Colorful Annuals for Shade

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Colorful container for part shade

Every year I  design the window boxes and main container at my family’s camp  in Maine.  Someday I want to write an article on all the combinations I have used, but right  now this summer’s offering is all I can handle.  I really enjoy the process of putting together the plantings because, at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, I don’t get the chance to work with annuals (although I also use perennials in the containers).  The process of designing containers is like creating a temporary work of art.  Cramming all the colors, textures, habits, and heights into one pot to be viewed just for the season is fun.

The container and the window boxes are by the front door, which faces the path coming down from the road.  It is a part shade site, but it gets a lot of morning sun, making almost any plant suitable.  I have used plants that take full to part sun and also plants that require part to full shade, and all have thrived.   Over the years, my plant choices have become taller and more dramatic, with 2011 being my most colorful design yet.  The house is stained driftwood gray, and the only color limitation is the front door, which is eggplant colored.

Just in case you want to use some of these plants in your own containers, here are the details.  In the pot above, height, interesting texture, and color is provided by the annual red fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’.  I  use this grass a lot in containers because it is very reliable and only gets better as the season progresses.  The middle of the containers is filled with purple ‘Dark Star’ and orangey pink ‘Sedona’ coleus, both reliable workhorses. The star of the mid level is a new plant to me, perennial golden aralia, A. cordata ‘Sun King’.  It grows in part to full shade and matures at 3′ by 3′.  Lower down is the tuberous begonia ‘Nonstop Apricot’ and spilling out the front are purple-leafed sweet potato vine ‘Midnight Lace’ and orange million bells ‘Aloha Orange’.

The window boxes are a few feet away from the front door so I use many of the same plants and colors.  However, my choices are limited to lower growing plants because I  don’t want to block the kitchen windows.  I  also like to choose plants, like the coleus, that look beautiful from the back when viewed from inside the house.  In addition to the purple sweet potato vine, million bells, coleus, and begonia found in the pot, I  have added the chartreuse sweet potato vine ‘Emerald Lace’.

We enjoy this planting from inside and out.


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50 Responses to “Colorful Annuals for Shade”

  1. Indeed colorful and pop in the shade, Carolyn. How lovely!

  2. Linda Walters Says:

    Gorgeous pot, Carolyn. Gotta have those tall grasses and hafta use the tuberous (ever-blooming) begonias, I discovered. They truly bloom the entire season and what great colors! I get them cheap at the Farmer’s market in Strafford every year. Only took me 40 years to finally get the right flowers in my pots!

  3. Wow, what beautiful and colorful containers. Just Gorgeous!

  4. Oh, these are fabulous! So colorful! Container planting is something I don’t do well, but I appreciate those like you that have the artistic ability to put together something so stunning. Thanks for sharing the names of the plants you used.

  5. LoVeLy! I will have to remember this combo.

  6. Dear Carolyn, Your plant combinations are stunning! I love to use purple fountain grass in planters, but didn’t this year. Now I wish I had. I’ll do a posting soon to show mine. P. x

  7. It is a pretty combo, Carolyn, very colorful.

  8. Your pots and planter boxes are stunning! Mine never turn out as well despite the fact that I follow the golden rule filler, spiller, thriller. You have inspired me to try to spruce mine up with some fall color.

    • Karin, Not that you do this, but my experience is that people often use too few plants in their pots. Since the containers are meant to be ornamental for one season, starting with large plants and using a lot of plants is a good idea because you don’t want to wait for them to fill in like you would in your beds. If the expense is an issue, then it is better to do one container really well than to spread the plants too thin. Carolyn

  9. Oh! I like these arrangements! The purple Dark Star is very dramatic!

  10. The window boxes are beautiful. Like you said, would do wonders for the interiors too.

  11. What inspiring combinations! I especially liked your addition of the red fountain grass–

  12. NWPhilly Eric Says:

    Those are really lovely plant combinations, Carolyn.
    I recall being enamored with the combo of Sedona coleus with the purple sweet-potato vine when I saw them together at the tropical area of Chanticleer’s Teacup garden a few years ago. So will you attempt to overwinter the Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ in a pot or have you selected a spot in your garden for those luminous (bug-resistant) leaves? Be forewarned, despite the literature that says it will get 3′ x 3′, I’ve seen it in a West Chester, PA garden that’s closer to 5′ x 5′.

