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Coleus Deserves Widespread Use
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
At the risk of giving away my age I ask, Do you remember a popular hair dressing commercial that had the phrase "A little dab will do you"? That is precisely how the general public has been viewing a group of the most beautiful plants we can grow, the coleus.
You no doubt have started to notice that the heat and humidity are back. The summer is going to be long and hot, so it stands to reason you'll want to choose plants that hold up well with these climatic conditions. The coleus is one such plant.
The problem lies in their use. We need to stop dabbling with coleus and start planting them by the flat to make a real impact on the landscape. Today we have a wide spectrum of coleus from those that cringe at the mention of full sun to those that really put on a show even in August.
The Solar Series brought us some of the best sun coleus. They come in a variety of leaf colors with bold variegation and have at least eight cultivars with rich blends of green, maroon, plum, yellow and cream. They are Solar Sunrise, Solar Spectrum, Solar, Storm, Solar Set, Solar Furnace, Solar Shadow and Solar Eclipse.
One thing that sets Solar Sunrise apart is the enormous leaves that may reach 6-inches wide. Solar Eclipse garnered high points in our trials at various Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Stations. I like Burgundy Sun, Plum Parfait, New Orleans Red and Chantilly. Try planting a bold group of these with New Gold lantana, Goldstrum rudbeckia, purple-leafed cannas or purple fountain grass.
On a trip to Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile a couple summers ago, I saw long, unbelievable beds of coleus that should have made every visitor want to go home and plant some.
Coleuses are easy-to-grow, low-maintenance plants that are almost foolproof when grown in well-drained soil and watered through droughty periods. They are also excellent in baskets, especially when grown in combination with a vining or cascading plant.
Since we grow coleus for the boldly-colored foliage, there is no point in letting them use energy developing flowers. Pinch these off, and you will help develop a bushy plant. You can plant coleus now for months of enjoyment before frost.
One key to success with coleus is adding organic matter to improve bedding soil. If you have heavy clay soil, organic matter will improve drainage and aeration and allow better root development. Liberal amounts of organic matter help sandy soils 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, compost, hay, grass clippings, barnyard fertilizer, shredded bark, leaves or even shredded newspapers. Add enough to physically change the soil structure. Ideally, at least one-third of the final soil mix should be some type of organic material.
To accomplish this, spread 2 to 4 inches of organic matter over the garden surface and till it to a depth of 6 to 10 inches. Apply the recommended rate of fertilizer over the garden surface at the same time. My favorite fertilizer for coleus is a 12-6-6. A pre-plant- fertilizer followed by light monthly applications will keep your plants growing well.
Coleuses are easy to propagate by cutting and can be grown indoors in a brightly-lighted area during the winter. Look for the Solar Series coleus as well as other outstanding sun coleus now at your local garden center.