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.





I WILL grow coleus this year!




Funny thing, my relationship with coleus. You know, those common, colorful foliage plants that seemingly everybody includes and enjoys in their containers and plantings all season long. Everybody but me during the last few years, that is, because (this has been my excuse for the past few years) it’s just too cold where I live, a mere few blocks from Lake Refrigerator Michigan here in Sheboygan. They have failed to grow in my front yard, and they performed poorly in the little patio garden at Lakeshore Technical Garden, where I once taught. After the plants I was overwintering gave up the ghost in the LTC greenhouse, I too gave up and haven’t grown them since.

So you’re thinking, “Yeah, so? They don’t like you, or maybe it’s true that the cool lakeside summer nights aren’t their thing. Nobody succeeds at growing everything.” Well, plenty of gardeners around here grow coleus – even closer to the Lake, I might add – and well. Why not me? It bugs me, as you probably have already figured out.

You see, there’s something going on here that could be considered the dictionary definition of the word “irony.” I literally wrote the book on coleus, namely Coleus: Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens (Timber Press, 2008). Producing the book was a joint collaboration with my friend Richard Hartlage; I did the words, and he did the photography. Amusing side note: if you detect a subliminal reference to how people often partner up to create Broadway musicals, may I point out that Coleus was produced by Ro(d)gers and Hart(lage)?

Anyway, while making Coleus happen, I got all caught up in growing them in a big way at Atlock Farm in New Jersey, so that Richard could photograph them and I could study and make notes on their characteristics. Richard and I even made a visit to Minnesota to learn at the feet of Vern Ogren, a major figure in the history of coleus in the United States, and we also traveled to the home of Bob Pioselli, a major collector. Along the way I branched out into exploring other ways to promote or simply enjoy coleus, as the following pictures illustrate.


This picture was taken of me while I was serving as American editor for The American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2006). I was preening what was the most impressive standard (tree-form) coleus specimen ever produced at Atlock Farm. You can see a photo of it, minus yours truly, in the Encyclopedia.







Yes, I had a coleus jigsaw puzzle made from a group photo I took in front of one of the greenhouses at Atlock. It’s still with me, but I haven’t put it together in quite a while.









Sometime after taking this picture of ‘Freckles’ (one of my favorites). . .









. . . I sent off a file of the picture to a company that custom-weaves cotton throws. The bright colors of ‘Freckles’ weren’t reproduced in the throw, but the overall pattern always catches my eye.








Timber Press had mouse pads made as a promotional item for the book, and a few of them remain in my collection, not of mouse pads (does anyone use them these days?) but of coleus stuff.








By now you realize that coleus are a part of me and my history. That’s why I’m trying my hand at making them happy again. This time around I’m going to do a little experimenting: since I’m assuming my past attempts failed because of too-cool weather, I’m going to try to give this year’s plants as much heat as I can provide. The warmest – no, hottest – part of my garden is the concrete slab that adjoins the west house wall, and that is where I’m going to place three good-sized, sturdy-walled, black plastic storage bins. The rays of the sun and the re-radiated heat from the concrete and the black containers will, I hope, provide the warmth that coleus want from me. Of course I’ll need to choose sun-tolerant cultivars, and I’ll keep a close eye on the moisture in the potting mix. With any luck, I’ll also need to routinely supply fertilizer to my lustily growing success stories outside the back door.


In early June the three black bins will be planted with sun-tolerant coleus (and probably a few cannas or other taller growers). The empty space between the leftmost bin and the invisible concrete steps is being set aside to accommodate a large standard Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’ (lemon geranium), which will serve as a focal point when looking toward the house from the sidewalk that runs between the prairie planting in the back yard.

With any luck this scheme will work, and there WILL be coleus to enjoy this summer, especially on Saturday, July 13, the day my garden is a stop on the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk.

Stay tuned!