10 Best Annuals for Shady Spots
Brilliant blooms and fun foliage options are endless if you know where to look. Let's explore captivating types of annuals that flourish in shade.
SUSAN MARTIN FOR FAMILY HANDYMAN
As an avid gardener who has lived under a canopy of mature white pine and red oak trees for nearly two decades, I’ve learned a thing or two about gardening in the shade. I’ve already shared some of my favorite shade loving perennials and groundcovers, so now let me tell you about 10 of the annuals for shade I couldn’t bear to be without.
Each year, I plant about 50 new containers of shade-loving annuals on my front porch, deck and patio. I’m naturally attracted to plants with interesting foliage, but the colorful blooms bring in the hummingbirds and pollinators that I so enjoy.
When I find something that grows well, I explore that type of plant further. Begonias grow incredibly well for me, so now a dozen types fill my window boxes, hanging baskets and galvanized deck pots. I invite you to consider what you’ve grown in the past that worked well and look for new varieties of it to try this year. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Susan Martin for Family Handyman
Canary Wings Begonia
When I first met this stunning begonia, I bought just a few small pots of it. Every year since, I’ve purchased it by the flat. That’s because its glowing chartreuse foliage and layered texture complement every other plant you’ll find on this list.
Use it as a 12- to 18-inch tall filler element in container combinations paired with plants with coarser or finer texture. Pictured here, I’m growing Canary Wings in my deck rail boxes with ‘Lemon Blush’ caladiums and lotus vine in full shade.
Because of its light-colored foliage, this begonia grows best in morning sun to full shade. In my cooler Michigan climate, I find its coloring is best if I let it have some filtered sun. In warmer climates, deeper shade is a must. Plant it in a container so you can move it around until you find the ideal location.
Susan Martin for Family Handyman
The house I grew up in faced north, but that didn’t stop us from having the most colorful landscaping on the block. My mother would buy 10 flats of multicolored bedding impatiens every year and line them along the entire front. They formed two-foot tall mounds of vivid magenta, coral orange, hot pink and snow-white blossoms that persisted until frost.
That was before the unfortunate arrival of downy mildew disease which ravaged bedding impatiens in the U.S. Researchers have been working feverishly to develop varieties unaffected by the disease, with some success. Look for new Glimmer double and Beacon single-flowered impatiens.
Impatiens grow best in full shade to morning sun locations and work equally well in containers and the landscape. Consistent moisture and fertilizing keep them happy and blooming all summer long.
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If you want the look of a mounded annual that blooms all summer but aren’t into pinks and reds, try Browallia. Its flowers are about the same size and the two plants play similar roles in the landscape. But Browallia’s flowers come in shades of indigo blue, amethyst purple and white. It can grow up to two feet tall, but shorter selections are available.
Unlike impatiens, Browallia doesn’t require consistent fertilizing to keep it in bloom. Plants growing in the ground can be fed just a few times per season, and once per month in containers.
Browallia loves heat, but not direct hot sun. Plant it after the last frost, in a spot that’s shaded during the warmest part of the day.
These are some of the most fanciful flowers you’ll find for shaded hanging baskets and patio pots. Their blossoms dangle like ornate earrings from arching stems, often with two distinct colors appearing together, like the pink and purple flowering variety shown here. They pop open from swollen balloon-like buds and can measure as much as three inches long.
Once fuchsias form their seeds, they tend to stop blooming, so it’s better to have a variety that generates little to no seed. ‘Billy Green’ is an heirloom variety I’ve grown for several years and have yet to see a single seed form. ‘Autumnale’ blooms, but it’s known more for its dynamic gold, red and orange foliage.
Fuchsias thrive in cool shade and humidity. Keep the soil moist and feed regularly to keep them blooming.
If you liked the idea of Browallia but need something that’s about half the height, try wishbone flower (Torenia) instead. It also blooms in shades of blue, purple and white. But its habit is much less airy, and it acts more like a groundcover. It will appreciate the shade cast by the shrubs during the hottest part of the day but won’t mind the heat even in Southern climates.
Some types of wishbone flower, like the Summer Wave series, have a more trailing habit. That makes them great spillers for shaded hanging baskets, patio pots and window boxes.
Susan Martin for Family Handyman
No matter what amount of sun or shade you have in your yard, you can grow coleus. Today’s coleus is bred to grow equally well in sun and shade, in containers or in the ground. The cultivars bloom late in the season or not at all. That’s important because once a coleus plant blooms and sets seed, its life cycle ends.
You’ll find hundreds of gorgeous varieties of coleus in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. Some reach waist high by season’s end while others are short or trailing. The largest cultivars are best reserved for the landscape because they easily outcompete smaller plants for space in containers.
Coleus tolerates heat and humidity but can’t take drought. Although its fleshy stems usually perk right back up once you water them, you don’t want to make a habit of it. Coleus in the ground are usually more self-sufficient than in lightweight potting soil.
This gorgeous plant is a shrub in tropical United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 10 and warmer, but makes a stunning annual for foliage in sun and shade. It is consistently one of the most asked-about plants in my garden, where I grow it in my east-facing border and full shade containers every year. Canary Wings begonia is one of its best companions.
Long, lance-shaped leaves are deep purple and lilac with black veining and a metallic overlay that glimmers in the slightest bit of sun. I’ve found its coloring most dramatic when planted in just a few hours of sun followed by open shade for the rest of the day. In ideal conditions, it can reach up to four feet tall, but it stays much smaller when you grow it in a container.
Fortunately, neither deer nor rabbits favor Persian shield. Pests and diseases aren’t an issue either.
Caladiums bring a tropical vibe, living their best life in high summer when other plants are languishing. Most people think of them as full shade loving plants, but newer cultivars are also highly sun tolerant.
Caladiums’ patterned foliage shifts colors and patterns from spring into summer. Some have large leaves and others more petite, all shining in warm shades of red, pink, coral, lavender, white and green. Showcased on their own in containers, you could also try underplanting them with trailing plants like creeping wire vine, alternanthera or dichondra.
Start caladiums from bulbs indoors eight to 10 weeks before your last frost date, or purchase potted caladiums at garden centers in late spring and summer. Wait until the soil and nighttime temperatures warm in the spring before planting them outside.
You might know crotons as houseplants, but in USDA Zones 9 through 11 they can grow outdoors as evergreen shrubs. They also make beautiful container specimens in cooler climates, where they’re grown as annuals. Depending on their form, they can act as a thriller or filler.
They come in all kinds of foliage shapes, color patterns and plant habits. All are happiest growing under a canopy of tall trees or in the shade cast by a structure. Pick a spot with well-drained soil that’s out of the way of prevailing winds.
If you live in a cooler climate and would like to save your crotons and other houseplants at the end of the season, move them indoors before nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees.
Tropical Ferns and Fernlike Plants
Whimsical structure, painted fronds and airy texture are some of the desirable traits tropical ferns and fernlike plants bring to shade garden designs and containers.
The foxtail fern shown here is more closely related to asparagus, but brings Dr. Seuss-like fun to the containers on my deck every year. I like pairing it with bold-leaf canna lilies and trailing coleus in a 20-inch galvanized pot in part shade. Try painted brake, maidenhair, bird’s nest, climbing asparagus and crocodile ferns for your shade containers.
Ferns and fuchsias make good companions because both enjoy cool, moist, humid conditions, and they don’t need much direct sunlight to shine. Humus-rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soil will keep their roots happy.