Looking for a new plant for your shade garden?

Check out the new varieties of heucheras, whose foliage of which has been bred to produce a wide burst of colors, from amber, gold and orange to lime-yellow, red, purple, brown and even black.

The little stalks of flowers that give the plant its common name of coral bells are still there, but it’s the leaves that are prized.

Deb Walser, an Iowa State University/ Linn (Iowa) County Master Gardener and an employee of Peck’s, the largest nursery in Cedar Rapids, will give a slide presentation on the possibilities of heucheras on Saturday, March 17, in Muscatine.

Her talk is one of 22 different breakout sessions, plus a keynote address, that will be presented during the “Art of Gardening” event at Muscatine Community College.

Although traditional coral bells had only green leaves with tiny pink flowers that bloomed once per season, the new types not only have more colorful leaves, but the leaves of some varieties also change color from spring to fall and the plants bloom on and off all summer, Walser said.

It is for those qualities and more that the National Garden Bureau, the marketing arm of the gardening industry based in Downers Grove, Ill., has declared 2012 “the year of the heuchera,” a plant native to the United States that is still underused, she said.

Not only are heucheras attractive, but they also have become stronger, fuller and more disease-resistant, have few pests and are adaptable to containers, the garden bureau says.

- Uses — In a shade garden, heucheras provide colors that are not possible with hostas. In front of a border planting, they mound nicely to 8-12 inches. Under trees where grass doesn’t grow, they are an alternative “to doing the hosta-doughnut thing,” said Walser, who also is a garden radio show host. They are good for containers, too, since they don’t “bully” the other plants.

- Care — “Heucheras are an easy, easy plant as long as you don’t overwater,” Walser said. “If you do, they rot.”

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That is one of the reasons they need to be planted in well-drained soil, not clay, which holds moisture. Many Quad-City yards are notorious for their clay. To grow heucheras — and most other plants — successfully, you must amend the clay with organic matter such as chopped leaves or compost.

In containers, allow heucheras dry out between waterings.

In winter, heucheras tend to heave out of the ground. Walser remedies that by lightly stepping on them.

The leaves do not need to be cut back since new leaves will push out over the old. Then the old leaves will provide a cover for the roots, keeping them moist. (But not too moist!)

- Cost — About $20 for a one-gallon, terra cotta pot. “You don’t expect to get a new car for a used car price,” Walser said.

And that’s not all. In addition to heurcheras, Walser will talk about heucherellas, a cross between a heuchera and a tiarella, which she describes as “more of a spreading plant, an alternative to boring ground covers.”

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