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A Dozen Alternatives for Shade Gardens

Tired of planting the same thing every year for shade? Try these unique ideas.

Hostas and Yews are dependable standbys for shade, but there are many alternatives you may not have considered yet. Calycanthus, Itea, Tiarella and Coleus light up shady landscapes with their colorful foliage and fragrant blooms. Here are ten different shade plants you can use to give your clients’ shade gardens a little more spunk. Try pairing them with the unique shade planting partners suggested with each item.

UNIQUE ANNUALS FOR SHADE

  ABLAZIN’® Purple and ABLAZIN’® Tabasco Salvia
Ablazin’ Salvias are impressive landscape-sized flowering annuals that can grow more than two feet tall in the garden and in large containers, adding high drama when grouped en masse or used as a flowering thriller. Though they are typically thought of as full sun plants, they also perform well in part shade. Ablazin’ Salvias are loaded with colorful blooms that are irresistible to hummingbirds and butterflies from the time you plant them into the fall. When planting in shade, give them a head start by purchasing plants that have already formed flower buds.
Shade Planting Partners: Sweet Caroline Sweet Potato Vine, Surefire® Begonias, and Dolce® Heucheras (Coral Bells)
  CATALINA® Torenia (Wishbone Flower)
One of the most commonly overlooked annuals for shade are Torenias, commonly called the Wishbone Flower because of the unique markings on the flowers’ throat. They may not be as flashy as impatiens, but they do offer fun snapdragon-like flowers in cool purples, whites, pinks and yellows all summer long in partial to full shade. The more sun you can give them, the more flowers you’ll see. Use Catalina Torenias as fillers in containers or as an annual groundcover in the shade.
Shade Planting Partners:  Pegasus® Begonia, Diamond Frost® Euphorbia and Pink Chablis® Lamium

Diamond Frost® and Diamond Delight® Euphorbia
You may be familiar with other kinds of Euphorbias that need blazing hot sun to survive, but the annual Diamond Frost and Diamond Delight Euphorbias are nothing like their sun loving cousins. While they certainly will grow in sun, they will also grow and bloom in part sun and open shade. These truly are plants you can grow almost anywhere. Use the more wispy Diamond Frost to combine with other shade loving plants in combinations and the denser, mounding Diamond Delight at the edges of borders and containers.
Shade Planting Partners: Surefire® Begonias , ColorBlaze® Coleus and Artful Caladiums
  Artful Caladiums
These vigorous new Caladiums have earned accolades in trials at Kansas State University, Longwood Gardens, and Michigan State University for their excellent in-ground and container performances. Thriving in all kinds of shade, they light up their surroundings with their artfully painted, colorful foliage. Artful Fire and Ice stands a bit taller, reaching up to 30” in height while the more compact Artful Heartfire forms a dense canopy about 18” tall.
Shade Planting Partners: Diamond Delight® Euphorbia, Rockapulco® Impatiens and Whirlwind® Scaevola
  Surefire® Begonias
You’ll be impressed by the enormous vigor, increased durability, and larger flower size of the Surefire Begonias compared to standard dragonwing types. Planted in sun or shade, they seem to thrive just about anywhere they are planted in landscapes and containers. Surefire Begonias are excellent alternatives to Impatiens walleriana since they are not susceptible to downy mildew and don’t require as much water to maintain. Their arching stems of prominent rose or red flowers make them well-suited for planting in window boxes and on porch rails.
Shade Planting Partners: Catalina® Torenia, ColorBlaze® Coleus and Diamond Frost® Euphorbia

 
ColorBlaze® Coleus
When you’re gardening in the shade, foliage interest becomes even more important than flower power. Striking foliage persists all season long; bloom times tend to be short without a lot of sun. For a completely no-fuss, elegant splash of color in the shade garden and containers, try ColorBlaze Coleus. Bred to hold their color without fading and to set few or no flowers, these coleus don’t require much maintenance to keep them shining all season long.
Shade Planting Partners: Shadowland Hostas, Summer Wave® Torenia and ‘Jade Peacock’ Tiarella

UNIQUE PERENNIALS FOR SHADE 

 

