this pot, with its one plant, is perfect just as it is. No razzmatazz.

This pot, with its one plant, is perfect just as it is. No razzmatazz.

I hate rules.

I mean really, I do. I always have. My brain won’t accept them. If someone tells me that THIS is the way to do a thing, I will try and find another way to do it. It may come from my years as an actor, and theatre training – we are supposed to be curious, inquisitive, open to new things. A rigid rule or a path that takes one from A to B in a straight line just isn’t interesting, and tends to yield bland results. So when I come across “rules” in garden design, I tend to balk.

The worst rule, in my eyes, has to do with container gardening. When I see it re-printed (which it is, constantly) I want to shred the magazine at fault in an old, dull, rusty paper shredder. Imagine the pain. When I see it enthusiastically championed on a website, I have to resist hurling my computer against the wall. I vow never to visit whichever website / blog that regurgitated this peppy garden pap ever again.

Here is the gist of the offending “tip”:

When designing a container, you must use a tall, dramatic plant (Thriller), a medium sized, leafy plant (Filler), and a cascading plant of some sort to break the edge (Spiller). Thriller, filler, spiller – GET IT? It RHYMES!!!! So it must be a good rule, being all rhyme-y and everything.

I want to know who came up with this platitude of container design? I always think of Pallen Smith when I read the phrase, but I don’t know if it is because it truly originated with him or if it just seems  like exactly the sort of thing he would have come up with. Or, (let’s be honest here), it would be more likely that someone came up with it FOR him and he went and ran with it, his syrupy southern drawl making it that much more homey and appealing – and EASY! WOW! Now anyone can have an awesome container, cuz THRILLER FILLER SPILLER!!! It is so catchy! What a cinch to remember!

It isn’t the actual advice that I have a problem with – it is pretty good advice. If you combine a tall dramatic plant with a full, leafy one, and then add a procumbent little friend to hang over the edge of your pot, you’re bound to have yourself a nice container. It’s a look – one of many looks that can be achieved with plants and containers. That’s all. It isn’t magic.

Catchphrases can create an echo chamber that make people think they have just received wisdom. No – what they have is an easily remembered group of words that take the place of actually thinking. Have you ever spoken to someone who is always spouting catchprases and aphorisms? You’ll be trying to open up a conversation, to get to the good talk, to try and understand something, and then they will pop up with something like “Well, you know what they say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’” – and you are all like “what?”? Goose? What is a gander anyway? Your conversation has come full stop, and the catchphraser thinks he just said something meaningful and profound, when actually he just threw a word bomb at you that served to do nothing but to stop conversation and thought.

The Thriller Filler Spiller rule is the design version of that. It exists precisely to make things simple, to give you a template that you don’t need to vary – it is the end of a design conversation that you could be having with your containers and your plants. What if you just put a thriller in a fabulous pot? That could be exactly the thing you need in the entry of your midcentury ranch house – clean, dramatic, elegant. None of this jazzy thrill and fill and spill – it may not be appropriate. Or what if you have the crazy idea of just using a spiller to drape over the lip of a low bowl – peaceful and serene, like water cascading over the edge of a fountain? A thriller would just be obnoxious, unnecessary. I personally love a pot with just a filler in it – it is my new “thing”. The repetition of fillers in pots can provide a simple structure to a busy landscape, giving it balance.

All of these ideas, which could be great, would be undiscovered if someone just ran with Thriller Filler Spiller and didn’t enter into a real conversation with the space, the plants, and the containers they are dealing with.

I am not much of a fan of simplifying thoughts. I like simple spaces, but not simple ideas. I love when I see design work that has been beautifully considered – THAT is why I have always had trouble with tips, tricks, and easy formulas. Sure, some people just want to get things done – I get it. For them, there are many of places to learn the easy way to do just about anything. In fact, it seems like the internet may have been invented just for this very reason (or was it for easy access to porn? Hmmm….)

So that’s my rant. Don’t EVEN get me started on Sleep Creep and Leap!!!