Coleus is an attractive, easy-to-love plant. It’s ideal for creating bright, leafy borders or pops of color on the patio, and its color tends to outlast all the other flowers around it. Better still, it’s one of the simplest plants to grow in most zones, and almost thrives on neglect. Just stick it in the sunshine and water often—pretty basic, right?!
Its willingness to help even the blackest-thumbed garden bring color to the yard is one of this lovely plant’s best qualities. If you want to get the most from your coleus, maybe even over-winter it in a colder climate, read on!
Getting to Know Coleus
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides cvs.) is native to sunny Southeast Asia. It loves heat, moisture, warm soil, and good drainage. This plant loathes dry soil, but prefers not to drown in dampness either. Keep it well watered, and it’ll put on its brightest and most beautifil colors for you.
While technically a perennial, coleus is too tender to live through any but the mildest winters. Without wintertime help, it’s only grown as an annual in all USDA zones below 11. Wait to plant yours outdoors until nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees. Seriously, these plants really can’t stand the chill.
Coleus plants thrive in full sun or partial shade. They even do well in light or medium shade areas, though in most climates they produce the brightest colors in sunny locations. The exception is desert locations.
In very dry areas, give your plants partial shade to keep them from being overwhelmed. Once planted, coleus is ridiculously self sufficient.
The varieties available make it an ideal plant for borders and backdrops. Coleus come in low, trailing varieties, as well as towering, tall cultivars, and mid-sized plants. With so many options to choose from, these beauties can add color and structure the garden no matter what space you’re looking to fill.
Starting Plants from Cuttings
The easiest way to start your plants is by pinching off and rooting 2-4 inch plant tips. Unlike many plants, coleus doesn’t need any kind of rooting hormone to grow from cuttings. When you prune an existing plant, take the healthiest-looking tips for your cuttings. Simply snip off the lowest leaves and trim the base into a neat, slanted edge.
Now, set the edge about an inch and a half deep in soil or water. Some gardeners prefer to use peat moss or even sand, but the most consistent results come in potting soil or spring water. As long as you keep the growing medium moist—which is super-easy if you’re using water!—roots will start growing from the cutting in just a few days.
Be sure to avoid using fertilizer or overwatering. While cuttings are happy to grow in straight water, muddy dirt is less appealing. New roots can rot easily if they not given the chance to breathe a bit.
Let your cutting just work on growing roots for a few weeks. After that, tug gently at the top of the cutting. If it resists, the roots are healthy and you can transplant your new babies into larger pots or your garden bed.
Starting Coleus from Seed
You can also start coleus from seeds. In fact, this plant grows almost as easily from seed as it does from cuttings. Press the seeds into light soil, but don’t cover them, as coleus seeds need light to germinate. Keep the temperature about 70 degrees, and the soil moist, and your seedlings will sprout in 10-14 days.
Some gardeners prefer to start their seeds in a sterilized, soil-less mix because it allows the seeds more access to light and air.
The biggest advantage to growing from seed is the variety it opens up in your flower bed. Starting coleus from a cutting gives you an exact replica of the mother plant. Starting from seed, however, brings in the opportunity for a wild rainbow of colors, textures, and styles.
Cold Weather Options
Coleus plants prefer temperatures over 70 degrees, which makes them summertime plants in most of the United States. If your winter temperatures don’t drop below 50 degrees, you can over-winter yours in the garden. It will need a light cover though, to protect from wind, chill, and fluctuating temperatures. A cold frame is an ideal solution for keeping it safe in the garden through chilly winter temperatures.
If you live in the great frozen north, however, or even the moderately chilly south, coleus will need more than just a light cover. Most gardeners in these regions take cuttings from their favorite plants weeks before the seasons shift. Then, with new, young plants settled in a warm greenhouse or sunny window, they over-winter coleus indoors.
Indoor coleus needs a minimum temperature of 60, lots of sunlight, and frequent watering. Keep an eye on the soil drainage and remember to guard against root rot. Let the surface soil dry between waterings. In the spring, transplant these cuties into the garden once temperatures stay above 50 degrees all night long.
As a leafy plant, coleus needs a lot of nitrogen. It’s happiest with a well-composted (aged over 8 months) chicken manure, which can do wonders for its heavy feeding needs. Aged cow, goat, and/or horse manure are also great choices for fertilization options.
This plant also prefers regular feedings. Mixing in a slow releasing fertilizer, like manure, into the soil when planting will give yours a great start. As the season progresses, feed a light, compost tea or add a dressing of well composted manure to the top layer of soil about every two weeks.
When growing coleus indoors, you might prefer to use a diluted fish emulsion as the regular feed. Even well- composted manure can be a little smelly, which you don’t necessarily want indoors. Whatever you choose, make sure your plant is fed regularly with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer so it can give you its best.
Borders, Baskets, and Backdrops.
Coleus’ versatility is one of its best features. With trailing varieties, bushy, low-growing border plants, and plants capable of growing over two feet high, there’s no end to the different landscaping effects you can create.
Do you want to add a bright border to a garden path? Or perhaps create contrast against a bright, white wall? or draw your visitors’ eyes towards your rock garden? Add in a few different coleus cultivars for color and dramatic visual effect.
Trailing varieties are happy in hanging baskets, growing along rock walls, or spreading like ground cover around low raised beds. They rarely grow taller than 18 inches and may spread over 2 feet wide. The soft, falling look of trailing coleus leaves like ‘Red Trailing Queen’ and ‘Trailing Salamander’ is fantastic against sharp corners and rough stone.
Mid-sized cultivars are ideal for creating a lovely patio border. Whether you choose to plant it in pots or along a railing, it’ll add drama and flair to all types of settings. Mid-sized coleus varieties like ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Swallowtail’ are great for filling in gaps in the garden. They tend to grow no more than 25 inches tall, spread wide, and look dense and leafy.
Tall plants can reach almost 3 feet in height, and their leaves tend to be much larger than other coleus varieties. These eye catching coleus plants, like ‘Candy Store’ and ‘Mariposa,’ are perfect for providing a backdrop or visual border to your garden.
With so many options available, it’s easy to find the right coleus for each space. Unfortunately, as most gardeners have discovered, plants don’t always grow as well as we want them to. Sometimes, they need a little direction.
Pruning these plants to keep them conforming to your garden’s unique contours is uncomplicated and fun!
Most gardeners pinch off the mediocre flowers as they start to form. Flowering takes a lot of energy away from growing, and these plants are cultivated for their stunning foliage, not their pallid blooms. Unless you’re interesting in saving your coleus seeds, flowers just aren’t worth the effort needed to grow them.
You can also prune the tops of your plants to keep them from growing too tall. Use clean scissors to trim leaf tips off the main stems to keep your plants low and bushy, rather than spindly. In fact, any top leaves you prune will be replaced by low, bunching leaves. If you really want your coleus plant to widen, pinch the tops often.
Additionally, you can try pruning off the lower leaves to encourage these plants into tree shapes. Alternatively, prune away inner leaves to encourage the outer leaves to broaden out.
There are so many options! Coleus is so easy to shape, and its unique beauty makes it a bright, exciting addition to any garden bed. It’s easy, adaptable shape and rich texture make it a fantastic border plant.
Most all though, coleus is just a joy to work with. It’s a dependable friend in the garden, a cheerful houseplant during the long winter months, and altogether just a leafy bundle of tropical sunshine. Once you welcome it into your garden, you’ll never want to say goodbye.