‘Bottle Rocket’ Ligularia
To make a statement and add some much needed height to the shade garden, plant ‘Bottle Rocket’ Ligularia. This zone 4-9 hardy perennial thrives in part shade and moist soil, forming a sizeable clump of large, leathery, toothed leaves held on stout stems. If given at least 4-6 hours of direct sun per day, you’ll also enjoy its spiky yellow blooms in midsummer, though it could be grown for its distinctive foliage alone. ‘Bottle Rocket’ has the extra advantage of tending not to wilt in the heat like some other Ligularias do. It is especially lovely planted at the pond’s edge.
Shade Planting Partners: Pardon My Monardas, Anytime® Pansiolas and Graceful Grasses® King Tut® Papyrus.

‘Jade Peacock’ Tiarella (Foamflower)
A very easy to grow, low maintenance perennial to pair with hostas, ferns, and sedges is the Foamflower or Tiarella which is hardy in zones 4-9. ‘Jade Peacock’ is an especially floriferous selection, blooming early each spring even when grown in full shade, and its spiky white flowers are lightly fragrant too. The emerald green leaves are accented with a striking near-black center blotch. Try pairing it with purple coral bells to accent the pretty coloration of the foamflower’s foliage. It also looks great when planted en masse around the base of large hostas.
Shade Planting Partners: Dolce® Brazen Raisin Heuchera, Shadowland ‘Seducer’ Hosta and Fiber Optic Grass

 

Dolce Heuchera (Coral Bells)
Though they are often grown in full sun, especially in cooler climates, Heucheras tend to hold their best coloration in part shade. They can be grown in landscapes and containers with the key to longevity in-ground being very good drainage, especially in winter. There is a tremendous amount of breeding work being done with the genus Heuchera, and they are now available in many colors of the rainbow so they are easy to match with most color schemes. In containers, use them as you would a coleus for a colorful accent that lasts all season.
Shade Planting Partners: Graceful Grasses® Toffee Twist Carex, Surefire® Begonias and Monet® series Weigelas

 UNIQUE SHRUBS FOR SHADE

  ‘Aphrodite’ Calycanthus (Sweetshrub)
Here’s a shrub you may not have heard of before but certainly deserves to be more widely planted. Sweetshrub grows in both sun and part shade and is hardy in zones 5-9. The variety named ‘Aphrodite’ is especially prized for its larger, fragrant, wine red flowers that appear in early summer and persist for several weeks. The more sun you can give this plant the more flowers it will reward you with, but it will bloom with only morning sun. It also stays a bit shorter (about 3-4 feet) and the habit is more open when grown in more shade.
Shade Planting Partners: Dolce® Heucheras, Lemony Lace Sambucus and ColorBlaze® Coleus
  Sky Pointer® Ilex (Japanese Holly)
You are likely familiar with hedging type hollies such as ‘Blue Prince’ which are grown for their evergreen foliage and red berries in winter. Sky Pointer grows in similar conditions, preferring partial shade to full sun in summer and some protection from sun and wind in the winter months. But its unique architectural habit is what sets it apart as it forms a 4-5’ tall, narrow pillar. Use it as an accent plant in the landscape to balance the more mounded shapes of hydrangeas and hostas in zones 6-7.
Shade Planting Partners: Cityline® Hydrangeas, Shadowland Hostas and Infinity® New Guinea Impatiens

 
Little Henry® Itea (Sweetspire)
This little native shrub is an absolute rock star in the fall landscape as it turns fiery shades of red and orange as the cooler weather arrives. It is very easy to grow in sun or shade as long as the soil remains moist or even boggy and requires little to no maintenance to look its best. Little Henry is much more compact than the old favorite ‘Henry’s Garnet’, maturing at just 2-3’ tall. Lightly scented, bottlebrush-shaped, pure white flowers appear in early summer. This shrub is absolutely stunning when planted en masse along riverbanks or in low spots in the landscape.
Shade Planting PartnersBlack Lace® Sambucus, Graceful Grasses® King Tut® Papyrus and ‘Bottle Rocket’ Ligularia

Search for more unique plants for shade gardens here.  

Learn how to create a shade garden with P. Allen Smith by watching this video.

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