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  • Marcia Tatroe

Annuals for Shade

By Marcia Tatroe: Every time I see a shopping cart filled with flats of impatiens I see a missed opportunity. It’s not that impatiens are a bad choice for shade. They come in an array of colors ranging from pastel shades and jewel tones to tropical corals and oranges. Cheerful five-petal flowers are the norm but there are also doubles that look exactly like miniature roses and asymmetrical flowers of my favorites, the Fusion Series, in either soft apricot or yellow with orange center markings.

Annuals for Shade in Colorado: Variegated New Guinea impatiens

Variegated New Guinea impatiens

I’m also head-over-heels for New Guinea impatiens, especially those with garishly variegated foliage like Celebrette Light Coral and Painted Paradise Wine and the tamer white or yellow-leafed edged variants. No, impatiens are not what make me cringe – it’s the exclusion of anything but. Too often impatiens are laid out like floral-patterned shelf paper under shrubs from Mother’s Day through Labor Day.

Annuals for Shade in Colorado: Bedding begonia, Amstel Carneval

Bedding begonia, Amstel Carneval Next to impatiens probably the second most preferred flower for shade is the wax or bedding begonia with white, pink, red, orange or coral flowers held over attractive shiny green or bronze foliage. These tough plants thrive in harsher conditions than most annuals for shade, needing less moisture than impatiens. Inexpensive 6-packs planted after last frost in spring fill in quickly and will tolerate light frosts in late summer and fall. In many years they stay in bloom into October. Again, the only problem with bedding begonias is the temptation to go for monocultural sweeps. Compared to this mundane fast food version imagine a salad bar at a fine restaurant featuring mesclun mix, radicchio, spears of white asparagus and a multitude of extra tidbits to add flavor and zest. A shade garden can be just such a feast for the eyes.

Annuals for Shade in Colorado: Red double-flowered tuberous begonia.

Red double-flowered tuberous begonia. Almost any flower will perform well in light or dappled shade in our sun-blessed climate but only a few can manage anything approaching dark, which explains the popularity of impatiens and begonias. The wishbone flower Torenia fournieri in pink, white, violet, blue or bicolors with yellow throats is both heat- and shade-tolerant, making them perfect companions for yellow tuberous begonias that have double flowers much larger than the bedding begonias. Another lesser-known flower for shade is sapphire flower Browallia sp. in crisp white, blue, purple, burgundy or pink often marketed as an alternative to impatiens. Better yet, mix in sapphire flower with impatiens to create a more intriguing texture. You might also try vanilla-scented heliotrope in purple, white or violet.

The wishbone flower (purple), Torenia fournieri, tolerates heat and shade making it a prefect companion for large flowered tuberous begonias.

Even shade-loving flowers will not bloom profusely if at all in the dark. Ideal is a site that receives a bit of direct sunlight during the morning hours or indirect or dappled light for a few hours each day. None of the aforementioned flowers are even remotely drought-tolerant and require regular irrigation and fertile, vegetable-type soil to do their best. The good news is that shade gardens don’t dry out as quickly as those in sun. Mulching thickly with fibrous organic mulch also helps keep the soil evenly moist.

Plectranthus lives indoors through May, then goes outside in a shady spot for the summer.

The solution to too much shade even for impatiens and bedding begonias is brightly colored foliage. Coleus fill the bill. From tasteful to downright gaudy, coleus come in any color that you can imagine. Also widely available are bright green asparagus fern, an assortment of English ivy and variegated ground ivy Glechoma hederacae. In recent years houseplants have joined the annuals sections in garden centers, as all are good shade candidates. Pots of polka dot plant Hypoestes phyllostachya, bloodleaf Irisene herbstii, copperleaf Acalypha wilkesiana, fancy-leafed begonias, plectranthus, and tradescantia liven up my house from November through May and then go outside to a shady spot for the summer months. Houseplants can go directly into the garden soil or be “planted” pot and all, making it easier to remove them in the autumn. All foliage plants make great foils mixed up with flowers in part shade.

A pot of Bloodleaf, Irisine herbstii, livens up a shady corner in the summer.

If you already have a woodland garden filled with perennials and wildflowers you might wonder why you need annual flowers at all. Permanent shade plants tend to be spring bloomers – annuals supplement a steady diet of only greens during the summer months. I can’t deny that there are fewer flower choices for shade but there are plenty enough to create designs every bit as satisfying as any sunny garden. By all means, plant impatiens and begonias but why not mix things up? Think gorgeous tossed salad over boring old iceberg.

Annuals for Shade: (ideally, morning sun & afternoon shade) Ageratum


Madagascar periwinkle

Convolvulus sabatius

Cuphea rosea, C. varia

Dichondra argentea

Euphorbia ‘Breathless Blush’, E. ‘Diamond Frost’

Euryops pectinatus

Felicia ammeloides

Helichrysum petiolare




Nicotiana sylvestris


Phlox drummondii

Salvia splendens


Sweet alyssum

Verbena ‘Tapien’

Marcia Tatroe is a well-known garden designer, speaker, and author who scours garden centers and plant sales searching for something new to try in her Aurora garden. Some plants make it. Some don’t but the quest never gets old!



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