Annuals light up shady areas

These six annuals provide dependable color and performance in areas blanketed by shade.

Pulling into your new client's driveway, you feel a knot beginning to form in your stomach. Trees, shrubs and more trees - another challenging landscape consisting primarily of shady areas. The soil does not look terribly healthy either - it's compacted with little grass and a lot of moss. Maybe challenging is not the word you were looking for.

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After a routine walk of the grounds with your new client, and taking notes about the site, soil and growing space, you are back at the office where your challenge begins. Your mission is to create an unusual design while choosing plant material that requires the least amount of care. Keeping your design simple, you look for a variety of shade-tolerant, colorful annuals. The following are some plants you can mix with the ever-faithful impatiens to provide a rainbow of colors in all-shade gardens.

Caladiums Often, when we're looking to add color, our first thought is flowers. But colorful foliage is a valuable asset in any garden, whether it is in the shade or sun. The large leaves of the caladium brighten up the summer shade garden with colors of white, red and green. There are two types of caladiums: lance-leafed and fancy-leafed. The colors and patterns vary from almost pure white to burgundy to many variegated varieties. They are an easy blend with just about any other choice in the shade garden. Use them to fill large areas and plant them in masses beneath trees. They are available in the spring as tubers and later in the year in 4-inch pots. Do not plant them before soil temperatures reach 70øF or the tubers may rot. When choosing tubers, select the largest sizes available so that you will need fewer to fill the intended area. Caladiums thrive in rich, moist, well-drained soil. Plant them 2 to 3 inches deep. They will grow up to 24 inches tall. They thrive in heat, but left unwatered, they will go dormant. Mulch the soil around them to retain moisture. Caladiums are killed by freezing temperatures, but you can dig them up and save them after dormancy.

Coleus With a contrast of texture as well as color, coleus is another annual chosen for its foliage assets. The only "problem" with coleus is that there are so many varieties from which to choose. Heights range from 6 to 36 inches. Colors range from white, yellow, red, pink, copper, dark green and light green to variegated combinations. As long as the soil is moist and well-drained, coleus is content and not particular about soil fertility. Similar to caladiums, they will not grow until temperatures are above 70øF, and a late frost can kill them. With a sufficient supply of water and warm weather, they fill in bare spots rapidly. The red and pink varieties provide an excellent contrast when mixed with ferns in wooded areas.

Dusty miller and pansies A favorite combination of mine is the silvery leaves of dusty miller serving as a backdrop for the brilliant colors of pansies. Pansies are used primarily for fall, winter and spring gardens, but dusty miller can be left to back up other annuals during the summer - the frosty-colored leaves enhance almost any plant. Another attribute of dusty miller is its glowing moonlight appearance, making a perfect companion for areas where nightlighting is available. There are two choices of foliage: lacy- or plain-leafed. Heights range from 6 to 12 inches, so you can use dusty miller as a border plant. Dusty miller should be planted in well-drained soil. It is drought tolerant and treated as a perennial in the lower South. It is not considered a full-shade plant but tolerates partial shade.

Pansies grow 4 to 8 inches tall and have the same light requirements as dusty miller even though they are often sold as shade-loving plants, which they are not. Plant them in rich, well-drained soil and water moderately. Pansies are cool-weather plants that should be replaced with other species before the heat causes them to fade.

Four o'clock Four o'clocks are an often-overlooked, old-fashioned annual. As with dusty miller and pansies, they tolerate light shade. They thrive in well-drained soil and require moderate watering. Four o'clocks grow 2 to 3 feet tall and are covered with trumpet-shaped blooms of red, pink, yellow and violet. The plant's most interesting quality is that its flowers do not open until around 4 p.m., hence its name. When they do open, the air is filled with the scent of lemon. Children delight in watching them open and homeowners, away at work all day, enjoy being greeted by their unique sight and smell. A tender perennial in the lower South, they will reseed in the rest of the country. Use them where you need to fill a gap - by mid-summer they will grow to the size of a small shrub. The only significant pest problem is Japanese beetles.

Begonias, wax and tuberous These two types of begonias are of the same family, but they are worlds apart. Wax begonias are sold as bedding plants. The flowers are available in white, pink, salmon, red and bi-colored, and the leaves are bronze, green or variegated. Bronze-leafed varieties are more sun-tolerant than the green-leafed varieties. Dwarf strains grow 6 to 8 inches tall and standard strains grow 10 to 12 inches. They are self-cleaning and flower from early spring to the first frost. They prefer rich, well-drained soil and moderate watering.

Tuberous begonias are my personal favorite. The giant, spectacularly-colored flowers rest among rich, green, heart-shaped leaves. They give a splash of color throughout shady areas of the landscape all summer and fall. Buy them as tubers in early spring and as 4-inch potted plants later in the spring. Arrange them with white caladiums or ferns to create an elegant setting. In well-drained, moderately moist, fertile soil, they will grow 2 feet high and spread as wide. Colors range from shades of yellow and orange to white, pink, red and coral. Like caladiums, you can dig the tubers before the first frost and save them. They are susceptible to rot when overwatered.

Fertilization Annuals planted in the shade have similar fertilizer requirements as those planted in the sun. For plants that flower, an amendment of triple superphosphate or another phosphorous source before you plant will guarantee quicker, fuller and longer blooms. For all plants, both flowering and foliage, applying a 3- to 4-month time-release fertilizer during planting helps ensure performance without regular fertilizing. The initial cost may be higher, but a professional landscaper knows that cutting corners at the beginning of the season does not always mean savings at the end of the season.

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