How To Grow and Care For Coleus

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If you have a shady garden, plant coleus to add some instant color.

During the Victorian era in the late 1800s, wealthy landowners had their landscapers plant carpet gardens, featuring masses of flowers in elaborate patterns they could see from the upper floors of their country homes. Coleus, with its colorful leaves, was often featured in these gardens, especially if those areas received little to no sunlight (i.e. shade gardens).

Even today, coleus is still highly regarded by shade gardeners.

What Is Coleus?

Coleus is a tropical plant in the mint family grown as an annual for its colorful foliage. It has no tolerance for frost and sometimes struggles in temperatures as warm as 40 to 50 degrees.

Occasionally you may see it labeled by other names, including Plectranthus or even the tongue twister Solenostemun. That’s because taxonomists, who decide how plants should be classified and named, keep changing their minds about coleus.

Why Are Coleus Popular?

Coleus are popular for various reasons:

Types of Coleus To Plant

There are countless varieties of coleus available and new varieties are introduced regularly. You could never find and grow them all!

When purchasing coleus plants, consider leaf color, leaf variegation, growing habit and tolerance for sun.

Color

Some coleus plants are grown just for the unusual leaf colors, ranging from deep purple to red, pink and even lime green. ‘Lifelime‘ has lime colored leaves and would brighten up a dark corner of the garden.

Variegation

Many know coleus as a plant with variegated leaves. Some leaves are splotched. Others have well-defined leaf veins that are a different color than the leaves. And others have edges that are a different color than the center, such as ‘Copperhead.

Growing habit

Most coleus plants are upright growers. But there are some, like ‘Chocolate Drop‘, that will trail across an area or down the side of a container.

Tolerance for sun

Coleus foliage tends to wash out in the sun, but breeders have been working on that and some new varieties can tolerate it better. Check the label to be sure it’s one that will perform well in those conditions. ‘Sedona‘ does well in sun.

When To Plant Coleus

In most of the United States, plant coleus in the spring. Be sure nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees before planting.

In warmer areas like U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 10 and 11, you can often plant in late summer to add color through the fall. As long as temperatures stay above 40 degrees, coleus should continue to grow.

How To Plant Coleus

Different grades of Koleos. Colorful leaves. View from aboveTatyana Abramovich/Getty Images

Choose a spot that’s shaded most of the time, unless you chose a variety that tolerates sun.

  • If planting in the ground, pick a location with well-drained soil. Coleus plants need consistent amounts of water.
  • If planting in a container, choose one large enough to accommodate the coleus as it grows. They do well as a single specimen plant in a container, or mixed with other plants with similar water and shade requirements.

Coleus can be purchased as plants in the spring or grown from seed started indoors approximately eight to 10 weeks before your usual frost-free date in the spring.

Caring for Coleus

Watering

Water coleus as you would most other annual flowers. In the ground, water when first planted and continue to water when you aren’t getting any rain. In containers, you may need to water daily if it’s hot and dry outside.

Fertilizer

Whether in the ground or a pot, coleus will grow better when you apply a general purpose fertilizer regularly. Follow instructions on the label.

Pruning

If any flowers appear, pinch them off. You should also pinch off the tips of branches to encourage more branching and bigger plants.

Overwintering

At the end of the season when the plant succumbs to frost, compost it or dispose of it.

Pests

Coleus aren’t often bothered by pests. But if you see aphids, mealybugs or white flies on your coleus, treat them with an insecticidal soap, following instructions on the label.

How Long Do Coleus Last?

One season outside. Once frost hits, it’s done.

Some gardeners like to turn their coleus into houseplants. To do this, take cuttings in late summer, root them in moist soil or water, then pot them up and put them in a sunny spot indoors. As a houseplant, your coleus may last for several years.

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Carol J. Michel
Carol J. Michel is an award-winning author of several books including five gardening humor books and one children's book. As the holder of degrees from Purdue University in both horticulture and computer technology, she spent over three decades making a living in healthcare IT while making a life in her garden. She started writing about gardening on her blog called May Dreams Gardens which lead to numerous magazine articles, her books, and a podcast called The Gardenangelists. She was recently named a GardenComm Fellow by Garden Communicators International.