by BRIAN MINTER
June 30, 2003
After speaking in Columbus, Ohio recently at the Ohio Florist Association Short Course, I took a four hour detour home via Chicago in order to visit the Ball Seed Co.’s field trials of annuals, vegetables and some perennials. Was the extra expense, the Chicago traffic, the 96° Fahrenheit weather and a three hour nail-biting turnaround to the airport worth it? You bet! With so many new plants coming out these days, how can you know if they are of real value to our gardens unless you see them under field conditions? Let me assure you that any plant stuck in the mucky clay soil of Illinois and coping with high temperatures and high humidity after a very wet late spring, has to have the right stuff to not only survive but to also perform well.
Of all the interesting things I saw, one plant family really amazed me: coleus. No, not the traditional coleus varieties but the new ‘Solar Series’ of heat and sun tolerant types that were really quite remarkable. In the container trials, about forty percent of the plant selection was devoted to coleus. As I looked over the container trial area, I noticed that quite a change had taken place. Instead of flowering annuals on trial, it was foliage, and the effect was fresh, new and exciting.
The huge advantage of foliage plants is the instant effect they create. When you set out annuals, there’s always that downtime while the plants settle in, start to grow and then flower. With foliage, the impact is instant! The other nice thing about foliage plants is the new and wonderful colour combinations you can create, adding a whole new ‘wardrobe’ to your outdoor décor.
Over the past year, we’ve tried a few varieties of sun tolerant coleus in our gardens, and I have to say, we’re thrilled with the results.
Slugs love coleus and devour them when planted in shady spots, but not so when these same plants are placed in a sunny location - this is a huge bonus! We’ve also learned how to use coleus in hanging baskets for an instant and longlasting effect. You’ll be amazed at just how great they look.
coleus blend well with so many other plants and now with the wide range of separate coloured leaves, you can go wild. The black-burgundy and chartreuse varieties are the most widely adaptable. Try black with soft pink and chartreuse with blue. The large array of new colours (over 40) will provide you with many interesting combinations to fire your imagination.
In all our combination plantings with coleus, we let the coleus foliage dominate and accent with a touch of flowers. Too much competition between the two is unattractive and busy looking. You’ll have to experiment, but I can assure you that these plants have a lot to offer.
Most varieties are basal branching, so a little pinching is needed to get a full and bushy plant. Left alone, they will reach two to three feet in height, but with some pruning you can keep them to about eighteen inches.
coleus are not heavy feeders, but once established, some slow-release 14-14-14 fertilizer would be ideal. Water them well, but let them dry out between waterings. They are drought tolerant, however, in full sun they will need some moisture.
Sun tolerant coleus are great for both indoors and out, so they can make a year round contribution to your garden and home. Once the weather really warms up, let coleus play a key role in your colour this summer.