For The Answer
Weekly Express-News Article
Saturday, November 12, 2005
By Calvin R. Finch, PhD, SAWS Water Resources Director, and Horticulturist “Winter Color for the Shade”
Do you have any containers or flowerbeds in the shade that would benefit by some cold tolerant plants this winter? If so, check out cyclamen and primula at your favorite nursery. They will make that dark dreary bed the showplace of your winter landscape. Two other cold tolerant annuals, flowering cabbage and kale also have some usefulness for shade color.
Charles Martelli, the manager of Milberger’s, introduced me to cyclamen as a cool weather annual for the shade about five years ago. I use them every year now and they have become one of my favorite plants for the South Texas landscape. The cyclamens on the San Antonio market have leaves that resemble a cross between a miniature lily pad and an African violet. They are three – four inches in diameter, fleshy, smooth, and patterned with silvery tracings, very attractive on their own. The flowers appear above the leaves on stalks that reach about 10 inches tall. They are red, white and many shades of lavender, and resemble an orchid flower in some ways. Each bloom is about a quarter size, but there are usually two – four per stalk on display every day of the winter until hot weather arrives (late April). The red and white flowers are very pure colors. Mixed together or planted as solid masses they are spectacular in the shade. Cyclamen come pretty close to perfection, but there is one important limitation, they are very expensive, $5 – 6 for a one-quart plant. Watch for sales.
There are a number of selections of primula. The two that I like best are the polyantha, and the obconica. The polyantha are pansie-like in shapes and size. The colors are more intense than pansies. The colors of the flowers remind me of stage paint, the makeup that clowns use. The foliage is crinkled and shiny green. It looks a bit like plastic in containers in deep shade. Other than sun and hot weather, slugs and snails are the major threat of primulas. Use slugs and snail bait every week to protect them. The polyantha are especially appropriate for containers welcoming visitors to the front door or secluded gardens where you will be delighted by intensely colored blooms hidden away in the shade.
Obconica primulas produce more pastel colored blooms (pink, blue, and white), but they are relatively tall at about 14 – 16 inches tall. The foliage is ruffled and a softer green than the foliage of polyantha.
Ornamental cabbage and kale is not in the league of cyclamen or primula as a winter shade choice, but it has the same tolerance. Use them where there is mottled sun or three – four hours of sunlight and you need color in rows or uniform mass planting.
Sometimes you can over-summer the plants, but I have never had great luck encouraging them to bloom again during the second winter. Somewhere around 50% of the bulbs survive if you have them planted in containers sunk in the flower border and they are allowed to rest until September and then resume frequent (every two or three days) watering. Water every 10 – 14 days during the summer, but do not let the potting soil stay soggy. Cyclamen rot if they remain wet for more than a few days in the summer. When they have foliage and blooms they require watering twice per week, and again, cannot be allowed to have soggy soil. Fertilize frequently (every two weeks) with one of the soluble fertilizers like Peters, Shultz or Miracle Gro.
For best development, small ornamental kale and cabbage should have been planted in September or October, but most nurseries have large specimens that do well when planted now.