One of the most delightful tasks in the garden for me at this time of year is planting out the coleus cuttings I took at the end of autumn. Though some coleus do make it through winter in my garden, a lot seem to peter out during the cold weather so I make it an annual ritual to pot up a lot of cuttings and keep them in a large, lidded, plastic tub until mid-spring. The cuttings look a bit sad and wan right now, but once the warm weather really kicks in, they will burgeon into substantial plants with an almost shrubby stature, even though they are strictly speaking a bushy, evergreen perennial in their native habitat of South-east Asia.
I have amassed a collection of different varieties - all unnamed - over the years from the gardens of various friends, and each spring I enjoy finding spots for my cuttings. Coleus are so useful for bringing long-lasting, vibrant colour to shaded and part-shaded areas, and their multi-coloured leaves have endless potential for creating 'colour echoes' with nearby flowers or foliage of the same hues. Coleus leaves may have contrasting coloured edges, freckles, bands or other markings; leaf shapes vary from long and pointed to rounded or finger-like, or even what are termed 'duck-foot' or 'frog-foot' types by coleus fanciers. Almost every imaginable colour can be found in some coleus or other! Heights can vary but they are usually around 60 cm.
Pairing a coleus with another plant almost seems to me like painting a picture and I find it great fun wandering around the garden with my tray of cuttings visualising where they might look effective. Some favourite combinations I repeat each year, such as a bronze-orange coleus with a faint lime-green edge on the shady side of a clump of bright orange dahlias in one place and with a variegated Coprosma in another spot; and an unusual dark-edged variety with the blackish-purple foliage of Pennistetum setaceum 'Rubrum' and Alternanthera 'Little Ruby'. But it's also enjoyable to think up new arrangements each year.
A very tough old coleus with yellow foliage and darker markings is a wonderful pal for the flowers of Euryops daisies or yellow dahlias, as pictured at left. In very shaded spots, the yellow hue becomes a limey colour that pairs well with the strappy, lime leaves of Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' or the finely textured groundcover Sedum mexicanum 'Gold Mound', which both tolerate shade. Another coleus variety has a dark red centre with a thin golden edge, which teams well with the leaves of Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious', pictured earlier in the blog.
Some coleuses have a dark purplish-red centre surrounded by green, and these are a good foil for dark purple flowers such as those of Salvia 'Love and Wishes'. Red-leaved coleus can similarly echo red Pentas and Salvia coccineus (pictured at left). There are some attractive coleuses with pink centres, and these look particularly good when combined with cane begonias with flowers of the same hue. I am still not quite sure why, but to me these colour echoes create very satisfying planting combinations. Coleus can also be massed together, with each plant perhaps picking up a colour from their neighbour to create a long-lasting coherent scene without a single flower being necessary to give a deeply satisfying garden picture in a shaded spot.
Coleus grow best in a well-drained soil with adequate moisture and regular liquid feeding; but they survive surprisingly well in dry spots once established. Some can grow in sun but I think they are at their best, as well as being most useful, in shade or part shade. Mulching will help keep their roots cool and moist in summer. Pinch out the growing tips regularly to encourage a well-branched plants and remove any flower stems which develop, as these make the plant look lanky. Also, stems that bloom tend to die back. Coleus can be grown in containers or hanging baskets. It is even possible to train a standardised coleus! For lots of information and ideas on coleus, I can recommend the book Coleus: Rainbow foliage for containers and gardens by Ray Rogers.
Ageing and gardening
17 Oct 21
As one gets older, there is the need to rethink aspects of one's garden.
Painting with coleus
10 Oct 21
Coleus can make wonderful pictures in the garden.
03 Oct 21
Tough and undemanding plants from my parents' garden are favourites in my own.
The value of green spaces
26 Sep 21
Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.
19 Sep 21
Meet some of the ferns that grow well in Sydney,