Made in the Shade and Sitting Pretty
Rudyard Kipling once opined that “gardens are not made...by sitting in the shade.” The author’s words meant that gardeners have to toil in the sun—where most plants thrive—to produce a bountiful harvest. What Kipling doesn’t acknowledge is that beautiful gardens can be found in the shade, too, in containers that don’t require a lot of maintenance. Brightening a shady spot on your property (and by “shady,” we mean an area that receives less than 6 hours of sunlight per day) with containers full of blooms and greenery is easy once you understand which plants flourish when they’re protected from full sunlight.
We recommend that you found your shady container garden with annuals, since they’re the easiest to grow—and the flowers you’ll most likely find at the local garden center. Once you’ve tried your hand at filling hanging baskets and pots with annuals, you may want to add some perennials to the mix. Those who want to bring some of the outdoors inside may even consider establishing a houseplant garden that is “made in the shade.” Here are some of our favorite shade-loving plants that also happen to be very easy to grow in containers.
Related: 6 Fast-Growing Shade Trees
Begonia (Begonia spp.)
Many species in the begonia family are suitable for container gardening, including Rex types, which are grown for their royally striking foliage. Tuberous begonias produce huge, frilly “powder-puff” blooms, and wax types spill forth a profusion of smaller flowers for months. Begonias enjoy rich soil, high humidity, and filtered shade.
Caladium (Caladium bicolor)
With color-splashed leaves that are shaped like arrowheads and a height that seldom surpasses 2 feet, caladiums hit the bull’s eye when it comes to brightening shadowy corners. Also called angels’ wings, most caladiums prefer partial to full shade. Because they thrive in temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, however, they are better grown in southern climates. Pet owners, take care: Caladium is toxic to both cats and dogs.
Coleus (Coleus scutellarioides)
Popular for their “coats of many colors,” coleus cultivars vary in height from 8 inches to 3 feet. Although they do produce spikes of unobtrusive blue to lavender flowers, the flowers should be pinched out to prevent legginess. Most coleus prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, but sun coleus varieties (like Wizard Velvet Red and Wizard golden) are more tolerant to heat and sunlight.
Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
Often sold as a “spiller” for containers, creeping Jenny cascades prettily over the edges of pots—but you’ll want to keep this perennial confined to containers due to its invasive nature. Its yellow-green hue brightens areas with partial shade, as do 1-inch yellow blooms that appear during the summer.
Fern (Dryopteris, Polypodium, etc.)
Just as finely cut green fronds in bouquets provide a lacy backdrop for blooms, ferns in containers can do the same for flowering plants. Woodlands, after all, are ferns’ natural environment, which is why most species can grow in either partial or full shade. Though ferns look stunning hanging in pots, it’s also a good idea to bring them indoors. Some types of fern, such as the Boston fern, remove toxins from the air.
Fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.)
Fuchsias come in a variety of sizes and shapes, with single or double often bi-colored blooms which sway like pendulous earrings. There are over 100 species in the genus Fuchsia! Though many gardeners grow these plants as annuals, they’re actually tender perennials that can survive in warm climates—and, with the right care, can be overwintered in colder zones.
Fuchsias do not like humid weather, and will wilt if exposed to direct sunlight or too much heat. They bloom best when provided with moist soil and a little morning sun.
Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana)
Impatiens walleriana, also known as Busy Lizzie, “busies” itself by producing mounds of colorful blooms in shady places. (The species walleriana is vigorous in partial or full shade and is not to be confused with New Guinea impatiens, which require more sun than their colorful cousins.) Impatiens tend to wilt in dramatic fashion if they dry out, but usually revive quickly from such swoons when provided with a drink of water.
Ivy (Hedera spp.)
Often invasive in the landscape, ivies are known for creeping up the sides of centuries-old university buildings. However, they can add “class” to container gardens when shaped into topiary balls or left to cascade over pots’ edges. For a garden that will pass with flying colors, grow ivy in somewhat humid climates—it is prone to spider mites in more arid conditions.
Oxalis (Oxalis spp.)
Although plants in this genus are recognized by their showy, shamrock-like foliage, oxalis will keep your containers “in clover” by producing ¾- to 2-inch blooms in white, yellow, pink, or red. Oxalis is usually grown from tubers rather than from seed, and flourishes in partial shade.
Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana)
Widely loved for their kittenish faces, pansies prefer crisp weather and will flourish in spring or fall containers. A partially shaded location, which provides them with the cooler conditions they prefer, should keep them blooming from spring into summer. With blooms that are 2 to 4 inches in diameter and an overall height of just 10 inches or so, pansy plants pack a lot of color and character into a compact package. Pinch off faded flowers during that time to prevent the plants from going to seed too soon.
Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)
Although related to morning glories, the decorative types of sweet potato vine seldom flower. But their wide variety of cultivars can provide you with almost any color of heart-shaped or lobed leaves you prefer, including black, red, chartreuse, and variegated. Those colors are most intense in full sun, but can also be glorious in partial shade. Though the roots of ornamental sweet potato vine are edible, they’re not so scrumptious.
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