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Use Tropical Shade Plants in Your Garden

Get ideas for creating a bold, tropical touch in shaded spots in your yard with our container gardening tips. By Justin Hancock

Go Big and Bold with Shade Plants

It’s a common misperception that if you have a shaded yard, you can’t have a lot of color. But pick the right plants and you can enjoy flamboyant color from spring to fall (and even through the winter in mild climates). One easy way I love to incorporate colorful plants is in containers. Container gardening allows for portability -- move containers from spot to spot as you wish. Containers are also helpful if you have a lot of big trees because you just set the containers on the ground, so you don’t have to dig around the roots. 

This container shows off two of my favorite easy-care shade plants that have outstanding foliage: Kong coleus (with its extra-large leaves) and caladium. Both love a spot in shade or partial shade and moist, well-drained soil. Because their color and interest come from their leaves, you don’t have to worry about this combo going out of bloom. 

Container Gardening Tip: Protect plants with large leaves from the wind, which can easily tear or shred the plants’ pretty foliage.

Get more container gardening ideas for shade (and sun) with our free idea book. 

Add Drama with Tropical Plants

Though they’re called houseplants, most of the plants we grow indoors also thrive outdoors in the shade. In fact, they grow faster and lusher when given a little summer vacation outdoors. And happily, it’s easy to move tropical plants indoors before frost. Check out our tips for saving your tropicals.   

Song of India dracaena is a particularly fun tropical plant for container gardens. It adds vertical appeal plus has gold variegation to brighten even the shadiest corner. Here, it’s accented with beautiful caladium and a skirt of heat-loving lavender-purple scaevola. 

Container Gardening Tip: Most tropical plants love the heat, so wait to plant them or put containers outside until all danger of frost has passed in your area. 

Use Tried-and-True Houseplants

A container garden of colorful houseplants is ideal if you want it easy, especially in deep shade. If a plant will thrive in your living room, there’s a good chance it will do well outdoors under a tree, on the north side of a house or garage, or under a canopy (to protect it from the sun) on decks and patios. Get more tips for houseplant container gardens. 

This container incorporates anthurium and red aglaonema -- two of the easiest houseplants around. Anthurium flowers throughout the summer, producing unique pink, red, white, orange, or lavender blooms above shiny, dark-green heart-shaped foliage. Red aglaonema shows off dark green leaves that are delightfully variegated with splashes of rich red and playful pink. 

Container Gardening Tip: Look like a professional designer by choosing an anthurium that has flowers to match or contrast the variegation in the red aglaonema leaves. 

Take Note of Textures

Tropical shade plants offer a wide variety of textures. Combine different textures to give your containers extra visual appeal. Big, bold leaves, for example, look great with small fine foliage. And I think grasses look stunning with just about any other plants (in fact, upright grasses even look amazing paired with smaller grasses that have more of an arching or mounding shape).

Here, a couple of caladium varieties pair beautifully with snowbush, a tropical plant that has small oval leaves delightfully variegated in cream, white, and pink. Together, the effect is magical. 

Container Gardening Tip: Be sure to keep your containers well watered throughout the entire summer. When plants that have white-variegated leaves get too dry, they develop brown, crispy edges -- which shows up more on the light variegation than on dark green leaves. 

Let Plants Cycle In and Out

We spotted this fun container in South Florida in late spring. It’s a great example of planning your containers so some plants start strong, and are replaced by other varieties as they fade. You can let nature take its course and plant a vigorous heat-loving summer selection that will swallow a cool-loving spring bloomer, or pull out spring plants and add summer plants in their place. 

Song of India dracaena, an upright tropical plant, looks good all year in the subtropics, so it makes for an excellent statement plant in this container. It’s paired with scaevola and ivy geranium. Ivy geraniums thrive in late winter and spring in South Florida, but fade in summer. Purple scaevola comes to the rescue, adding lush fullness and color as seasonal heat and humidity set in. 
Container Gardening Tip: Fertilize your container gardens to keep them blooming and healthy. Regular doses of general-purpose fertilizer formulated for container plants can keep varieties happy and thriving longer. 

Have Fun with Tropical Plants

Look for plants suited to your conditions that make you happy and suit your personal taste. I spotted this container, for example, and love the interplay of variegation between the two shade plants (red aglaonema and calathea), but some of my friends think it looks rather plain and boring.

While it’s easy to get caught up with “the rules,” container gardens in your yard are for you. Don’t worry about what your neighbors might like. 

Container Gardening Tip: Consider your pot when designing container gardens. The size and shape of the pot, for example, might affect the plants you choose. The same goes with the color and texture of the container. 

Get More Container Gardening Ideas
Cool Container Gardening Ideas
Container Combo Ideas
Gardening on the Road: Container Gardens from Our Travels
Low-Water Cactus and Succulent Container Gardens
Download our free idea book!