If you have yet to discover coleus or think this warmth-loving annual is too tender for Connecticut gardens, it’s time for your pleasant awakening. Coleus is easy to grow that provides constant color through its phenomenal range leaf hues and patterns. It makes a wonderful houseplant, an impressive container plant, and will fill spots in garden beds with splashes of season-long color. Coleus is my feature plant for this month’s You Can Grow That!, a gardening is good for people blog meme begun by C.L. Fornari at Whole Life Gardening.
Coleus likes moist, but not soggy, well drained soil. It’s Latin name, Solenostemon scutellarioides, is a mouthful. Coleus originated from warmer areas of the globe and is commonly hybridized, so now there are varieties that thrive in partial shade and full sun. Coleus have such diverse leaf patterns and shades that there’s bound to be one that fits in your garden.
I can’t recall when I fell for coleus … it was long ago … but this tropical annual has been part of my life for decades.
My windowsills house small coleus plants during cold months and water-filled vases of coleus cuttings in late summer. Once you buy one variety you like, it could be with you many seasons. These are from cuttings taken last summer. Now growing under florescent lights, they will be some of my outdoor container and garden plants this summer. To increase the diversity of the colors available to me each year I also start coleus from seed. Many catalogues sell coleus seeds in a mixture of color and leaf patterns, often Rainbow Mix. Pinetree Garden Seeds sells individual seed packets with enticing names like Chocolate Mint and Dark Chocolate, Black Dragon, or Palisandra, all with leaves in shades of burgundy and no green. There’s coleus in shades of lime-green such as Limelight, and Pineapple (above), with lemon-lime leaves. Gardeners looking for shades of bronze to peachy orange can choose Sunset, the variety in the foreground of the photo to the left.
Coleus do not like cold. They are the saddest looking plants when touched with even a hint of frost so be sure to keep them in a protected area until all risk of frost is gone. Coleus cuttings root easily in water. About mid-summer, when coleus are beginning to get a bit leggy, cut off the top few inches of growth to just above a lower set of leaves. This forces lower leaf growth and gives you plenty of cuttings to root in water. Once rooted, plant the cuttings in soil to grow indoors during winter. In late winter, take fresh cuttings of these houseplants to root and plant in small pots to become outdoor plants when warm weather returns.
Aphids can be a problem on coleus plants but are easily washed off. A steady stream of water to the undersides of the leaves, where aphids like to hide, usually does the trick. Make sure any cuttings you bring inside are aphid free. And be sure to keep coleus out the reach of deer … they love to munch on juicy coleus leaves.
Coleus flowers, shown at the right, are tiny and purple. Once coleus to go flower their energy goes from leaf production to seed production, so the plants get tall and lanky. To maintain bushy growth, flower buds, such as the one growing out of the coleus in the foreground photo above, should be pinched off. If you do let some of your coleus go to flower, as I do at the end of summer when Connecticut’s season for tender annuals is nearing and end, you’ll find that pollinating insects love the blossoms.
With such ease of growth and diverse color choices you’ll find coleus work in many combinations and situations. Here’s a few ideas:
In 2011, Elizabeth Park, a Hartford treasure, featured coleus an annual bed. This photo is from early June. By July, as I’m sure the plants filled in and turned this bed into an explosion of color.
With so much to offer you may find it’s hard to choose just one coleus variety. What makes growing coleus even more fun is that new color and leaf forms appear in garden centers every year. After all my years of growing coleus, I still can’t choose my all time favorite.
Please visit Whole Life Gardening to check out other You Can Grow That! ideas.