Gardening: They Aren’t Your Grandmother’s Coleus

Gardening: They Aren’t Your Grandmother’s Coleus

The original colorful foliage plant, coleus fell out of favor for a couple of decades. But new varieties, better growth habit, and versatility make coleus one of our garden favorites today. Coleus is perennial in tropical and sub-tropical climates. However, they are not cold hardy. 

Contrast and color abound in new varieties of coleus. This tender perennial can be brought indoors for the winter and then replanted outside next spring.

My grandmother’s pride and joy was a rectangular flower box brimming with colorful coleus. It brightened up her front porch every summer. Come winter, she’d carefully take dozens of cuttings, and place them in jars of water to root. Lined up like brilliantly-uniformed soldiers on the windowsill of her sun porch, the coleus shoots brought color indoors for the cold winter months. 

The arrival of spring meant that she’d plant those rooted cuttings in that white-painted wood box for another summer of interest. Back then her choices of coleus varieties were few, and I suspect her own display of them started from a shared stalk or two of these easy-to-grow members of the mint family. Today we have a rainbow of choices and varieties that shine in full sun or shade. And today’s gardeners know that when it comes to infusing color into the landscape, it is about more than just flowers. Colorful foliage shines, proving you don’t need flowers for beautiful hues.

But just like my grandmother used to do, you too can bring cuttings indoors, placing cuttings in water or saving potted plants. The coleus plants will add their sparkle and hue to your home throughout the winter. According to the National Garden Bureau (NGB), though coleus has long been considered a shade plant, the best leaf color is achieved with morning sun and some degree of afternoon shade. So, your indoor selections benefit from as much sunshine as you can provide now and in the coming months indoors.

Consider coleus for a winter project to fashion a colorful topiary. Careful staking and pruning will eventually result in a stunning garden accent to enjoy indoors now and outdoors once it warms up.  

Whether the variety is a solid color or has the stunning patterns and variations on color mixes and leaf margin choices (from smooth to fingerling to wavy), coleus is a standout in any container display. Coleus is perfect for a pot or a window box or other planter. And yes, it can do well in the ground also, though container plantings seem to help highlight these brilliant plants and the contrast they can deliver. 

Many varieties do well in both shade and part-sun. Some can take quite a bit of sun as long as they are not allowed to dry out, according to the NGB. Avoid overly damp soils, which can cause leaf drop and encourage disease. Plant coleus after danger of frost has passed when soil temperatures have warmed sufficiently and evening temperatures are above 60 degrees F. Feed plants regularly with a water-soluble fertilizer, especially if they are growing in containers.

To maintain plant form, pinch back every few weeks to prevent flower formation. Pinch just above a set of leaves or branching junction for the best appearance. Don’t leave a stub. Some gardeners leave the small flowers, but it’s best to pinch them off to direct more energy into stem and foliage growth. Coleus left to flower will get leggy and may lose vigor as the plant puts energy into seed production.

Enjoy them now and come spring, coleus will truly add color and life all year round. 

A container planting of two varieties of coleus play a reverse trick for brilliant color contrast all season long.
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Lynette Walther

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