Coleus are foliage stars in the garden
I have a thing for coleus plants. I just love those crazy color combinations and leaf patterns that go with almost anything. Need a plant for sun? No problem. How about one for shade? Gotcha covered. True, they don’t produce very showy flowers, but don’t let that stop you. With all the colors, sizes and growing habits, there’s a coleus for practically every spot. Here are some of my favorite tips and ideas to help you choose and grow the best coleus every year.
Coleus plants can grow in sun or shade
Most of the coleus plants you find at your garden center these days look best with sun nearly all day. These are the newer varieties that have been propagated by cuttings. But the seed-grown varieties are more shade-tolerant. The always-popular Wizard series above is one example. You’ll usually find these plants in flats with the bedding annuals. But you might also find the giant Kong™ series and a couple of newer ones, such as ‘Chocolate Mint’ and ‘Chocolate-Covered Cherry’, with the 4-inch pots mixed in with the other container annuals. All plants can have color variation depending on maturity, fertilizer, temperature and light.
Light can affect leaf color on coleus plants
For the most part, coleus with red and orange leaves tolerate all-day full sun. Too much sun can cause purple-black ones to fade all over or they may scald (have pale burn spots on leaves). And for any color, too much shade can keep all the colors from coming out.
Coleus plants shrug off most problems
This is another reason why coleus are so popular. Keeping them healthy mostly depends on making sure the soil is evenly moist. Root rot and leaf drop can occur under prolonged cool, wet conditions. Conversely, plants will wilt and have less vibrant colors if you let them dry out often.
Watch out for cold snaps!
To get the best selection, you might need to buy plants early. Keep them indoors in a sunny window, and wait to move them outside until nighttime temperatures stay in the 50s. Coleus won’t grow any faster if you put them out early, and you could actually stunt their growth or they might die, even if temperatures stay above freezing. If you want to save your plant overwinter see how to propagate your coleus with leaf cuttings.
Design ideas for coleus plants
Of course coleus have always made great container plants, but there’s more to coleus than your traditional approach. Try planting them in a garden bed, or challenge yourself with a combo or one of the creative containers I'll show you here. All of the coleus used in these photos and mentioned in the lists below are sun-tolerant hybrids unless specified.
Try a big coleus as a fast-growing hedge
There are some large coleus cultivars that grow over 30 inches tall, and when you plant them in the ground they really take off. The more space you give them to spread out their roots, the larger they grow. SuperSun ‘Plum Parfait’ above grows up to 3 feet tall and creates a nice hedge to back up other plants.
Here are a few of the largest coleus plants:
- ‘Big Enchilada’ Puckered golden-green leaves with neon rose midribs and
purple blush underneath; 24 to 30 in. tall, 14 to 18 in. wide
- Big Red Judy® Solid brick red leaves and stems; 36 to 48 in. tall, 20 to 30 in. wide
- ‘Gold Giant’ Golden-green leaves with purple veins and stems; 18 to 30 in.
tall, 16 to 20 in. wide
- ‘Japanese Giant’ Large red and purple leaves with green centers and splashes of yellow and pink; 24 to 30 in. tall, 16 to 20 in. wide
- SuperSun ‘Plum Parfait’ Ruffled purple leaves have plum and chartreuse borders; 18 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide
Some coleus plants make great ground covers
The creeping or trailing varieties are very versatile. If you prefer to plant coleus in containers, these creepers can also be used as the “spiller” in a combo or alongside ivy geraniums (Pelargonium hybrids) and ‘Limelight’ licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) in hanging baskets. Pinching plants a few inches every now and then will keep them from getting leggy.
In the border above, I planted ‘Garnet Robe’ coleus at the base of a row of cannas, spacing them about 2 ft. apart, and filled in the rest of the bed with Super Elfin Lipstick impatiens. I like how they covered the ground entirely and intertwined to create a tropical look. This coleus is very prolific and needed a little extra pruning in order to give the impatiens enough room to show their blooms.
Here are some creeping coleus plants to try:
- Chocolate Drop Lobed, round green leaves have dark cranberry centers and veins, giving a netted appearance; 12 to 18 in. tall and wide
- ‘Garnet Robe’ Deep purple to burgundy leaves with green edges; 12 to 18 in. tall, 24 to 30 in. wide
- ‘Inky Fingers’ Deep purple duckfootshaped leaves with green edges and green stems; 12 to 18 in. tall, 10 to 14 in. wide
- Lava™ Rose Small round leaves are dark purple, red and yellow with green edges; 6 to 10 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide
- ‘Trailing Green Olives’ Small green leaves with a purple splash in the center; 6 to 12 in. tall, 15 to 20 in. wide
Coleus plants mix well with other plants
Gardeners have been planting coleus as edging for years. Go retro and bring back this old-school trend. Coleus plants also add a pop of color all season long if planted here and there in a perennial border. Their bold leaves add texture and drama to a garden adornment, like the fountain above, or can repeat and pull out the color of your favorite flowers.
Here are a few coleus plants with bright-colored leaves:
- ‘Brilliancy’ Dark red leaves with golden yellow edges; 18 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 14 in. wide
- ColorBlaze® Dark Star Very dark purple-black leaves and stems; 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 16 in. wide
- ‘Electric Lime’ Bright green leaves patterned with yellow veins; 14 to 20 in. tall, 16 to 24 in. wide
- Henna (‘Balcenna’) Copper and chartreuse leaves with burgundy undersides, serrated edges; 22 to 28 in. tall, 14 to 16 in. wide
- Wizard Pastel Bright coral centers with yellow and green spotted edges; shade-tolerant variety; 12 to 14 in. tall, 10 to 12 in. wide
Appreciate coleus plants’ wild side
Many coleus plants look as if someone used craft scissors on them in the greenhouse. The Under the Sea series has several wacky colors and shapes. One summer I decided to showcase a few of the cultivars in this series (and one more — ‘Apple Pie’) instead of hiding them in a combination, check out the four containers above. When their habits are opened up with pruning, they almost look like little bonsai. Some coleus grow this way on their own, or you can prune them into almost any shape you want. They look good both ways!
Try a standard coleus
One way for adventurous gardeners to grow coleus is to train it as a topiary on a single stem, also called a standard. Like the look but not the work? Drop nursery pots filled with coleus into tall cylinder containers like the ones above.
Coleus are easy to grow and mix and match in whatever style suits your mood. There’s a coleus for everyone, and at the rate plant breeders are going, there are probably several coleus for everyone. Cruise through your local garden center to find one or two new ones to try this year!