Container plants for full sun: Thrillers, fillers, and spillers for summer pots

Container plants for full sun: Choices for colour, foliage, and texture in your summer pots

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Each spring, I collect annuals from a variety of sources. I like to amass a whole bunch of plants with various textures, blooms, and foliage before figuring out what will go in each container arrangement. I’ll visit nurseries, my local grocery store’s garden centre, and plant sales. I grow some annuals from seed, depending on the year. And I often receive a few trial plants, too. My biggest grouping to work with is the one with container plants for full sun. I need to fill multiple pots filled for my driveway, the space by my front door, my deck, the space in front of my garden shed, etc.

Some years I choose a clear colour theme. Others I enjoy playing with multiple hues to see what I can come up with. When I’m ready, I’ll set up an old plastic patio table in my backyard with lots of potting soil close at hand, pull out all my pots that need filling, and lineup the plants, arranging them into their groups. I keep all the plant tags so I remember what did well. I also try to remember to fertilize regularly to encourage lush blooms.

Pairing plants at my makeshift potting table.

Pairing plants at my makeshift potting table.

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Here are my favourite container plants for full sun

I love figuring out which plants will go together. I’ll sort of move them around until I settle on their permanent summer friends. I think a lot about shape and which plants will serve as the requisite “fillers, thrillers, and spillers.” I also like to sneak in some edibles, too, especially herbs, which I mention among my favourites. While most of the plants I use are annuals, I do sneak the odd perennial, like heucheras, into my container arrangements. At the end of the season, I’ll plant them somewhere in the garden so I can use them the following year or add them to an ornamental garden.

Gomphrena

Gomphrena is a new favourite of mine. I grew Ping Pong Lavender in 2018 after seeing it the previous year at the California Spring Trials. I fell in love with the quirky, spherical blooms. They look great in cut flower arrangements and I kept a few dried out in a vase last fall.

Ping Pong Lavender Gomphrena and SunPatiens Compact Orchid make really pretty container mates.

Ping Pong Lavender Gomphrena and SunPatiens Compact Orchid make really pretty container mates. I fell in love with Ping Pong at Sakata’s showroom at the California Spring Trials.

When I planted Ping Pong Gomphrena in a summer container, it bloomed right through the fall!

When I planted Ping Pong Gomphrena in a summer container, it bloomed right through the fall!

Verbena

Verbena is one of those dependable “fillers” in a container. It spreads nicely and blooms throughout the entire season. Even before all the flowers have bloomed, you get these lovely wreaths of colour. As it spreads outwards, wind the stems through parts of your arrangement, so it blends in.

This Superbena Stormburst verbena hybrid from Proven Winners is both heat and drought tolerant and will attract butterflies.

This Superbena Stormburst verbena hybrid from Proven Winners is both heat and drought tolerant and will attract butterflies.

Calibrachoa

I can’t remember when I discovered these heat-tolerant, self-cleaning beauties, but at least one variety of calibrachoa makes its way into my containers each year. They mound well in hanging baskets and fill in nicely in containers, cascading over the sides of the pot. Sometimes I’ll work my whole container colour combination around the calibrachoa I choose. Superbells Doublette Love Swept Double Calibrachoa are a new knockout variety that I mentioned in my list of new plants for 2018.

Hollywood Star calibrachoa

There are so many gorgeous varieties of calibrachoa. Their pretty faces can inspire the colour combo for an entire arrangement! This is Hollywood Star.

Superbells Blue Moon Punch calibrachoas inspired a purple and yellow container combo!

The yellow centres of the Superbells Blue Moon Punch calibrachoas inspired a purple and yellow combo for my urn, which also included Rockin’ Deep Purple salvia, Golden Butterfly Argyranthemum frutescens, Superbena Stormburst verbena and Tricolor sweet potato vine!

Petunias

I used to have mixed feelings about petunias, mostly because they get so darned leggy in the heat of summer and their sticky petals require deadheading. However, there are SO many really really lovely varieties these days that I find them hard to resist. I just make sure to do the proper maintenance on them.

AMORE Queen of Hearts would make a great "thriller" in a full-sun container

AMORE Queen of Hearts petunia can be considered a “thriller” in a full-sun container because of its beautiful pattern.

