Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) are a group of perennial plants native to tropical Asia and surrounding islands. They are noted for their bright, showy foliage and shade-loving habits. Many gardeners love them because they ask for very little, while giving a great garden show. Inexpensive six-packs of the colorful plants can be found in most garden centers every spring and many new gardeners pass them over because they don't realize their potential. For little more than pocket change, they can have a colorful display that all of their neighbors envy.

ImageEven though coleus plants are perennials in their native lands, most gardeners tend to use them as annuals. They adapt well to container culture and are often used for a bright splash of color at entryways or porches. The flowers are insignificant and the main impact is from the gorgeous leaves that come in a huge selection of colors and patterns. Gardeners have a wide selection of choices and even prices. The most economical are the un-named six packs that can be picked up for a couple of bucks while gardeners with more specific tastes can choose cultivars with names like ‘Inky Fingers', ‘Alabama Sunset' and ‘Watermelon' if they wish to spend just a little more money.

Plant coleus in a good quality potting mix and remember that they do best when the soil stays evenly moist. Moisture is important, but they can't stand wet or boggy conditions. Remember to anticipate a fairly large plant. Coleus can reach 30" (76.2cm) or more so a generous container is advised.

ImageMost coleus prefer bright, shady conditions with a bit of morning sun. I like to use them on my east-facing front porch. My containers receive sun up until about 10AM, with my overhang sheltering my containers the rest of the day. Some varieties can tolerate more sun and there are actually ‘sun coleus' that thrive in brighter conditions. Just be attentive to their water needs. Coleus do like their water and will wilt if the soil becomes too dry. Most perk up right away once they've had a drink, but it does stress the plants when this happens often.

Pinch the growing tips to shape your coleus and to prevent flowering. Once the flower stalks form, the plant tends to get leggy and they aren't as attractive. New plants are easy to propagate from your trimmings. Just snip a stem with a couple of leaf nodes, strip the leaves from the lower ones and place in a glass of water. Keep the lower nodes covered in water and soon new roots will form. You can also start your own coleus plants from seed each spring. Sprinkle the tiny seeds on damp potting mix, press them into it and keep the mix damp. Light is necessary for germination, so don't cover the seeds. I grew my first coleus from seed in college. I placed the pot on my desk and the light from my study lamp was enough for the little plants to sprout. It will take a couple of weeks for the color to appear in the baby leaves, so be patient.

ImageSome gardeners keep their coleus plants in a sunny window during the winter. Just remember that they may get leggy and need more pinching back and pests like mealybugs and whitefly might find them tasty. As long as good indoor gardening practices are followed, it is possible to over winter your favorites each year. They are a perennial, after all.

New gardeners and gardeners on a budget should give coleus a chance if they have a bit of shade. These colorful plants also pair well with caladiums, ferns and begonias. They are practically pest-free and pretty forgiving of newbie mistakes. Coleus are available in a huge range of leaf colors and combinations, so you should be able to find the perfect ones for your gardening style!