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.
For wildly colorful foliage with attitude select Crotons–either 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!