    • Eric, I have been using that orange and purple color combination in my pots long before it got trendy so maybe Chanticleer got the idea from me :-). The aralia is in Maine. I usually donate the perennials in the pots to the public garden at the library. The plant probably won’t get so big up there. Thanks for the warning though because I think I am going to sell it at my nursery this fall. Carolyn

      • NWPhilly Eric Says:

        Yes. ‘Sun King’ seems to suddenly have caught everyone’s interest since it really maintains that vivid chartreuse color throughout the season on large scale leaves with some good height in partial shade. It does self seed easily, but I understand the plantlets are too delicate to easily transplant during their first year. During the second year they become a beloved pass-along plant.

  13. They are beautiful Carolyn. I don’t do planters here as they need so much water; I’m even struggling to give the lemons enough water! I love the pennisetum. Do you grow it yourself from seed, and if so when do you so it for it to be big enough for the pot? Christina

    • Christina, I do not grow the pennisetum from seed so I am not sure how long it would take. We usually have regular rain all summer in Maine so the containers don’t need to be watered. Wish I could send some of our water to you in Italy. Carolyn

  14. Loads of zing! I love the wayt you pick up the colour of the door in the Pennisetum.

  15. Beautiful containers Carolyn. When we lived on a shady property I struggled every year with planters. Finding colour using leaves instead of flowers is a really important step.

    • Marguerite, When I used to spend more time in Maine, I grew everything in containers–tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, green beans, herbs, etc. Plus I had lots of decorative pots and hanging baskets. The property surrounding the camp is completely filled with native plants more beautiful than any garden I could plant so I never garden in the ground. Carolyn

  16. Beautiful! I planted some of the annual red fountain grass in a pot for the first time this year, and I love it. Your color combinations look fantastic with the eggplant colored front door!

  17. patientgardener Says:

    You have inspired me to try again next year. My unusual herb windowbox was a failure and I didnt plant up pots. I am going to go for foilage like you have next year and try to do better

  18. I love your color combinations!

  19. Wow – you definitely need sunglasses for that one.

  20. Dear Carolyn, black/red, scarlet and lime green palette is classic beauty. Easy to see the expert at work here in the way you’ve co-ordinated the containers so they blend rather than hotch-potch the way mine tend to.I love (and rely on) container gardening because aside from the artistry, each is a miniature garden

  21. Your colour combinations are quite inspiring and your plants always look so healthy.

  22. Carolyn, I’ve never been good at containers — just put some annuals in every year in a not-very-imaginative way. This may inspire me to be more creative and adventuresome with them. Thanks.

  23. These are so beautiful! The combinations and colors are so complementary. You have given me some ideas for next year…

  24. Carolyn your planters are filled so very much like ours used to be when I was not so lazy. We often found that many of the annuals which were for sunny positions did equally well in the shadier spots.

    Someone just told me that leaving a comment on my blog was a bit of a palaver as they have to manually add their name, email address and website each time. If you have to do this, perhaps when you have the time you could let me know.

  25. Hi Carolyn, I hope your place in ME is OK . . . Irene has passed us and left tons of rain and now flooding everywhere. I am OK on my hill but others are not so fortunate. It is heading to ME now I think?? My container plantings on the terrace were blown over but I do not think there are any fatalities.

  26. Carolyn your containers look fantastic. I have not planted any for at least 3 years now, my pots are now used for herbs. But now, you’ve got me inspired to do some container plantings next year.

  27. hello Carolyn, I love your colourful boxes. Frances

  28. Just beautiful! I love your combinations of different colors and textures and shapes. You are a very talented designer.

  29. Such inspiration, my shady pots will never be the same again, thank you !!

  30. Your containers are stunning. So vibrant and a perfect combination with the driftwood gray of the house. I especially love the reds with the black.

  31. Carolyn, your color combinations and textures are just beautiful! Thanks for the inspriation. Happy Labor Day!

  32. i just love the way you paired the large container with the window box. The Pennisetum looks restrained by the part shade position. which is a good thing since it can easily overwhelm a container.
    I’m assuming the sweet potatoes in the box are the ‘Illuminations’? I like their habit. Thanks for sharing.

  33. I love your window box creation! Much pop! LOVE!!!!

  34. Lovely combinations. One question – with so many plants in the container, do they require constant watering?

    I am always amazed at how much better plants thrive in Maine summers compared to the South.

  35. Carolyn, your pots and window boxes are a joy and an inspiration!

  36. Love your combinations. I tried dark purple sweet potato vine for the first time this summer, and really loved it. Next year I’ll also use some of the bright chartreuse!

  37. I love your combinations for shade flowers!

  38. I’m curious what the name of the Million Bells is in the window boxes

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