Emerald is my favorite color, but when it comes to foliage plants—well, a garden filled with nothing but solid green leaves doesn’t excite most of us. But when you plant coleuses, which are known for their vibrant foliage, you can still have beds and borders packed with bright, bold colors.
These nearly carefree annuals, which behave like tender perennials in warm-winter regions, come in many shades, including chartreuse, salmon, pink, red, orange, yellow, purple, brown, burgundy, cream and bronze. They bear flowers, but that’s not their best feature. Their blooms are usually small and insignificant, but the varied patterns of spots and splashes of color on their leaves make up for any lack.
Coleuses are easy to grow. They’re happy in part shade to bright light, but avoid giving them direct or midday sun, which can make their colors look washed-out. They grow best in good garden soil that’s been enriched with compost. Keep them watered regularly so they don’t wilt. They also need a spot that drains easily, or their roots may rot. It’s fine to pinch them back to keep the plants nice and bushy.
If you’re a beginning gardener, you should do well with coleuses, and there are lots of new selections for all of us to choose from. The plants are easy to propagate, too. Just make a stem cutting about 6 inches long, strip the leaves off the lower half, and drop it in a glass of water, or pot it up in a small container filled with loose, peat-based potting soil. Roots form quickly, giving you plenty of new baby plants.
If you dig up your coleuses to save them from freezing, you can enjoy them as houseplants in the winter. Trim them back to a manageable size and keep them in a warm room with plenty of humidity. They’ll need a window that offers bright, indirect light. You can move them back into the garden once the danger of frost has passed.
Sometimes mealybugs, scale, whiteflies and other insects attack coleus. Keep an eye on your plants, and first try knocking off the pests with a spray of water from the faucet. If the bugs return, dab them with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. If that still doesn’t work, spray your plants with an insecticidal soap before you resort to more drastic chemical measures.
How to Use Coleus in Your Garden
Coleuses are lush and beautiful even in the summer’s heat. Look for trailing types to grow in hanging baskets and window boxes, and upright coleus for growing as focal points in planters and other containers. If you’re using them in your garden, try some of these ideas for combining coleuses with other plants:
- Pair white alyssum or baby’s breath with coleus that have chocolate-brown or dark purple leaves.
- Mix varieties that are bred to tolerate sun, like those in the ‘Sunlovers’ series (or ‘Sun-Lovers’ series), with vegetable plants like squash and peppers. Purples and pinks make a nice combination with eggplants and tomatoes. ‘Alabama Sunset’ is an old, still-popular variety that can take sun.
- Grow coleus with splashes of lime green on their leaves alongside the chartreuse foliage of ornamental ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vines. ‘Fishnet Stockings’, for example, has lime-colored leaves marked with deep purple veins that echo the purple in ‘Marguerite.’
- Plant coleus with ruffled leaves, like ‘Purple Emperor’ or ‘Red Ruffles’ alongside spiky ornamental grasses for an interesting contrast. Dark purple fountain grass makes a great backdrop for coleuses with orange, yellow or pink markings.
- Combine yellow daises or marigolds with a deep reddish-brown coleus.
- Look for coleuses bred to grow low to the ground, like ‘Wizard Mosiac’, a compact plant with green leaves splashed with cream and burgundy. Growing only 12 to 14 inches high, it seldom needs pinching and works well with many other plants in your landscape.