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Turning Over a New Summer Leaf

alternanthera

The Tallahassee Democrat
July 18, 2014
By Berty Ferguson

Alternanthera Plant

 

We gardeners of North Florida and South Georgia have a noble challenge in the heat of summer: getting color in our containers, yards, and gardens besides green . . . plain ole’ leafy green.  I’ve noticed that most colorful blooming garden plants are like me: they prefer to be under a bit of shade with some good air conditioning.  Most of us can’t afford to put a light shade cloth over our properties and run giant fans to make our plants think they are in cooler, dryer, climates, coaxing a gorgeous color display in July and August.  So, like most smart horticulturalists, we pick plants that do well in the conditions we cannot change, and display characteristics which we enjoy.
Clearly, leaves grow well here, so why not try plants whose leaves are unique, colorful and create a bold contrast to neighboring plants?  There are many plants with very attractive foliage, in numerous colors, textures, shapes, and sizes.  The aesthetic of a garden is deeply affected by texture and contrast, so plant in layers.  Let the solid leaves of gingers be a backdrop for whimsical maidenhair ferns along the shady path. Plant the wide-leafed, dark purple sweet potato vine in front of fine-leafed chartreuse duranta on a sunny hillside.
Many foliage plants are happy in the heat and humidity – – alternanthera is one of these.  The variety ‘Little Ruby’ will make a solid mass of deep purple that will remain lush and full until frost.  Its tall cousin ‘Brazilian Red Hot’ will grace your garden with hot pink, and other varieties can bring yellow and chartreuse to your containers and garden.
Coleus is a vigorous plant with leaves in greens, reds, yellows, and fascinating mixes.  It will bloom, but that flower will steal energy from the leaves so don’t be afraid to pinch back frequently.  Within several days the plant will look lush and full again.  The shade-loving coleuses do need some morning sun to bring out their beautiful streaks of color.
Acalyphas provide not only dependable color, but unique textures and style.  These leaves come in varieties of orange, white, yellow, green, pink, deep red, and mixes.  Their wide, papery, heart-shaped leaves are usually serrated and held at intriguing angles from the stems. Hundreds of tiny blooms form on a cascading catkin.  Acalyphas can handle our heat and they perform well in hot summer gardens.
For the shade consider heuchera, also known as coral bells.  New hybrids of heuchera are proving to be hardy in the hot temperatures in our area and grow in attractive mounds of bright greens, purples, and golds.  Plant them in a very well-drained spot, such as a raised bed or container, or they will slowly get smaller and disappear in the middle of summer.  Heucheras are semi-evergreen perennials and very cold hardy in our area, even without protection.
These leafy plants are all wonderful additions of color and texture to the garden, so be sure to plant along with your summer blooming flowers.  The foliage will fill in between your flower display while getting their roots established before the heat and heavy rains set in.  When the flowers are wishing they were in the air conditioning with you, these leaves will take the center stage and keep your hot summer garden lush and colorful.
Berty Ferguson is an employee at Tallahassee Nurseries and a volunteer writer for Leon County/UF IFAS Extension.  For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu.  For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov