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5 Award-Winning Plants for Your Shade Garden

5 Award-Winning Plants for Your Shade Garden

By Susan Martin for Proven Winners
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners

Gardening in the shade can be challenging or enlightening, depending on your perspective. As someone who has gardened exclusively in shade for the last 18 years, I’ve come to adore gardening in the filtered shade of mature oaks and white pines. They provide cool shelter for both me and my plants, and the fallen leaves enrich my soil to help my garden flourish.

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Classic shade garden featuring Shadowland® hostas.

I’m a plant collector, so I’m always eager to find new shade plants to try. The five plants I’ll share with you below have all grown beautifully for me, some in containers and others in the landscape. What they have in common is their award-winning status: all five are members of the 2023 Class of National Plants of the Year™ by Proven Winners. Let’s meet them one by one.

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Heart to Heart® ‘Scarlet Flame’ Caladium

2023 Caladium of the Year™!

Here’s a heat loving tropical plant that makes a splash in patio containers, window boxes and the landscape. This vibrant red, pink, and green patterned foliage plant provides color without any mess all season on the porch or patio. It makes a unique, bold “thriller” in container recipes when paired with shorter, mounded to trailing plants, but is equally as lovely planted in the landscape. Pep up your shade garden by poking a few caladiums in among your hostas or mass a whole bunch in an underused area of your landscape. Their broad, colorful foliage makes a quick and striking impact.

While most people think of caladiums as needing heavy shade, many of the Heart to Heart caladiums can grow in both sun and shade conditions, including ‘Scarlet Flame’. Where they are produced in Florida, they are grown in full sun with adequate watering. Just be sure the soil is well-drained or the bulbs can rot. Wait until the soil and temperatures have warmed up into the 60s before planting them outdoors in the spring. 

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Feeling Flirty™ Tradescantia

2023 Houseplant of the Year™!

You might be surprised to find a houseplant on this list, but this is a trick I use every year when planting up the containers for my shaded deck. Many houseplants are naturally well-adapted to growing in lower light levels, which means they can also thrive in your shade garden. They’ll enjoy the humid air outdoors. You may notice that your houseplants put on a lot of new growth when you take them on a summer siesta.

Feeling Flirty from Proven Winners new leafjoy™ collection will catch your eye with its intricately painted, silky pink and mint green striped leaves with lilac purple undersides. This petite houseplant forms a tidy, somewhat trailing mound that shines on its own or as a spiller in container recipes paired with other compact, slow growing plants including other houseplants. It grows best in well-drained soil and shaded or partly sunny conditions. At the end of the season, you can bring nature inside™ by moving your Feeling Flirty plant indoors into bright direct or indirect light.

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Dolce® ‘Wildberry’ Coral Bells

2023 Perennial of the Year!™

This versatile variety of berry purple coral bells can find a home just about anywhere in your garden if you live in zones 4-9. Its tidy, mounding shape lends itself well to growing along a pathway or at the front of your border where it can provide a bright pop of color all season. Use this hardy perennial in your landscape designs and containers year after year. Its bold purple, glossy foliage is evergreen in most climates.

If heavy clay soil is your nemesis, consider growing Dolce® ‘Wildberry’ and all your coral bells in containers or raised beds where they will benefit from good drainage. Their fun foliage plays perfectly against flowering annuals and grasses in large patio pots. This dark-leaf coral bells can easily tolerate all-day sun if the soil stays moist, but in warm climates, provide some afternoon shade. It will retain its color nicely when grown in partial to full shade. 

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Shadowland® ‘Empress Wu’ Hosta

2023 Hosta of the Year™!

If you garden in the shade in zones 3-9, chances are you’re already growing hostas. However, you may not have one quite like this—it’s the biggest hosta on the block! Hosta collectors agree, ‘Empress Wu’ is a must-have variety for anyone looking to grow a record-breaking hosta or to make a statement in their shade garden.

This royal hosta develops over time into a massive mound of huge leaves that can measure as much as 1½ feet wide and long. Sure, they’re solid green, but in this case, it’s the size that counts. By year five when the plant matures, your garden guests will all be taking selfies with your ‘Empress Wu’. Adding to its great aura, pale reddish violet flowers appear in early to midsummer on tall stalks above the foliage in plain view of pollinating bees and hummingbirds. 

If you love the look of ‘Empress Wu’ but have a penchant for variegation, try its cousin, ‘Wu La La’

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Let’s Dance Can Do!® Reblooming Hydrangea

2023 Flowering Shrub of the Year™!

If you find yourself staring at an old hydrangea that never blooms in your garden, it’s time for a change. Thanks to innovative new varieties like this one, you can grow bigleaf hydrangeas in places as cold as USDA zone 4. Its starlike, double florets pack the large flower heads but leave just enough fertile flowers for pollinators to enjoy.

This one-of-a-kind hydrangea produces flower buds along the length of the stem instead of just at the top. If the tip bud is damaged by cold, nibbled by deer or removed by pruning, there’s plenty of backup buds waiting in the wings. Plus, it is the fastest hydrangea to rebloom, so you won’t need to wait until fall to see a second parade of its fanciful lacecap blossoms.

This is a hydrangea you’ll be proud to show off near your home’s front entrance or planted as a hedge bordering your patio. It will grow and bloom beautifully in part shade in zones 4-9, but in cooler zones, you’ll see more flowers if you plant it in more sun. Moist, acidic soil is ideal for this type of hydrangea.

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Patent Information: Heart to Heart® 'Scarlet Flame' Caladium hortulanum USPP25419; Dolce® 'Wildberry' Heuchera USPP31222 CanPBRAF; Shadowland® 'Empress Wu' Hosta USPP20774 Can4240; Let's Dance Can Do!® Hydrangea macrophylla × serrata USPP32548 CanPBRAF

 Susan Martin is an avid zone 6 gardener, garden writer and speaker who enjoys spreading her passion for plants to her fellow gardeners across North America.

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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