Gardens Ablaze

Coleus
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I have to admit that Coleus wasn't my favorite bedding or shade garden plant for many years, largely because I didn't understand the impact that foliage plants can have in the landscape.  That all changed one year in the early spring when my daughter convinced me to buy two six packs of mixed coleus.  I planted two slightly raised beds in dappled shade with some of them, and by the end of the summer, they were the size of small shrubs, and rivaled the best summer bloomers I have.  I used three variegated ones like the picture above in a new bed just at the bottom of my deck stairs, and they provided a mosaic of color all summer.  The rest were put into containers on the deck on the south side of the house, and grew into big, lush, beautiful, tropical-looking accents that lasted all summer long.  Coleus is one plant that I will enthusiastically pursue every spring for the rest of my life.

Coleus is really a very easy to grow plant for the home gardener.  It prefers a moist, loamy soil, with good drainage.  If kept too wet, the plant will be stunted, and the leaves will turn brown.  If conditions are too dry, it will wither quickly and weaken the plant.  If you have clay soil, consider a raised bed or a thorough tilling, adding compost to make the soil loamy, well drained, and moist. 

Coleus appreciates a pinching of the growing shoots when the plants are young to make the adult plant bushier.  A monthly side dressing of balanced fertilizer also helps them through the stressful hot months.  Otherwise, these are pretty much carefree plants that are not prone to insects or disease. 

Although there are cultivars that will tolerate full sun, most Coleus appreciate light to medium dappled shade, especially in the afternoons.  These are plants that should not be overlooked when planning for an afternoon retreat in a cool, shady area of the garden.  Coleus is extremely easy to propagate by cuttings (buy the plants you need as soon as they can be found and root stem cuttings in flats, or sow seed 6-8 weeks before the last frost). Once the threat of frost has passed, mass these cuttings or seedlings, and watch your guests gasp with delight at the effect.  Mass plantings of highly variegated Coleus have a mesmerizing and almost psychedelic effect. 

To summarize, Coleus is one plant that is economical, has great impact, and can be used as a stunning Shade Plant, Ground Cover, Container Plant, accent, or filler in the landscape. Be aware, however, that this is an Annual plant, and if used as a ground cover, it will have to be replaced yearly. 

TIP:  Coleus does flower, but the flowers are not traffic-stopping events by any means.  The plants decline after flowering and are killed by the first frost.  If you have an especially good cultivar that you want to retain for next year, do take cuttings and grow as a houseplant over the harsh winter months.

 

 

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