Bright Pots for Dark Places

Get creative and make the most of brightly colored foliage

Get creative and make the most of brightly colored foliage – Kong Coleus takes center stage here.

Occasionally a container planting scenario tries to get the better of me.  Most sunny or shady areas are straightforward. If an area gets all day sun, just afternoon sun or a total of 6 or more hours of direct sun then I select sun loving plants .   Less than six hours of direct light or morning sun only, calls for shade loving shrubs and perennials with seasonal color provided by annuals such as New Guinea impatiens, begonias and fuchsias.

But what about areas which receive no direct sun at all? When a client has a deep covered walkway leading to the front door or a patio which is surrounded by a densely layered canopy of trees and shrubs which they prefer not to limb up, how do you still meet the need for color?

My experience has been that most Heuchera peter out, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) becomes lackluster and gets mildew, the brightly variegated Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ becomes dull and unremarkable and even impatiens won’t grow! The tough shrub Aucuba does seem to survive and gives a good splash of yellow but that hardly excites the homeowner who expects me to wave my horticultural wand and create a magazine-worthy color bonanza!

I think I have finally found the solution- tropical house plants.

Flamboyant color doesn't have to come from flowers

Flamboyant color doesn’t have to come from flowers as this oak leaf Croton shows

 

For wildly colorful foliage with attitude select Crotonseither the oak leaf form or the frenzied Zanzibar which looks like Jackson Pollock on a bad hair day! Splatters and splotches in yellow, green, orange and red make this a great ‘thriller’ for any container.

 

Oak leaf croton makes a bold and colorful statement, flanked by two shade loving 'Sweet Tea' Heucherella

Oak leaf croton makes a bold and colorful statement, flanked by two shade loving ‘Sweet Tea’ Heucherella

 

Bromeliads come in a beautiful array of fiery colors and can be relied upon for summer long color. Although not strictly flowers the bold bracts will satisfy the most color hungry homeowner.

 

Mix and match; dark feathery foliage from a perennial Astilbe, acid yellow bromeliad and the striking variegation of a prayer plant (Marantha).

Mix and match; dark feathery foliage from a perennial Astilbe, acid yellow bromeliad and the striking variegation of a prayer plant (Maranta).

The glossy red flowers of Anthuriums appear almost plastic! They look fabulous paired with colorful coleus foliage. And talking of coleus select the Kong coleus for really shady spots. Their monster sized leaves will quickly fill a space and provide color where Heuchera might struggle.

 

Caladiums are year round plants in tropical climates but for me they are a warm season extravagance and worth every penny for the beautiful heart shaped leaves in shades of pink, green and white. Their papery foliage is not as delicate as it may appear. Just be careful not to overwater these plants and they’ll do fine.

Deep pink veins on this white Caladium suggest a great partnership with similarly colored foliage plants such as this variagted Perilla

Deep pink veins on this white Caladium suggest a great partnership with similarly colored foliage plants such as this variegated Perilla

 

Indoor Dracaena are a favorite of mine for these tough sites, especially the bright chartreuse ‘Limelight’ and boldly variegated ‘Green Stripe’. They are a great alternative to the New Zealand flax you might use in a sunny pot.

 

Green Stripe Dracaena always lights up the shade. The shafts of light which reach this pot should be just enough to satisfy these begonias

Green Stripe Dracaena always lights up the shade. The shafts of light which reach this pot should be just enough to satisfy these begonias

Sometimes you might get a shaft of light piercing the canopy or reaching the recesses of a deep overhang in which case tucking in non-stop tuberous begonias, wax begonias, wishbone flower (Torenia) or fuchsias might give you additional color. But for the backbone of your designs rely on this colorful tropical foliage and you’ll have a summer display to be proud of.

'Limelight' Dracaena makes a fabulous centerpiece for this simple container

‘Limelight’ Dracaena makes a fabulous centerpiece for this simple container

 

Note: I live in the Seattle area and can start to use these outside in June when day temperature are reliably above 60′ and night temps average 55′ or higher. Remember that shaded areas are also often colder than the ambient temperature so don’t be too hasty!

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6 Comments

  1. Selina Golfin on June 10, 2013 at 5:00 am

    These are great pictures! Lovely contrasts…I see your in Seattle- Im in the UK, East Anglia and it tickles me to see that what we use as house plants on a sunny windowsill are used as pot plants in shady garden spots! Thats not to say we couldn’t use your ideas here but more that no sooner has the weather warmed sufficiently, its nearly time to pull them out again. I do grow Cannas and Geranium maderense each year but they require fleece protection and a shed for winter. Foliage plants like Cannas are so worth the effort however.



    • Karen Chapman on June 10, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      Hi Selina – I grew up in England so remember the so called English summers all too well! I’d be tempted to take some of your houseplants and simply test them in a shady summer container just to see how many weeks or months you can get from them. I focused on the super-colorful ones but you can do this with umbrella plants, rubber plants and many more.



  2. marlie graves on June 10, 2013 at 6:06 am

    If you’re looking for tropicals to use as shade color for the summer, how about cordyline – Hawaiian Ti – with their marvelous bright pink of the new leaves, or peace lilies. Tricolor marginatas often have good coloration, too.



    • Karen Chapman on June 10, 2013 at 6:42 pm

      Great ideas Marlie. I actually considered one of the hot pink variegated cordyline but struggled to find other plants to put with it from the nursery selection. I have used them in the past though – gorgeous



  3. Carolyn @ Carolyns Shade Gardens on June 18, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Great idea for shady pots. I like to use Japanese hakone grass and various hostas in my mix, but the colorful foliage of the tropical plants is a great flower substitute.



  4. Nicole Brait on June 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Great post!