Do you feel like once you’ve seen one shady container design, you’ve really seen them all? I often feel that way, and I have no excuse for monotony since I have a nursery full of plants at my fingertips. But it seems that as gardeners we like to go back to what works. Sure, there may be a cooler, more eye-catching plant to use—but will it perform as well as my staple coleus or New Guinea impatiens? The truth is that there are many unusual shade plants that do wonderfully in container gardens. After years of experimenting with an array of perennials, tropicals, and just about every fern out there, I’ve found a series of colorful and textural options for shade that are both stunning and reliable. Many of these plants have now become my new staples. (Sorry, coleus.)
A monochromatic design stands out from the crowd
|1. Night-blooming cereus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum, Zone 10)
2. Yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, Zones 5-8)
3. Variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet, Zones 8-11)
4. Ribbon plant (Homalocladium platycladum, Zones 9-11)
5. ‘Red-Eyed Gecko’ elephant’s ear (Colocasia esculenta*
‘Red-Eyed Gecko’, Zones 9-11)
There’s no such thing as too bold
|1. ‘Red Flash’ caladium (Caladium ‘Red Flash’, Zones 9-11)
2. ‘My Special Angel’ begonia (Begonia ‘My Special Angel’,
3. Large-leaf glory flower (Tibouchina grandiflora, Zones 10-12)
4. Bromeliad (Aechmea weilbachii cv., Zone 12)
5. Grape ivy (Cissus alata, Zones 10-12)
Similar habits are OK if there are contrasting textures
|1. Blue star fern (Phlebodium aureum, Zones 8-10)
2. Dolce Creme Brulée® heuchera (Heuchera ‘TNHEU041’, Zones 4-8)
3. Begonia (Begonia cv., Zones 9-11)
4. Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus, Zones 9-12)
5. ‘Black Velvet’ begonia (Begonia ‘Black Velvet’, Zones 9-11)
6. Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus, Zones 11-12)
7. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides, Zones 8-11)
Darker colors need a pop of chartreuse
|1. ‘Hope’ philodendron (Philodendron selloum ‘Hope’, Zones 9-11)
2. ‘Sun King’ aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, Zones 4-8)
3. Rex begonia vine (Cissus discolor, Zone 11)
4. Ming fern (Asparagus retrofractus, Zones 9-11)
5. ‘Green Eyes’ bromeliad (Neoregelia ‘Green Eyes’, Zone 12)
Silver shimmers like no other hue
|1. ‘Silver Shield’ plectranthus (Plectranthus argentatus ‘Silver Shield’, Zones 10-11)
2. ‘Rhubarb’ elephant’s ear (Colocasia esculenta* ‘Rhubarb’, Zones 9-11)
3. Bromeliad (Aechmea chantinii cv., Zone 12)
4. ‘Jurassic Silver Point’ Rex begonia (Begonia ‘Jurassic Silver Point’, Zones 9-11)
5. Dichondra (Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’, Zones 10-12)
Don’t underestimate the importance of airflow
In order to achieve a full and lush look in containers, we tend to plant things closer than we would in the garden. This can become problematic because airflow is diminished and fungal diseases can set in—especially in shady areas where evaporation from the sun is further limited. Here are a few tips for making sure your shade containers don’t become petri dishes of mildew and fungus.
Plant closely, but not too closely
It’s fine to want fullness in your containers, but remember that plants do grow. Cramming a dozen plants into a 12-inch pot is only going to lead to trouble—a lack of airflow and too much root competition for starters.
Shady containers will likely need to be watered less than their sunny counterparts. The key to watering shade pots is to do it infrequently but deeply (depending on the conditions). Soggy pots are asking to be breeding grounds for fungal diseases.
Remove squishy spent blooms
Flowering shade plants like begonias are beautiful, but their fleshy spent blooms turn slimy quick. This detritus is another catalyst for fungal diseases, so it’s best to do a weekly cleanout of the old blossoms (photo above).
Sarah Partyka is the owner of The Farmer’s Daughter in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Get our latest tips, how-to articles, and instructional videos sent to your inbox.