Thrillers Fillers and Spillers in the Garden

Dear Garden Problem Lady


It’s time to start planting some of my outdoor pots. My sister always starts with fresh soil. I always re-use last year’s soil. We both have good results. Is there anything wrong with reusing potting soil?

Annuals are big feeders. They deplete soil. Your best bet would be to replace some of last year’s lost nutrients. Add some bone meal or composted manure.

My gardening guru Jim Shelar told me planting pots is easy if you remember this mantra: Plant a “thriller”, a “filler” and a “spiller – just three elements will make a gorgeous pot arrangement. I can’t think of what a spiller might be. How about some ideas for all three?

THRILLERS are stars, a tall centerpiece, such as Yucca, Canna, or one of the dramatic grasses, or any tall flower that blooms a long time.

FILLERS weave through the thriller, adding mass, contrast and texture, such as Coleus, Begonias, Dusty miller, Heliotrope, Lantana, Pentas, Petunia, Salvia.

SPILLERS sprawl over the side of the container, softening its edges — like Bacopas, Nasturtium, Creeping Jenny, Sweet Potato vine, Licorice plant, Verbena.

What would be a good companion plant for my lonely Nandina? 

She might like Boxwood — it’s evergreen! Or a lemon yellow Bayberry called “Sunjoy” would go well with Nandina. Or you could get another Nandina – one called “Obsession” has brilliant fire engine red leaves; one called “Lemon and Lime” has brilliant chartreuse leaves.

When is the best time to transplant Lenten Roses? I have a fully-grown one that I must try to weed out from an Azalea, and another is fighting a Yucca. Also a few have had babies (good) but some of the new babies have come up underneath a Holly bush (bad).

One is told that Lenten Rose (the Latin name is Helleborus) hates to be disturbed. Also, the best time for transplanting them, if at all, is in the fall. Count on the fact that your fully-grown Hellebores probably will not survive transplanting, but you must remove them anyway. Using a large garden fork, tenderly and gingerly press the fork tines beside the Helleborus to discover how its roots are formed, and try to dig up the whole plant while incorporating as much earth around the root ball as you can. The large fat roots must not be severed. Gently lift the plant and transport it on a large piece of plastic, to a new, already-prepared hole. Apply composted manure and water well. The babies might make it. Dig down and get the entire root, with as much soil around it as possible. Some of the little plants may be connected to a mother plant, so take a healthy amount of that root, cut cleanly with a sharp knife.

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