Short on Space? Try a native plant container!

Including native plants in the city can be tricky, especially if you have limited garden space, are renting, or only have a balcony or other small outdoor spot. Containers can be a really versatile solution for anyone looking to add a quick pop of greenery and flowers but are traditionally filled with non-native annual plants. Looking to add color and some screening for my own garden-unit windows, I recently decided to experiment with native plants in containers.

The main tenets of traditional container planting are simple- you include a thriller, filler, and spiller.

  • Thriller: Tall plants that add a vertical element and a punch of visual interest. These typically get planted in the center or back of the container.
  • Filler: These plants are typically more mounded in shape and pack the middle of a container to make it look more full.
  • Spiller: Typically creeping plants that are planted at the container edges and allowed to trail out the side, giving the container a draped look.

Using these guidelines, here’s what I included in my own containers. To keep the container from looking too top heavy, I chose plants that all grew under 3’ at mature size:

Thrillers: Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

  • Late-season asters like these typically have a taller, thinner form and a beautiful display of fall flowers. I thought they would add a nice focal point of greenery through the summer and then deliver a late-season “pow!” of blooms.

Fillers: Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevior), Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Pale Beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)

  • These plants all have great texture and have a similar medium height. They grow well together in the landscape, so I thought they would blend nicely in a container too.

Spiller: Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)

  • This is typically a ground cover in the landscape and likes to creep along the ground level. I planted this at the edge of the container with hopes it will spill out the side of the container.

For my 15” containers I added 6 plants- this is pretty packed and may be too much for this size pot but I wanted a full look and am willing to divide the plants later in the season if they get too crowded. For this size pot I would recommend limiting to 3 plants, one thriller, filler and spiller. This is a new experiment for me this season and I’m excited to see how it develops!

Interested in trying your own container? Pick your favorite combination of thriller, filler and spiller from this list of NBN plants!




Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)

Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Big-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla)


Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevoir), Common Wood Sedge (Carex blanda), Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Pale Beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Prairie Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium campestre)

Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevoir), Curly-Styled Wood Sedge (Carex rosea), Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)


Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)

Phlox divaricata (wild blue phlox)

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