I DID grow coleus this year!


It’s a miserable day in the neighborhood, so I’d like to brighten things up a bit by relating a success story from this past growing season. Back in May I made an optimistic post titled “I WILL grow coleus this year” on this very website. It heralded my return to growing coleus after gardening a few years without them, and I will confess I entered my venture with both pessimism and optimism. Being realistic, I suspected that a few years of failures with coleus might logically presage continued disappointment, but the ever-hopeful gardener in me yearned to return to former glory days, filled with bright color and exuberant growth. So I launched into my adventure toward the end of May, acquiring five (six?) plants each of ‘Alabama Sunset’ (a variable pink-red/green-yellow cultivar that is a shoo-in for inclusion in the Coleus Hall of Fame), Main Street ‘Oxford Street’ (dark red with attractive yellow-spotted leaf edges) and Main Street ‘Wall Street’ (a rust-colored selection that looks a whole lot like the oldie ‘Sedona’ to me, which is another nominee for the Hall of Fame). I picked up some nice specimens of ‘Wasabi’ as well, but they will be the subject of another post, especially given that ‘Wasabi’ remains my A#1, undisputedly favorite coleus cultivar.


Here they were in May at the rear of the shady area in the back yard, patiently waiting for me to plant them once the weather settled. The bright chartreuse specimens are ‘Wasabi’; notice how much larger they are than the others. Yes, this is a tease for the upcoming post devoted to this sturdy and satisfying beauty.







During the first week of June the threat of frost seemed remote, so the coleus were able to go into the three rather large, sturdy, black plastic bins. Before filling them with a disconcerting amount of potting mix (almost four two-cubic foot bags), I drilled nine or ten drainage holes at the base of each bin. I used the biggest bit I could get my mitts on, because given my penchant for distractedly musing about many things while watering in the garden, I knew the drainage holes were necessary: coleus HATE poor drainage.





Situated and then planted, the coleus and I were ready for what summer might bring. This is a good time to remind you that this location, up against the western wall of my kitchen, is the hottest spot in the garden, although it isn’t the sunniest. The western sun, however, shines long enough on this spot to keep the area – especially the concrete pad and siding – noticeably warm in the afternoon and well into summer evenings.






A month later, the coleus were settling in happily. June was, much to my delight, not cold, so the coleus grew well. I don’t have records of when I pinched (carefully removed) the ends of the stems, but I suspect I had pinched them once by early July. Rain and hose water kept them chugging along, but I hadn’t yet fertilized them – they didn’t need any extra boost, as far as I could tell. The potting mix did contain a teeny bit of fertilizer, so I figured the coleus were receiving what they needed as far as “food” was concerned. It was in the back of my mind, however, that I’d probably need to break out the fertilizer at some point.





By July 20, the plants were trying to outdo each other in putting on plenty of growth, especially ‘Alabama Sunset’, which needed more pinching than the other two cultivars in order to keep the peace among the occupants of the bins.







A few warmish nights later I took this picture as I was surveying my garden realm. By now I was thinking that success was at hand. Perhaps you can see where the shoots had been pinched recently, especially on the large-leaved ‘Alabama Sunset’ on the left.







By early August, I felt compelled to take a shot with an empty bin to show how much the coleus had grown. Earlier in the season I thought I might need to disguise the somber black color of the bins with burlap or something similar, but the coleus had other plans.

Amazingly, the plants still weren’t giving any signs of needing supplemental fertilizer to keep them healthy and lush. By now I was suspecting that I wouldn’t need to provide any “food.”






Fast forward to September 10, when, during what I have now decided was the best gardening summer I’ve seen since moving to Wisconsin in 2012, the coleus were (I think) spectacular. By now quite a few garden visitors agreed with me.

Sure enough, I never fertilized these plants, believe it or not: that little bit of fertilizer in the potting mix sustained them.






Before October arrived, I stopped pinching the shoots, because I enjoy the color contrast provided by the flowers on some coleus cultivars, and I figured the remaining upper side shoots would not have a chance to grow out enough to make the planting look complete, given the calendar. So the flowers began to appear in earnest: they were a pale, blah violet-blue on ‘Alabama Sunset’, a slightly more appealing blue shade on Main Street ‘Oxford Street’, and a quite nice, deeper and purer blue on Main Street ‘Wall Street’, reinforcing my suspicion that this was in fact ‘Sedona’ (or a close relative).





By October 12 I could hear the bells of approaching doom tolling faintly in the background, and not at all to my surprise, the night of October 13 saw a light freeze. Not the cell-rupturing ice crystals of frost, mind you, but enough cold in the air to damage the leaves and rob the coleus of their ornamental appeal. Not wanting to deal with carrying off mushy, smelly, fully frozen and blackened coleus foliage, I pre-emptively brought the curtain down during the afternoon of October 14. Several generous armloads of my formerly eye-popping coleus ended up on the pile at the back of the garage.





I’d like to offer a few observations before wrapping things up: I can’t imagine how monster-sized these coleus would have been if I had given them the complete “Ray treatment,” which usually means force-feeding with frequent doses of water-soluble fertilizer(s); ample watering in general; and providing ideal light conditions. I did give them the latter two elements; they were hose-irrigated with plain water quite a few times during most of the season, and the light must have suited them perfectly. Having said that, I must point out that ‘Alabama Sunset’ did appear to be a little sunburned, especially after I pinched their shoots back, but they were never unattractive. Also, none of the plants never would have filled in as much as they did if I hadn’t pinched them several times, and of course doing so tamed their flowering urges until late in the season. Pinching early and often also encouraged the plants to develop sturdy branch structures, so the plants never needed to be staked. Finally, their elevated location in the bins and generally inhospitable concrete surroundings prevented slugs from finding and Swiss-cheesing these coleus. I can’t say the same for some others elsewhere in the garden.


