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Grow your own organic edible patio garden to produce food, a beautiful living space, and safe habitat for pollinators, frogs, and human visitors too!Nearly 60% of people who participate in food gardening in the US do so in 100 square feet or less. That’s not much space!
Especially for urban gardeners, that means a back porch, a balcony, a few window planters, or even a single pot is the entire garden space. But these limitations can lead to some amazing outcomes.
The benefits of limited gardening space
Would you feel overwhelmed if you had 10 acres to garden? Probably so!
Limits help. In the case of gardening, limited space requires you to:
1. Be more selective in the growth habits of the plants you grow.
For instance, you’d be better off growing bush squash rather than vining squash.
2. Pay more attention to aesthetics.
Since you likely live in or have family/friends visit your small garden area, making it an attractive space is important. Yes, you can create stunningly beautiful gardens full of edible plants, e.g. edible landscaping.
We’ll show you how!
Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers – Creating Your Edible Patio Garden
As we say at GrowJourney, “plants are like people: they grow better in communities, than in isolation.”
Not only will your garden perform better as you increase biodiversity, it will also LOOK better if different plants are grown together. Single rows of monoculture don’t do much to attract the interest of the human eye.
However, interesting combinations of sizes, colors, textures, and smells captivate us. And that’s where “thrillers, fillers, and spillers” enter the equation.
Depending on your climate zone, season, the size of your growing space, and what you enjoy eating, your thrillers, fillers, and spillers may vary…
1. Using “THRILLERS” in an edible landscape
Thrillers are the first thing you see. They’re the big, striking plants that provide architectural structure to a garden plant arrangement.
Thrillers would go in the center of a pot, or on the back row of a garden bed.
Examples of thrillers might be:
- dwarf bananas
- dwarf papayas
- bush squash
- cannas (many of which have edible tubers and flowers)
- indeterminate tomatoes
- edible vining plants grown on a large tomato cage/trellis (example: peas, small melons, cucumbers)
- colorful peppers
- tall alliums (onions)
- citrus (including potted citrus)
- red burgundy okra
- Hibiscus sabdariffa (the best species of edible hibiscus)
- daylillies (old, non-hybridized varieties produce edible tubers, flowers, and greens)
- colorful giant chard
2. Using FILLERS in an edible landscape
Fillers are the visual “connectors” in the middle of an edible plant arrangements between the thrillers and the spillers. Their structure is mounding and full, so as to cover the base of the large thriller plant and fill in the empty spaces in the arrangement with attractive, colorful foliage and flowers.
Good examples of fillers include (single or in combination):
- red rubin basil
- thai basil
- bush beans
- plants in the mint family
- beets or other attractive plants with edible greens (upright red lettuces, etc)
- colorful greens like purple kale
3. Using SPILLERS in an edible landscape
Spillers are the plants that cascade and “spill” out of your pots or fill in the edges of your beds. Ideally, your spiller plants have colors and textures that provide interesting visual contrast from your filler plant(s).
Examples of spillers include:
- prostrate rosemary
- sweet potatoes
- cucumbers (especially Mexican sour gherkin cukes)
- creeping thyme
- ice plants
- pole beans without trellis
- golden oregano
- tumbling tomatoes
Seven Additional Thriller, Filler, Spiller Tips
1. Use Organic Potting Soil.
Don’t use regular garden soil IF you’re using planters, pots, or raised beds as we explain here. Garden soil will form into an impenetrable brick inside containers.
Instead, use organic potting soil, which is much lighter in texture. We use and recommend FoxFarm’s organic potting soil.
2. Match Plants to Pot Size.
For very large pots, use up to 3 filler species. For smaller pots, there is usually only 1 thriller and 1 spiller for a cleaner design.
Also, don’t put huge thriller plants in small pots or small thriller plants in huge pots. Finally, if you use a large, “fountaining” plant (like a lemongrass) in a pot, you might want to devote the entire pot to the lemongrass and keep your fillers and spillers either in separate pots or plant them in-ground outside of the pot. That way, they won’t be shaded or smothered when the lemongrass (or thriller with similar growth habit) matures.
Alternately, if you want to keep everything in a single pot, plant a vigorous spiller vine like sweet potatoes with your lemongrass and harvest a pot full of yummy tubers at the end of the season. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to decipher various pot sizes and volumes, read this.
3. Container Plants Require More Water Than In-Ground Garden Plants.
Potted arrangements require more water/irrigation than in-ground arrangements. This is especially true:
- during summer heat when more water is evaporating and the plants are using more water to grow and cool themselves;
- as the plants mature and their water needs increase.
As an example, we might have to water our potted citrus plants once every 2 days during the winter. During the peak of summer, they need water in the morning and at night.
4. Container plants need more fertility/fertilizer.
In-ground plants’ roots and symbiont fungi can continue to grow and stretch to source new resources. However, the roots and mycorrhizal fungi in a potted plant arrangement only have access to the nutrients inside the pot.
This means you’ll likely need to apply an organic fertilizer once every few weeks during the warm months — or more often if the plants’ leaves drop or take on a yellow hue. (Assuming they don’t naturally have yellow leaves, of course.)
Our fertilizer recommendations?
Note: To keep your potted plants happier (well-fed and well-watered) and make container gardening easier, we recommend using sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) as we discuss here.
5. Intermix Various Pot Sizes, Shapes, and Colors.
Don’t forget that your pots are part of the arrangement!
A colorful pot(s) can really help bring visual interest to a less colorful arrangement. Conversely, if you want to immediately draw the eye to the colorful plants in your arrangement, a standard terra cotta pot will likely work best.
Mixing in different sizes and shapes of pots can add visual interest as well.
6. Get Creative and Add Even More Visual Interest.
There are additional ways to add visual interest to your edible garden. Statues, water features, drift wood, large rocks, geodes, etc.
Get creative and throw in something extra to draw people in to your beautiful edible garden, no matter how small or how large it is!
7. Consider the Color Wheel Theory.
Need help picking out the colors of the plant combinations you’re going to grow together? University of Georgia Ag Extension has a great guide for plant selection based on the color wheel theory.
Additional Edible Landscape Reading Recommendations
Want to learn more about turning your patio or yard into a gorgeous food oasis?
Edible landscaping articles from GrowJourney:
- How to have your butterfly garden and eat it too by Dr. April Gordon
- Edible landscaping made easy: design theory and how to get started by Eliza Holcombe
Edible landscaping books we recommend:
- Edible Landscaping
- The Beautiful Edible Garden: Design A Stylish Outdoor Space Using Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs
- Foodscaping: Practical and Innovative Ways to Create an Edible Landscape
- 66 Square Feet (especially good for small/patio urban gardeners)
- The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden