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How to Grow: Coleus
Full sun, part sun, part shade, full shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Summer, but mostly grown for the colorful leaves which come in shades and combinations of cream, green, burgundy, pink, white and yellow
Mature Height x Spread
6 to 24 inches x 12 to 18 inches
Coleus have become the darlings of the annual shade gardens. Since they’re grown mostly for the colorful leaves, there’s no need to wait for the inconspicuous flowers to get a color show. Varieties range in size from 6 inches tall to 2 to 3 feet tall and multi-branching. I planted one plant once that grew so quickly it filled a one-half whiskey barrel all by itself. While they’re traditional grown in shady areas to brighten up a garden, newer varieties are more sun tolerant. In our northern climate they can be grown in full sun and not fade or be harmed. Look for red foliaged plants for the best sun tolerant varieties.
Where, When and How to Plant
While you can sow seeds directly in the garden in spring, it’s easier to purchase seedlings or grow your own under grow lights 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost. Don’t cover the seeds as they need light to germinate. You can also take cuttings from a friend’s plant and root them in potting soil. See instructions below. Plant in part to full shade areas unless growing full sun tolerant varieties. Plant in well-drained, fertile soil that’s been amended with compost after all danger of frost has passed. Space seedlings 1 to 2 feet apart depending on the ultimate size of the variety.
Coleus should be pinched back at a young age to encourage bushy growth. Also, pinch out any flower stalks that form so the plants send more energy into leaf production. Keep plants well watered and feed every three weeks with a complete organic plant food.
Regional Advice and Care
Coleus are very frost sensitive so protect them when temperatures dip into the 30Fs. Another way to preserve coleus is to take stem cuttings and root them. Take a 3- to 5-inch long sections of the stem end, dip the cut end in rooting hormone powder, and stick the cutting in a pot filled with moistened potting soil. Keep away from direct light and keep moist. It should root within 2 weeks. Rooted cuttings can be grown as houseplants in a sunny, winter window and them transplanted back into the garden in spring.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant coleus in shady areas with other flowers with attractive foliage, such as hosta, ferns, perilla and canna lilies. Mix and match different varieties of coleus in containers and try pairing them with other shade-loving annuals such as impatiens.
‘Wizard Mix’ features heart-shaped leaves with a variety of leaf colors in yellow, bronze, red and pink combinations. It’s well branched and dwarf so doesn’t need pinching. The ‘Kong Series’ is known for its large, colorful leaves. The ‘Solar Series’ is a mix of sun-tolerant coleus types.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.