The bins will remain in place for winter, and I’ll let the cold and ice do what they will to the stumps and roots. I intend to repeat the coleus show next year, but with a different mix of cultivars.








In the meantime, as winter wears on, I’ll build my coleus jigsaw puzzle again. Perhaps I’ll turn one of the above photos into another puzzle? A thousand-piecer ought to keep me occupied for a while.





Green on Black Friday (Part 2)

Actually, as I write this, it’s Cyber Monday Eve, but no matter. There are still some plants looking green out in the garden, even though by day’s end they might be obscured by a few inches of snow. It is the 1st of December (already!!!), after all.

Two days ago I wrote about a euphorbia and a fern, and now I’d like to present another example of each plus a third companion in the garden, all of which consort near a special rock. Yes, special. I like having rocks and minerals around me, both inside and out; perhaps some day I’ll share here a few pictures of and musings on my mineral collection. The rock of interest before us now was part of the Big Landscaping Buy I made a few years ago in anticipation of laying a new sidewalk, garden seat, and steps, but instead of being incorporated into all of that, the special rock is now used as a separate garden accent, partially because it contains some attractive crystals that I assume are quartz. I need to assume almost a worm’s-eye position to see them, but I take pleasure in knowing there’s a little bit of sparkly rock crystal in that shady spot under the big arborvitae.

It took a few years to finally decide on the spot that the rock now occupies, and there’s no guarantee it will remain there. I like to move things around, either to make them appear more pleasing, or simply to try out a new situation in the landscape. To me, well-practiced and enjoyable gardening is not static: it’s a dynamic, ever-changing, sometimes maddening, usually satisfying adventure.

To the plants: in the foreground grows a cluster of the hideously named gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyris), brought all the way from New Jersey when my long-time friends Ken Selody and Anne Ziolkowski trekked West to take part in the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk on July 13. I remembered how much I enjoyed walking through Ken’s miniature forest of this (normally) biennial euphorbia in a wooded area of Atlock Farm, his specialty nursery in Somerset, smack in the center of the Garden State. A few days before Ken and Anne’s departure from Jersey, I texted Ken about possibly bringing me a few seedlings, and he obliged by presenting me with a small but generously filled pot of them as he and Anne stepped out of their car. After Ken and Anne’s visit, I decided the entire wad of seedlings would be planted near the crystal stone; separating them might shock the roots, and I liked the immediately established look of them in a cluster. They didn’t grow much over summer, but they still look happy enough on this first day of December, and I’m eager to see if they will reach up a couple feet or so next year. Their decussate leaf arrangement (referring to their pairs of leaves placed at 90-degree angles to the pair immediately below them) will remind me of the angular geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and stained glass, the generosity of Mr. Atlock, and my happy reunion with the nurseryman and his nice Anne.

Accompanying the euphorbia and clustering around the stone are five specimens of the marginal shield fern, Dryopteris marginalis, a Wisconsin woodland native. Like so many other members of the front garden, they were inserted into the landscape this past growing season, and as many ferns are wont to do, they didn’t grow exuberantly during their first months of establishment. I hope to see them double in size next year, though, assuming the spot under the giant arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) suits them and hoping the local rabbit population, which grew like, well, you know, bunnies this summer won’t include them in their diet. They certainly have discovered many of the new offerings in the front garden, two of which (both hydrangeas) are now  surrounded with kindasorta unobtrusive chicken-wire cages to protect them against eager bunny teeth. They’ll gnaw other plants to the ground, no doubt, but at least the hydrangeas will have a fighting chance to enter the next growing season as intact plants. I hope.


Here is the final member of the rock trio, one of the macabrely named dead nettles (Lamium maculatum ‘Purple Dragon’).  I value dead nettles for their ability to quickly make an attractive groundcover in dry shade and for the way the silver-variegated selections remind me of constellations in a warm summer night’s sky. You astronomy buffs out there will perhaps make the connection of the cultivar name to the constellation Draco, the dragon of the northern sky. Wikipedia tells us that “Draco represents Ladon, the dragon that guarded the gardens of the Hesperides in Greek mythology.”  Perhaps this Purple Dragon will guard the plants around it from those toothy bunnies.

Before we leave this grouping, I’d like to draw your attention to the “mulch” in the picture. That beautiful warm-toned blanket falls from the big arborvitae that stands like a sentinel in this part of the garden. Like many others of its kind around here, it entered the growing season with a slightly disturbing amount of persistent brown foliage and then proceeded to bear huge quantities of cones, which also turned brown. All of that brown stuff made me ask myself, “Are my arborvitaes in decline?” I made note of my concern when Janna Nelson, a former student and employee, and now a gardening buddy, stopped by while walking her two remarkably mellow dogs. Janna agreed with my observation about the abundance of cones on arborvitaes in Sheboygan but attempted to reassure me by pointing out that in some years the local specimens naturally make a whole lot of cones and then cool it for a few years. I hope that is the case; aside from the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata selection of some sort) at the street and the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) behind the garage, that big arborvitae and another one in the back are the only big specimen trees in my garden. Their demise would make a big impact on my little landscape. In the meantime, I will continue to treasure the orangy-brown manna of mulch that falls from them.