Plant breeders have also been working on blending some of the characteristics gardeners love about petunias with other plants. SuperCal, for example, is a hybrid combining the bigger petunia blooms with the interesting colours of calibrachoa. They are heat tolerant and their blooms don’t turn to mush after a hard rain. There are a few different types of Supertunias are self-cleaning, mounding plants that are heat and drought tolerant. I find the blooms to be super prolific and they last well into the fall.

Pink Star Charm Supertunias are strong contenders for summer pots.

Supertunias have become an obvious choice for full-sun containers because you get a TON of flowers and they really take off, acting as thrillers, fillers, AND spillers! I’m pretty sure this is called Pink Star Charm.

SUCCESS! Pink Vein Petunia

SUCCESS! Pink Vein Petunia is a modern petunia that has a uniform, mounding habit, as its called, meaning the plants will display well in containers.

Dahlias

I generally look for dahlia plants that are well on their way, but you could plant a dahlia tuber in a pot, giving it space to grow among the rest of your arrangement. Another option would be to give it a head start indoors about a month before you’re ready to plant outside. Whether you’re purchasing a tuber or plant, be mindful of how big the bloom will be. You don’t want to try to grow a dinnerplate dahlia in a tiny little pot! And be careful not to overwater.

Dahlias are a great option for containers, provided you check the projected bloom size on the tag or tuber package before you plant it in a pot!

Dahlias are a great option for containers, provided you check the projected bloom size on the tag or tuber package before you plant it in a pot!

Sneak in some edible container plants for full sun

Not only do herbs add their obvious fragrance and colour to a container arrangement, they all offer their own unique texture. I sneak herbs—parsley (flat leaf and curly), cilantro, sage (look for fun varieties, like pineapple), basil, mint (mojito, chocolate, etc.), and lemongrass.

Lemongrass

One of my favourite tips when I’m giving my raised bed talks is to plant lemongrass in place of your spike or dracaena plant. This hardy annual loves the sun and provides that same height, but you can eat it. I dry lemongrass for herbal tea, and I pull out sprigs of it through the fall when the crockpot comes out and I start to make my favourite chicken curry.

Lemongrass replaces the dracaena in an outdoor arrangement.

Here’s an example where I’ve planted lemongrass among some Supertunias. They obviously loved their full-sun spot because everything grew big and unruly!

Parsley

I use a lot of parsley in my cooking, so I like to have lots of plants on the go so I’m not continuously snipping from one. This means that parsley, either flat leaf or curly, is snuck into a lot of my ornamental summer containers. And because I have so many plants, I don’t mind sharing with the swallowtail caterpillars that will appear out of nowhere to munch away.

Curly parsley in an ornamental container arrangement

This container was sort of a “leftovers” combo, but I like how the salvia added the height and colour, a polka dot plant was the filler, and the curly parsley ended up being a filler and a spiller!

Lemon thyme

I love growing lemon thyme in containers because of the variegated greeny-yellow leaves and it’s lemony scent. You can harvest it throughout the season and it remains nice and bushy in the pot. And at the end of the season, I’ll just pop it into the garden to overwinter.

Lemon thyme is a great "filler" and "spiller" in ornamental containers.

I used lemon thyme as a “spiller” in this pot, alongside a dahlia, a canna and petunias.

Colour combo ideas for full-sun container plants

Mauve/yellow/red

A mauve, red, and yellow container combination

I love when an unusual colour combination comes together so well!

Burnt orange, purple, and white

A white, purple, and burnt orange container combo

This is one of those unexpected palettes that I wouldn’t think of pairing together, but the burnt orange, white, and purple really work!

Maroon/burgundy and green

Combine herbs in your ornamental combinations

This container combo really relied on the foliage to shine. I’ve combined peppermint, basil, and pineapple sage with oxalis and geranium that I found at a plant sale.

Red, white, and blue or red and white

A red, white, and blue hanging basket combo

Of course you can always go with patriotic colours. When Canada turned 150, I included a container of red and white blooms out front of my house.

You’ll also find some great annuals for containers in these articles:

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Container plants for full sun: Options for flowers, foliage, and texture, as well as thrillers, fillers, and spillers!

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