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Count on Coleus

- Steve Bender
Steve Bender

It’s Grumpy’s go-to annual for summer color.

The flower bed in front of Grumpy’s house always presents a challenge. Because of a tall crepe myrtle nearby and the fact it’s on the yard’s north side, it isn’t fully sunny, even in summer. Patches of shade move across during the day. Thus, some sun-loving flowers, such as lantana and salvia, bloom sparsely or not at all. However, there’s one plant I can count on for continuous color from May to October. Coleus.

Native to tropical Asia, coleus (Solenostemon scutelloides—try saying that three times fast) offers a dizzying array of electrifying colors and foliage shapes that are its sole and very satisfying appeal. In fact, tiny blue flowers produced on spindly spikes atop the foliage detract from its appearance and should be removed. In years past, older, wimpy, seed-grown types like the Wizard Series had to be relegated to the shade. Plant them in sun and they’d burn up faster than the Hindenburg.

Today, new, sturdy hybrids known as “sun coleus” have made coleus an indispensable addition to the flower border. These cutting-grown plants thrive in hot sun, take drought better, have tidier forms, and generally don’t bloom until late summer. They also take dappled sun or light shade, which is why you see coleus like ‘Redhead’ (above) starring very year in my summer garden. (Sorry about those pathetic pink Madagascar periwinkles next to it – an experiment gone terribly wrong).

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Not only is coleus great in the border, it’s also outstanding for containers. Its leaves supply about every color except blue. You can choose trailing ones, mounding ones, or ones that form small shrubs. Among Grumpy’s favorites: ‘Alabama Sunset’ (cranberry-pink leaves with gold centers, 3 to 4 feet tall and wide), ‘Campfire’ (fiery orange leaves, 14 inches tall, 24 inches wide), ‘Henna’ (chartreuse and copper-red leaves with burgundy undersides, 20 inches tall and wide), ‘Keystone Copper’ (coppery-orange leaves, 2 feet tall and wide), ‘Orange King’ (orange-tinged golden leaves with orange-purple undersides, 2 feet tall and wide), ‘Redhead’ (deep red leaves, 2 feet tall and wide), ‘Saturn’ (maroon leaves with bright chartreuse centers, 18 inches tall and wide), and ‘Wasabi’ (bright chartreuse leaves, 2 feet tall and wide).

This year, I’m trying out a new red-orange one called ‘Inferno Orange.’ So far, so good. Now you may think that because July is here already, it’s too late to plant coleus. No way! The hotter and steamier its gets, the better that sun coleus likes it.

WATCH: Grumpy's Tips For Beginning Gardeners

Just remember to water it regularly while it’s putting down roots. Feed it every couple of weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer. Slugs and snails are its only serious pests (deer don’t like it). Put down slug bait according to label directions if you start seeing holes in the leaves, especially after a rain.

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