Coleus! Their colorful foliage is the shade gardener’s answer to the bright, sun-loving annuals filling sunny borders and patio containers. But coleus are no longer strictly for shady spots…
At local nurseries, Sun Coleus are often specialty items in larger $5 or $10 pots. Many shade-loving coleus varieties can be grown from seed. For example, you'll find the well known 'Wizard' series on most seed racks. But sun-tolerant coleus, as far as I know, are only available as plants. They're grown vegetatively from cuttings. That makes them more expensive to purchase, but only for the first plant!
The more cuttings you take from your plant, the bushier it will get! Look closely at the stem on a coleus plant, about two or three sets of leaves down from the tip. You'll see tiny pairs of leaves where the bigger leaves meet the stem. Pinch or cut just above that point, and those two tiny pairs of leaves will grow into two new branches.
Coleus cuttings root quickly. Strip off extra leaves from the lower part of the cutting. Root the cuttings in water - they make a very pretty arrangement clustered together in a rooting vase -- or stick them in moist potting mix. Coleus will even over-winter in a clear glass on a windowsill. If their roots grow into a wild tangle before planting, no worries, they'll still be fine.
I got lucky last spring and was able to order a nice variety of smaller plants from a DG friend. They were delivered on one of the hottest days in June, but they were carefully packed and arrived in great shape. Even unrooted coleus cuttings will travel well if wrapped in lightly dampened paper. Ordering by mail is often a good way to get less expensive plants or a wider selection. Check PlantScout or the DG Classifieds this spring. (Don't forget to look for reviews of suppliers on the Garden Watchdog.)
When you're choosing coleus varieties to mix & match for containers, keep your gardening style in mind. A riotous mix of colors adds appeal to an informal container or a cottage style border. Sticking with a limited palette (say, dark purple and shades of green) lets you vary patterns and textures but still achieve a more formal look. Red, orange, and gold tones are glorious in terra cotta pots, but they can clash badly with other coleus colors - or with pink zinnias!
Sun coleus also varies in size, texture, and habit. Some are tall plants with large rounded leaves, others have small, deeply-cut leaves on branches that spread and trail. The classic container combination of "thriller, filler, and spiller" can be accomplished just using different coleus varieties. My sun coleus were the focus of my deck planters last summer. I chose shades of green, pink, and purple and filled in with miniature ‘Pretty Purple Peppers' and a few trailing petunias.
Take cuttings before frost to keep your coleus going over winter. Fall is also a great time to get cuttings from a neighbor's containers. With a little lucky timing, you may be able to "rescue" plants being tossed to the curb at an office complex. They can be tucked around the base of tropical container plants or planted into indoor hanging baskets. Start taking cuttings from them in early spring, and you'll be enjoying lots of colorful plants all summer.
Whether you garden in sun or shade, Sun Coleus will add easy, nonstop color to your borders and containers!
Better known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. Sunshine Girl's crocus lawn (a gift from her DG "family") is in bloom, so Spring is on its way! We're looking forward to sowing seeds, picking daffodils, and looking for Easter Bunny Apprentices.
(Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)