Coleus is considered the “comeback kid” or more accurately, the comeback garden plant. When I was growing up, it was a popular plant but then you did not hear much about coleus for a long time. Today, it is almost a different plant.
Coleus plants can have brilliantly painted edges or be splashed and spotted with color. There are solid colors and others that have margins and veins of color. I have seen lovely chartreuse colored leaves with ruffled edges, and others with patterns of orange, yellow, pink and green. There also are varieties that have deeper shades of purple, burgundy and red.
It used to be that coleus was only for shade gardens but today you can fine “sun coleus” which will tolerate more sun than ever before. The dark colors take more sun and the light colors will do best in a little shade to minimize leaf scorch. Morning sun and afternoon shade is a great combination but do not give them too much shade or the stems will become weak and the plant less vigorous.
Coleus is a great plant for containers. The eye-popping colors will get your attention from the time it is planted until frost. With the scalloped, frilly or tiny leaved plants, it will make any pot a showstopper.
Coleus are not just the filler in a container. There are varieties of coleus that can be the spiller, having a more horizontal branching habit, which will spill over the sides of planters, or hanging baskets. You can also find some varieties of coleus that grow taller and will become that thriller of a plant when you need height.
Paring coleus with other plants is one of the beauties that make coleus such a great plant to add to your border. Study the colors you presently have and then chose the coleus that contains some of those same colors, making your garden blend together and give it a finished look. I have seen many displays of coleus, often being one particular variety. If you choose to do just this, remember the darker colors will take more sun and you can fill a bed with these dramatic darker leaves.
There are many named varieties available today. Visit your garden centers and see for yourself what wonderful plants they have to offer. You might be amazed like I have been these past few years of the progress that has been made.
Coleus can be raised from seed that you start about eight weeks before the last frost. The seeds are tiny so do not cover the seeds, just sow them on the surface of a good mixture of potting soil. Plants can also be wintered over as houseplants or do as my third-grade teacher used to do and put nice size pieces in a couple of jars of water on a window sill. Roots would develop fairly quickly. Miss Lackey, the teacher, would let students have the job of adding water to the jar each week to keep the plants alive until the following spring. Then as the weather grew warm, she would plant them in her front yard and have coleus along her walkway.
To keep plants nice and bushy, pinch back the tips of the leaves to encourage branching. To pinch back a plant is to remove the tip of each branch. If you take off too much, take the piece and put it in the moist soil in the shade and it will take root and give you another plant. The trailing stems of coleus will root where they touch the ground. It is one of the easiest plants to root that I have ever grown.
I cannot say enough good things about these wonderful newer varieties of coleus. With the kaleidoscope of colors available today, there is a coleus that will be just right to tie your garden together. They are really worth planting and enjoying in your garden from late spring until the first freeze comes along. I hope you find these lovely leaves as exciting as I do. Happy Gardening!
— Betty Montgomery, a master gardener and author of a “Four Season Southern Garden,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.