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University of Illinois Extension

Shady characters: Selecting the right annuals for shade

May 29, 2013

Selecting annuals for the shady areas of the garden is important, and gardeners should consider texture and color in their choices, said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Nancy Pollard.

"My favorite annuals for shade are ones with great foliage color and interesting textures," Pollard said. "Coleus, polka dot 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," she added.

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

"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 to 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."

Polka dot plants have whimsical leaves with freckles and splotches in shades of white, pink, green or red, Pollard said. "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."

Another one of Pollard's recommendations, Rex begonias, which are often used as houseplants, are seen increasingly as annuals in the landscape.

"Their striking foliage ranges from diminutive to dinner-plate size," she said. "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," Pollard added. "Plants grow 12 to 15 inches tall, forming mounds."

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

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