by Connie Oswald Stofko
For decades, impatiens has been the go-to flower for the shade. But now that a blight is wiping out these wonderful flowers, you’ll have to rethink your plant choices for shady gardens.
Some garden centers won’t sell impatiens at all this year, while others will grow a limited supply but will sell them without guarantees.
Don’t expect to find impatiens at all next year.
What should you plant instead? A couple of local events can help you decide what to plant in your shady garden this year and in future years.
Background on the impatiens problem
It’s always been challenging to find showy flowers for shade gardens. That’s why gardeners have treasured impatiens (specifically, Impatiens walleriana.)
They’re pretty annuals that would bloom all summer—in the shade. The flowers come in a wide variety of colors and the plant itself has a lovely mounding shape. Up to this point, it was a very reliable plant. It was relatively inexpensive, too.
Unfortunately, we can’t count on impatiens anymore. It is being killed by a disease called downy mildew. The blight struck Western New York last year and is expected to return again this year. Your plants can die quickly. They might be fine on Friday, and when you look at them on Monday, they’re dead.
There is nothing that you as a home gardener can do to prevent or treat downy mildew. There are no sprays to make or to purchase. There is nothing you can put in the soil. It doesn’t matter how much you water or don’t water. Here’s a fact sheet, co-written by Margery Daughtrey, senior extension associate with Cornell University. (If you still think you have a remedy, read all the comments on our article from last year. Nothing will work.)
If downy mildew is in your garden and gets on your impatiens, your impatiens will die.
Downy mildew is airborne and it stays in the soil. If you were lucky and your impatiens plants weren’t affected last year, don’t count on being lucky again. Your impatiens probably will be killed. If your plants were affected last year, they will die again this year.
Bottom line: If you plant impatiens this year, they probably will be killed by downy mildew.
One bright note: This disease won’t spread to other plants in your garden.
What garden centers are doing
We spoke to the folks at two garden centers who are taking different approaches to this problem.
Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses in Williamsville will grow and sell a limited number of impatiens this year with signs warning customers that they can’t guarantee the plants once the plants leave the garden center.
There is a treatment that can be applied in the greenhouse, so the plants you buy will be healthy. Unfortunately, the treatment lasts only a few weeks.
“There is nothing we can do once the plants leave the premises to ensure that they will live,” said Mark Yadon, vice president at Mischler’s. He wants to educate people, but said that sometimes education goes only so far.
“Much of the time, people have to experience things for themselves,” he said. “If a gardener hasn’t had a problem, it’s hard for that gardener not to buy impatiens.”
However, “This will be the last year we sell impatiens,” Yadon added.
Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg won’t sell impatiens at all this year.
Because downy mildew overwinters in the soil for five years, you should refrain from planting impatiens for at least five years, said Jill Kisker, grower at Lockwood’s. Otherwise, you’re helping to prolong the blight. You can read more about their position.
Companies are trying to breed impatiens that are resistant to downy mildew, she noted, but until then, you should look for alternatives to impatiens.
Learn about alternatives at two events
Two upcoming events will help you choose alternatives to impatiens.
A free class on shade gardening without impatiens will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 20 at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark St., Hamburg. Sally Cunningham, gardening expert, and Lockwood’s expert production professionals will show you many fine shade gardening plants and how to use them for impressive displays. They will also suggest perennials you can begin to incorporate into those spaces the impatiens used to fill. Some garden design handouts and plant groupings will be provided.
A 49-cent perennial sale will be held from Friday, April 19 through Saturday, April 27 at Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses, 118 South Forest Rd., Williamsville. You can see the entire list of sale plants here. Notice that the list indicates which plants work in the shade. (The plants are sold only in packs of four for $1.96 per pack or in flats [12 packs per flat] for $23.52 per flat.)
Alternatives to impatiens
There is no single plant that has all the wonderful traits of impatiens, said Kisker of Lockwoods. Other plants don’t have the wide range of colors or they don’t bloom as long or they’re more expensive.
You may have to get creative to fill the void.
Yadon of Mischler’s recommends using annuals sparingly and taking this opportunity to develop a perennial garden in your shady space.
“If you get perennials going and add splashes of color (with annuals), it won’t be nearly as costly,” he said.
Since it’s hard to find long-lasting, colorful flowers for the shade, add color to your shady garden with plants that have colorful leaves, such as coleus, he said. You can also create interest with shape and texture, using plants such as ferns and caladium. Instead of relying on a large block of solid color as you have done in the past with impatiens, use a variety of plants to add interest.
Here are some alternatives:
New Guinea impatiens. Although they have similar names, the New Guinea impatiens is different from Impatiens walleriana, the plant that is being killed by downy mildew. New Guinea impatiens aren’t affected by the disease.
New Guinea impatiens have flowers similar to the common impatiens and have a good range of color. These annuals are more expensive than common impatiens.
See a photo of New Guinea impatiens at the beginning of this article.
Begonia. This is another annual that comes in many colors. Mischler’s mentioned ‘Crackling Fire’, which comes in white, buttery yellow, rose and orange. Lockwood’s suggested ‘Sparks Will Fly’, seen at left, which has orange flowers and very dark leaves.
Lobelia. Lobelia, an annual, offers stunning color, as you can see from the photo earlier in this article.
Fuchsia. Fuchsia is another annual with a big wow factor. It packs a big punch with dramatic, vibrant color. You often see it growing in hanging baskets. See the photo below.
Heuchera, also known as coral bells. The National Garden Bureau named 2012 the Year of the Heuchera. This plant is native to North America, but breeders have introduced many new varieties that didn’t exist just ten years ago– see the photo earlier in this article. Not only are these perennial plants aesthetically pleasing, but they have become stronger, fuller and more disease resistant. You can get more information on heuchera and see more photos at the National Garden Bureau.
Hosta. There is a huge variety of hostas available. Mike Shadrack and Kathy Guest Shadrack of Hamburg wrote The Book of Little Hostas: 200 Small, Very Small, and Mini Varieties. Two hundred varieties– and that’s just the little ones! These plants are valued more for their leaves than for their flowers, but they do get flowers. Some of the flowers are fragrant. See photo below.
Columbine. This plant has such a pretty, lacy flower, and many are bi-colored. It’s a perennial and will reseed, or you can collect the seeds and spread them where you’d like new plants to grow. See a photo earlier in this article.
Foxglove. This perennial (actually a biennial) has bell-shaped flowers. The flower comes in many colors and can have interesting, vivid markings. Its Latin name is Digitalis– the heart medicine by that name comes from this plant. See a photo earlier in this article.
Astilbe. The flowers of these perennials grow in feathery plumes. Astilbe is about two feet tall, so it can add some height to your shade garden. See a photo earlier in this article.
Caladium. These plants all have leaves shaped like elephant’s ears, but they come in a wide range of colors. They can add a tropical feeling to your garden. See some images of caldium here.
Bergenia. This perennial is also called pigsqueak because of the sound made when you rub its leaves together. Bergenia is an evergreen plant with shiny, round leaves. It gets pink flowers in early spring. See some bergenia images here.
Jacob’s ladder. This perennial comes in varieties with green leaves and with variegated leaves. The flowers can be white, pink, blue or yellow. Find out more about Jacob’s ladder and see a photo here.
Lamium. Lamium, a perennial, is often grown as a ground cover. See a photo of lamium here.
There are many more plants that could work in your garden in place of impatiens. Check out these articles to get more ideas on what local gardeners have done with their shady gardens.
What will you plant in your shady garden this year? Please leave a comment.
UPDATE: See predictions for how well impatiens might fare during the summer of 2014 in Western New York.