Gardeners' Dirt: Coleus provide easy color in autumn garden
By Jean Knowles - Victoria County Master Gardener Intern Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Sept. 20, 2012 at 4:20 a.m.
Need something to fill in the place of those spring and summer annuals in the garden?
Surprisingly, the solution can be coleus. Yes, those shade-loving annuals have been bred in recent years to withstand sun and heat. Producers have developed more than 40 varieties that are said to be "sun coleus."
Sun coleus defined
Being identified as "sun coleus" does not mean the plant can survive the 100+ degree temperatures and hot winds that come with South Texas summers. The term indicates the coleus holds its vibrant colors and grows vigorously in the sun, different from the typical coleus that fades in exposure to sun.
Choosing the best planting site is needed to provide some protection from the sweltering afternoon sun in our area. Morning-to-noon sun produces the most vibrant colors. When placed carefully, the coleus will provide dazzling color until the first frost.
New fall plants
Fall coleus plant varieties are likely available in garden centers now that can be planted in your landscape to provide transition plants from the heat of late summer and early fall through the first frost.
With cooler nights approaching, foliage plants become more vivid in color. Choose fall colors in shades of burgundy, rust and gold for maximum color.
Propagate old plants
Cost efficient - You might opt to propagate plants for future plantings as it can be done very inexpensively. When coleus goes on sale in July with other annuals, get several with different shapes and colors of leaves.
Find good healthy plants that are pest free. It does not matter if they are leggy. They probably will be if they are on sale.
Prune and repot - Prune the plant back to a good shape. The mother plant will look ugly, but coleus leaf back quickly and those lanky stems will soon be covered with new foliage.
Repot the mother plant in a bigger pot with good quality potting mix.
Root the cuttings - You can root the cuttings in a soil-less rooting mix following traditional rooting techniques.
Coleus also roots easily in water. Place the stems with the bottom leaves removed into a container of water. You can even add a few flowers or other garden trimming to the cuttings. Put them in a decorative container and make your "rooting jar" a table arrangement. Change the water if it becomes cloudy.
Transplant and acclimate plants - When you see several good strong roots, transplant to a pot with a good quality growing mix. Slowly, acclimate the transplants to the tough world of your summer garden, placing them in partial sun in a wind-sheltered area for just a few hours every day. Gradually increase the amount of sun and wind.
Coleus' tender leaves may need protection from hot, dry winds even when fully acclimated. With consistent watering and light feeding, within two to three months, you will have quite a few really attractive late summer to fall plantings for a small investment in money.
Plant in pots - Coleus grows well in the garden where the soil is compost-enriched and well-drained. But if you are using the coleus to fill in a vacant space, it is best to grow it in a pot ahead of time, so there will be a mature full plant to fill the space. When the frost is predicted, the pot can be brought out of the garden and protected, and in our climate, may provide another season of beauty.
Plant in the ground - If you plan on planting the coleus into the ground be sure to plant late in the day, water thoroughly and keep moist until the root system has had time to get established. Then feed with a water soluble fertilizer.
If you plan on putting the coleus into the garden in a pot, put it in as large a container as possible. Water thoroughly. Coleus dry out quickly and in a pot the roots have nowhere to go for moisture. Coleus leaves become limp when the plant is dry, but revive if it is watered soon enough.
Keep the roots moist especially during hot weather. You can bury the pot in the ground and keep a good layer of mulch around the pot to keep the soil cool and help retain moisture.
Varieties of sun coleus
Amazing new varieties have been developed by growers that range in color from light green to deep purple and all variations in between. Leaves range in size from less than an inch to more than 4 inches. Some are solid color, but most are simply beautiful in the variation of tone and color. By coordinating or contrasting the color, leaf size and shape with the surrounding plantings, the coleus can make a spectacular garden.
Sun coleus provides another option to the gardener who wants economical year-round color. The variety of sizes, tints and shapes of leaves inspires the creative gardener to have unique color until frost.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.