, you may be familiar with the design term “thriller, filler and spiller”.

Used in container gardening, the rhyme refers to a three-dimensional container arrangement made up of a thriller, spiller and spiller. The thriller being a tall, statement plant; spiller a medium-sized plant to hide the thriller’s roots; and spiller a cascading plant to soften the edges.

Thriller, spiller and filler visual represenation
Credit: Garden Gate magazine

Coined by gardener Steve Silk in Fine Gardening magazine 1997, the phrase, recipe or “rule” for designing attractive containers is both loved and hated for its simplicity within the gardening community.

“I hate rules,” writes Los Angeles garden designer Ivette Soler for Garden Rant. Not for the sake of hating them either. Ivette hates the idea that anything outside of Silk’s “rule” would be marked a “fail” in garden design.  

Instead, she advocates for consideration of the design purpose, in which a range of solutions should be considered. For example, “one pot, one plant” where it suits, and “thriller, filler, spiller” where suits. Inferring there is no one-size-fits-all formula to garden design.  

Randomness is beautiful 

This principle of knowing and purposefully breaking the principles of design is not unique to container gardening. Interior, graphic and landscape design experts all promote an understanding of the fundamentals, before diverging to create your own signature style. But unlike art, design still requires purpose, and plant styling is no exception.  

“Very often I’ll just do the thriller and the spiller,” agrees Advance Plants plantscape designer Kelli Forward, regarding functional variation. “Because depending on the size of the container, that’s a lot of plants you need to try to fit into one small pot.”  

Thriller and spiller example
Thriller and spiller. Credit: Kelli Forward

So, while many novices love a good rule or recipe, a vocal minority in the gardening community are pushing back against the idea that they should even exist.

As an anonymous writer beneath Silk’s original article writes, “It’s old school to be told the same [sic] old formula years after year by so-called ‘experts.’” The commentator echoing Soler’s sentiments that not playing by the rules equals an automatic fail.  

“They [the experts] seem to forget nature itself is quite random, and that randomness is beautiful.”  

In short, note the rules, then follow your creative instincts.  

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