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.