Make easy-to-grow coleus the go-to plant for your garden

  • By Norman Winter McClatchy-Tribune News Service
  • Wednesday, April 25, 2012 8:30am
  • Life

It wasn’t long ago, as I drove through historic Madison, Ga., and thought the city was so picturesque with sidewalk cafes and planters everywhere I looked, that I wanted to retire there. Isn’t it funny how flowers can literally transform a city?

That same idea holds true for your home whether we are talking landscape, porch or patio. Flowers will change your mood dramatically. If you are trying to sell your home, you will find the addition of flowers will most likely see it selling faster and commanding a higher price.

That day in Madison everything seemed special. The decked-out planters that had me digging out the camera all had one thing in common: The plant combinations included coleus.

Whenever I give garden seminars, which include more than 80 images of plants, I tell the participants that they only have to remember to plant coleus: Plant coleus with coleus and plant coleus with flowers and the bed or planters will surely be dazzling.

Coleus is no longer just a shade plant. New varieties make it a must-have for sun, shade, home or city beautification.

Coleuses are low-maintenance plants that are easy to grow. They are almost foolproof when grown in well-drained soil and watered through dry periods. They are also excellent for large planters, especially when grown in combination with trailing or cascading plants. The planters in Madison had some with ornamental sweet potatoes, some with Dragon Wing begonias and others with spreading petunias, all photo perfect.

Coleus can be planted now for months of enjoyment. Organic matter always can improve bedding soil and this is one of the keys to success with coleus.

If you have heavy clay soil, organic matter will improve drainage and aeration thus allowing for better root development. Liberal amounts of organic matter help sandy soil hold water and nutrients.

Organic matter, which improves soil and serves as a food source for soil fungi and bacteria, comes in the form of peat moss, composted grass clippings, barnyard fertilizer, shredded bark, leaves or even shredded newspapers.

Add enough organic matter to physically change the soil structure. Ideally, at least one-third of the final soil mix should be some type of organic material.

If you are using containers, choose a good light-weight planting mix. Buying a brand that also contains slow release fertilizer will pay dividends, getting your combinations off to a flying start.

About a month after transplanting and again in midsummer, feed plants again with a light application of a slow-released fertilizer.

We grow coleus for its fabulous foliage, so once flower buds start to form, pinch them off. Don’t forget coleuses are among the easiest plants to propagate by cutting.

Whether you garden in the landscape or in large containers your combinations will look more riveting if you add coleus to the mix. Talk to a nursery professional about the best selections for sun and shade.

Norman Winter is executive director of The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Contact him at:

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