Summer of the sun coleus
  These plants are available in several varieties of colors and textures

May 19, 2005
JANET RUSSELL
Victoria County Master Gardener

Now is a great time to be outside and in the yard. I am spending hours getting my flowerbeds ready before the summer heat arrives. I just finished pulling the last of my snapdragons. It was a hard thing to do because they were really spectacular this spring!

But as the temperature rises we have to think of new plants. I like to plant things that will last until the first frost. I planted profusion zinnias last summer and enjoyed them until they seemed to fade at the end of August. I had also planted sun coleuses that looked beautiful until November when I replaced them with snapdragons. That is when I decided the summer of 2005 would be the summer of the sun coleus in the Russell yard.

I am looking for every variety of sun coleus I can find. I love to plant groups of plants and then drift into another variety of the same plant. I have found some great varieties with different textures and colors that are great combinations. For instance, I have planted a row of Tabasco and parfait (burgundy and pink shades), followed by a pineapple row (lime green) in front and finished with sun wizard (combination leaf of burgundy edged with bright green) as the lowest front row. The sun wizard grows to be about 12 inches tall. The pineapple coleus will have to be cut back because it grows about 36 inches, which is the same height as the Tabasco and parfait. (But cuttings just mean more plants. I will take those cuttings and start new plants.) In another flowerbed I have planted duck foot coleus, (low spreading green and burgundy smooth texture) in front with sun wizard in the back. Throughout the beds I have groupings of New Orleans (green and burgundy) and flume (smooth texture light green with a pink salmon center). There are 12 varieties of sun coleus in my yard, and I wait with anticipation to see the end result. By the end of May I should have enough plants started to make a dramatic showing.

I started with a few mother plants, and the majority of plants that I put in will have grown from cuttings. I visit three locally owned nurseries every week looking for a new specimen, and I have found that growers often call the same coleus by different names. So the names I list on my plants are the tags that came with my plants. An Internet search reveals the same plant being called a variety of names. The information about a plant that is most important to me is to confirm the plant is a sun coleus and to know its height. The different varieties are amazing. The Victoria Educational Gardens had beautiful sun coleuses last summer, which have been replanted this spring. To get a view for yourself, the educational gardens would be a great place to see a variety of sun coleuses.

Easy to grow, sun coleuses possess many outstanding attributes. They are low maintenance for an annual bedding plant. They are extremely easy to grow (even for a novice, which we all were once upon a time.) They are almost foolproof when planted in a well-drained soil - and not over watered. They have no serious insect or disease problems when grown outdoors in properly prepared beds or containers.

Here is how to plant and care for your coleus. Coleus must have good soil drainage. They should be planted in beds amended with 4-6 inches of organic material. Poorly drained soils and watering too often spells disaster for any coleus. Water plants thoroughly at planting. During the first seven to 10 days, keep the root ball moist but not overly wet. Thereafter, water only when the top inch of soil is dry. Plants suffering from "wet feet" will be stunted, leaves will turn a muddy brown, and leaf margins will be scorched. A soaker hose will help to keep the plants properly watered. Concerning fertilizers, I use a liquid spray fertilizer on my plants about once a week. I love to walk around my beds and water in the mornings. But if you do not have the time to apply liquid fertilizers, you can apply 2 pounds of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer (without herbicide) per 100 square feet of bed area. Select a product in which at least half of the nitrogen is in the slow release form. For a mid-summer boost, side dress with blood meal in July according to label directions. When flower buds appear, remove the buds plus the outer 1-2 inches of the stem to keep plants neat. .....

One thing that I love about coleuses is they are so easy to propagate. I usually start out with three or four mother plants and increase my numbers. They are very similar to rabbits! All during the summer I will have trays of cuttings by my back door. I usually send friends home with two or three plants. For me, it is much easier than cooking something to send with them.

I will tell you how I start a cutting, and then I will tell you a recommended way. When I am working in the flowerbed I break off a piece of the coleus and stick it in the ground (I do have great soil) and it usually grows. I also have trays of 4-inch containers that I fill with potting soil. I take a cutting, dip it in a rooting hormone, make a hole in dirt and plant the cutting. The reason you make a hole in the dirt is if you just stick it in the dirt, the rooting hormone will be wiped off. Almost every cutting takes root.

The official gardening technique to propagate coleus, according to the Horticulture Home Pest News, is the following: Choose a healthy plant. Cuttings are best if taken in the morning. Select branch tips from vertical shoots with three to four leaves. When cutting, snip at a 45-degree angle. Remove the lower leaves. Dip the cut end into a rooting hormone. Many garden centers sell rooting hormone. Carefully insert the cut end into a container filled with moist perlite (available at garden centers). Several cuttings can be placed in a 6-inch container. Water lightly and cover with a clear plastic bag to create a tent over the cuttings. Secure the plastic with a rubber band around the base of the container. Place covered containers in a location receiving indirect light for several weeks. Some condensation should form inside the plastic. Check the perlite regularly to ensure that it stays moist. Water lightly if needed. Remove any leaves or cuttings that are discolored or moldy.

I have used this method and it takes time, but it is very successful.

Sun coleuses give you the opportunity to have a garden bursting with color. The secret lies in choosing pleasing color, textures and shapes. Summer will be here before we know it, so get busy while the weather is cool, and by July you will be sharing coleus plants with your neighbors.