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Monday, September 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gardening: Consider growing plants with colorful leaves in shade

UPDATED: Wed., May 1, 2019, 4:49 p.m.

The Spokane Community College Greenhouse Program is having its spring plant sale  Saturday, May 4, 2019, at the college. This year’s student creations include hanging baskets for shady decks and patios. Go early as the prettiest plants go fast, Pat Munts writes. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Community College Greenhouse Program is having its spring plant sale Saturday, May 4, 2019, at the college. This year’s student creations include hanging baskets for shady decks and patios. Go early as the prettiest plants go fast, Pat Munts writes. (Pat Munts / The Spokesman-Review)

Last week I talked about getting rid of moss in shady areas. That resulted in questions about how to get some color in shady areas of the garden. Dark green doesn’t cut it with some gardeners.

Getting color into these areas requires a gardener to rethink what color can be in a garden. Most of the time we think of it as flowers in every color of the rainbow. While there are flowers that will bloom in part shade, there are many plants with colorful leaves that do well and prefer shade. Let’s look at some of them.

First, spring bulbs like daffodils, tulips and crocus (and others) can be planted in the fall under deciduous trees. The bulbs come up well before the trees leaf out and take advantage of the sun while its available. By the time the trees fully leaf out, the bulbs are done flowering and are using the available light to store up food reserves for next year before the foliage dies back naturally.

There are some flowers that do well in partially shady areas. Columbine, bleeding hearts, astilbe, hellebore, hydrangea, foxglove, lily of the valley, bee balm and monkshood to name a few all do well in areas that get only two to three hours of sun a day. With careful selection, you can have something flowering through most of the growing season.

The unsung and under-utilized heroes of the shade garden are plants with colorful leaves. Flowers come and go through the season, but colorful leaves are present all the time. Hostas come in dozens of combinations of cream and light and dark green colors. They also come in different sizes from tiny 6-inchers to massive 4- to 6-foot-wide monsters. An added benefit in our climate is that they are fairly drought tolerant once they are established.

Another hero of the shade garden are heucheras or coral bells. The original heucheras were simple bunches of green leaves with red flowers. Over the last 20 years, plant breeders have created varieties whose leaves come in shades of purple, gold, bronze, red, yellow, green and chartreuse. Heucheras need rich soil and a steady supply of moisture to do well.

Ground covers like Japanese forest grass and creeping jenny can provide a colorful frame for other plants. Japanese forest grass forms cascading, slow-growing clumps of yellow-green grass that are perfect for bed borders. Creeping Jenny’s leaves are either a pale green or an eye-catching chartreuse that lights up even the darkest corner of the garden. As its name indicates, it creeps along the ground to form mats that can tolerate a little foot traffic. Both need steady moisture and a rich soil.

Many of these smaller plants and others can also be used to plant hanging baskets and pots for shady decks. If planting your own baskets sounds daunting or you like instant gratification, check out the Spokane Community College Greenery’s student plant sale this Saturday. The students have created some stunning hanging baskets for shade. Get there early, they go fast.

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