University of Illinois Extension

Shady Characters

Selecting annuals for the shady areas of your garden is important, explained a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“My favorite annuals for shade are ones with great foliage color and interesting textures,” said Nancy Pollard. “Coleus, polkadot plant, and Rex begonias are standbys. Their medium-to-bold leaf sizes and colorful foliage work well especially in contrast to solid colored bolder hostas or fine lacy-leaved ferns. “ In all three cases, colors are brighter in lighter shade and less intense in deeper shade.”

Coleus comes in variegated and solid leaf colors from red, pinks and burgundies to chartreuse yellows and cream and variations in between. There are three plant sizes: low trailing types, midsize and tall that also can be used as spiller, fillers and thrillers in a container planting.

“Lovely by themselves in a container, their contrasting colors and textures can also be used to echo the bloom color or contrast the texture of nearby perennials,” she said. “To increase fullness of the coleus plants, or control their height, pinch off the emerging growth of the stem tips. This will force side branching. Also, remove any flower shoots as they appear, unless you plan to collect seed.”

Polkadot plant has whimsical leaves with freckles and splotches in shades of white, pink, green or red. The foliage is medium-sized. The ‘Splash Select’ series have green leaves with four different splotch colors, covering large areas of the leaves. ‘Confetti’ series has more limited spotting than the ‘Splash’ series. Like coleus, they benefit from pinching.

Rex begonias, often used as house plants are seen increasingly as annuals in the landscape.

“Their striking foliage ranges from diminutive to dinner plate size,” said Pollard. “They come in an enormous array of colors and patterns that may include speckles or jagged lines or swirls.

“Keep the plants evenly moist. Water at the base of the plants only; a soaker hose works well for this. Overhead watering should be avoided. Plants grow 12-15 inches tall, forming mounds.”

Brightly colored foliage adds visual interest and unexpected focal points to shady areas all summer long, she added.

For more, check out Fabulous Foliage at