Use Colorful Coleus to Perk Up Any Garden Corner
The old-time favorite is better than ever, with more varieties to energize shady beds, potted plantings, and even sunny borders
Who could resist a plant with patterned foliage in kaleidoscopic hues, one made for shade but fine with sun; a plant that's so easy to grow, it almost tends itself? Welcome to the world of coleus, that hot-blooded tropical once cherished by Victorians and subsequently grown for its ability to cheer up dappled spots.
The coleus here and on the following pages were photographed at White Flower Farm, which sells both new and old-favorite varieties.
Shown: Interspersing easy-to-move potted plantings of yellow-green 'Zesty Zucchini' and deep rouge 'Gnash Rambler' in a border gives those varieties extra height—and allows for changing up the bed's look as the season wears on.
Lately, breeders have gone to town with it, developing varieties that hold their vibrant colors in high heat, harsh light, and practically every setting, from patio pots to flower beds. Their leaves range from small and dainty to several showy inches wide; sport saw-toothed, lobed, or ruffled edges; and come striped or spattered in a rainbow of shades, including chartreuse, red, and smoky black—sometimes all in one plant.
Shown: (1) 'Brownie Points'; (2) 'Electric Coral'
"There are probably thousands of cultivars," says Barbara Pierson, nursery manager at White Flower Farm, in Litchfield, Connecticut, which sells many of the latest introductions along with vintage favorites. "Some varieties actually brighten in sun, which can fade the older hybrids. But part shade is perfect for every coleus I've ever met." So is rich soil amended with organic compost and sand for drainage, she says, along with a monthly dose of seaweed-based fertilizer. If you nip off flower buds, plants will grow lustily into fall, sometimes developing odd branches called "sports," with a color or pattern different from the rest—proof that new variations are never-ending.
Shown: (1) 'Pink Chaos'; (2) 'Grape Expectations'; (3) 'Midnight Rambler'
This surprise variability was what first drew landscape architect Joseph Marek, of Santa Monica, California, to coleus as a child. Even now, he says, "I especially love the limey-green ones etched with black, like 'Inky Fingers,' that brighten dark places in my garden."
Shown: Placing the deep-hued 'Midnight Rambler' front and center allows the variegated foliage around it to really shine.
Thanks to the constant color it offers while ephemeral bloomers come and go, coleus has long been one of summer's most useful garden staples. But, as Pierson explains, the newest varieties have extended the spectrum of colors, textures, and growing habits even further, making coleus all the more versatile. Cultivar names are often a juicy tip-off to a plant's talents. Upright, 3-foot-tall 'Big Blonde,' for example, features burgundy stems and veining on broad, happy-yellow leaves. 'Gnash Rambler' is a puckered, pink-and-purple trailing variety, while 'Alligator Tears' has rafts of narrow, yellow-blazed green leaves. Even more intricate to the eye are the fringed, near-black 'Midnight Rambler' and the exotically frilled red-and-lime 'Bone Fish.'
Shown: (1) 'Bone Fish'; (2) 'Gnash Rambler'; (3) 'Dappled Apple'
Given the plethora of coleus options—and the constant lure of new ones—Marek suggests some guidelines for acquiring and collaging them. "Don't just buy one or two plants," he says. "Use them in masses, tucked between perennials to fill space, and choose colors that complement other leaves or blooms you have." Around seating areas, he especially likes solid-hued varieties, which create color blocks that he contrasts dramatically with bright seat cushions or glazed pots. In beds and containers, he mixes big-leafed coleus (such as the so-called Kong hybrids) with finer-textured boxwood, rosemary, or eugenia; and small-leafed coleus, such as 'Garnet Robe,' with bolder Clivia or hosta foliage.
Shown: Spring to fall, 'Kingswood Torch' makes a dramatic counterpart to a long-blooming 'Ruby Glow' pentas.
Pierson, too, pops coleus into pots, cheering up the same burgundy-colored 'Garnet Robe' with the pastel hues of 'Spreading Salmon' impatiens and 'Endless Summer' hydrangea. She also tops a curvy, footed urn with tiers of variegated coleus that pick up one another's color cues; one favorite combination offers rust-and-green 'Brownie Points' as the transition between speckled yellow-green 'Dappled Apple' and rosy-mint 'Pink Chaos.'
Just be sure to carefully evaluate your light conditions and available planting space before making any plant purchases. "A large coleus, like 'Big Blonde,' for instance, will overtake other plants fast," Pierson says, "while small ones, like 'Lion Fish' (3), can get swamped and buried just as quickly in a pot." She advises gardeners to give new plants elbow room and prune them freely when they sprout flower stalks or grow leggy. Water when soil feels dry to the touch, but don't overfeed, which makes plants "tastier to insects," Pierson warns. Should pests, such as spider mites, show up, she suggests spraying a natural horticultural oil on the undersides of foliage.
Shown: (1) 'Duke of Swirl'; (2) 'Juicy Lucy'; (3) 'Lion Fish'
Coleus is technically a tender perennial and not cold hardy in much of the country, so many gardeners simply grow it as an annual. But even in wintry climes, you can keep favorite plants going by taking cuttings in early fall to propagate indoors. When the weather warms, they'll be ready to hit the garden once more, dressed in their summer best.
Shown: The soft lavender hues and delicately arching habits of the surrounding flowers have a mellowing effect on mounds of 'Rustic Orange' and 'Trusty Rusty' coleus.
Green-edged 'Garnet Robe' picks up the pinkish tones in a late-season 'Endless Summer' hydrangea.
'Red Coral' is one of many in the Under the Sea Series that boasts fanciful reef-like foliage.
'Alligator Tears,' with its crisp white centers and fresh green rims, cools down this hot-colored combo.
'Zesty Zucchini' is one of many new introductions that grows as happily in sun as it does in shade.
With its bold coloring and scalloped edges, 'Trusty Rusty' has plenty of allure—but, fortunately, not for deer, which would rather snack on hostas than coleus.
A vibrant mix of coleus, including a potted 'Bone Fish,' softens the edges of these lightly shaded steps.
The purple-and-yellow-flecked foliage of a 'Duke of Swirl' coleus serves as the mediator between a moody 'Midnight Rambler' and a peppy 'Juicy Lucy.'
The soft, reddish-purple blooms of a tall verbena peek through the foliage of a 'Bronze Pagoda' coleus, harmonizing beautifully.
Perhaps you want more of a hard-to-find variety or look forward to swapping starts with friends. Either way, propagating coleus cuttings in water couldn't be easier.
Step 1. Use clean scissors to cut a robust, 2- to 3-inch shoot from the center of the plant and above a leaf node. Pinch off all but one or two pairs of leaves toward the top of the cutting.
Place the cut stem in a glass container filled with room-temperature water so that the leaves remain dry and exposed to the air. Set the container in front of a window that gets plenty of indirect sunlight. Top off the water periodically, replacing it if it grows cloudy.
When roots have grown several inches long, after roughly two weeks, plant the cutting in potting soil.