Remember ‘thriller, filler, spiller’ for stunning Thanksgiving floral displays

TORRANCE, CALIF. --THURSDAY, OCT. 26, 2017: Marian Stevens, a nursery professional at Armstrong Gar
This display uses the “thriller, spiller, filler” method.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

So you’ve got guests coming for the holidays, the kind you want to impress, and you’re already spending a fortune on the meal, place settings and new towels for the bathroom.

You’d love to have a festive display of potted plants at the front door or on the patio, but you nearly had a heart attack when you priced them at the nursery.

Are mums or poinsettias your only option ... again?

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to put together an impressive display this weekend that will wow even your mom without breaking the bank.

The answer is in three little words: thriller, filler, spiller, says Marian Stevens, a certified nursery professional from the Armstrong Garden Center in Torrance. Stevens has been giving classes in creating these pots, and her recipe is simple. All you’ll need is a:

Thriller: one striking plant — usually large and tall — to go right in the middle of the pot.

Filler: three smaller, compact but complementary plants to fill in around the bottom.

Spiller: three trailing plants to spill over the sides, adding balance and interest.

For bonus points, Stevens also adds a little surprise to her pots — a few bulbs like paperwhites, that don’t need chilling to bloom. When the other flowers are spent, she says, the bulbs will be ready to bloom and add new interest to your display.

The biggest challenge in creating these potted masterpieces will be choosing the plants you want to use, says Stevens.

Here are her secrets for creating a beautiful flora display for the holidays, or any time of the year:

Location, location

First, consider where you want to display your pots. A covered porch means you need to choose plants that prefer the shade. A sunny patio means you want plants that need full sun. Ask your nursery professional for guidance if you aren’t sure.

Plan around your pots

Your pot size will dictate what you plant. Do you want a table display or a pair of large pots to frame the front door? For large displays, Stevens recommends a pot at least 14 inches deep to give your seven plants ample room.

Stock up on soil

Stevens recommends a good organic potting soil and amendments to help the plants develop sturdy roots. She prefers Edna’s Best Potting Soil and E.B. Stone Organics’ Sure Start, an organic fertilizer she adds at the root level. Make sure your soil is loose and most; don’t dig up compacted soil from the garden.

Pick your plants

Stevens prefers perennials, so the pots will last more than a year. Pick plants that don’t mind the cold, such as pansies, cyclamen and calibrachoa (million bells), but remember, you don’t have to have flowers for a showy display. Dusty miller, coral bells, ornamental cabbages and even sages add interest with their colorful and/or variegated leaves. Button mums, foxtail asparagus and cordyline are sturdy thrillers that pair well with other plants. If you want an edible theme on your sunny patio try a showy chard plant as your show-stopping thriller, bushy thymes or leaf lettuces as your fillers and trailing oregano or marjoram as your spillers. Or try a shade pot with vivid white or red cyclamen in the center, surrounded by dusty miller and the dainty-flowered lamium.

Plant in tiers

Start with your center thriller plant. You want the soil line to be about an inch below the rim of the pot, so you can water without washing away the soil. Fill the pot about half way, add a small handful of fertilizer and then put in your center thriller plant. Add as much soil as needed around the thriller as you tuck in your filler and spiller plants; you want the soil to be 1 inch or so below the rim of the pot. Water well to let the soil settle around the roots, and get rid of air pockets.

Don’t forget the surprise.

Before you’re done, push three or four bulbs into the soil, about 3 to 4 inches deep, “whiskers going down,” Stevens says. Depending on the temperature, the bulbs could be blooming by the end of December.

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