Saturday, May 9, 2009

Crazy for Coleus

In recent years, since potting up large pots of annuals around our old house in New Hampshire–and gearing up for our first summer of the same in Kentucky (although a bit fewer pots)–I have become enamored with coleus. Most of the photos in this blog are of former coleus groupings back at our old house. There are so many more varieties now aside from your basic greenhouse "Mixed" six-pack that it is fun to mix it up or enliven other flowers. Some coleus are even now sun tolerant. Each summer in the past four or five years, I made several treks across the river into Vermont to buy unusual varieties of coleus and all sorts of wonderful plants at Walker Farm in Dummerston. (As well as friends and family, Walker Farm is on my list of places I miss.)

Last week in Missouri I had the good fortune of staying for a few days with my friend Anna's sister, Mabel. She and her husband Harvey operate a greenhouse and raise flowers and planters for the wholesale market. She had several coleus I hadn't seen before and said, "Take some!" I had no idea that they are mostly propagated from cuttings–although they can be grown from seed**–so she snipped off about 12 stalks from three different varieties. On Monday they made the 10-hour trip back to Kentucky with us in a full glass of water in a back-seat cup holder. Since this afternoon, they have been on my windowsill in four glasses of water. [For more info on coleus, and I am still a novice, here is a blog operated by Rosy Dawn Gardens in Michigan who have extensive offerings of coleus by mail.]

Coleus clippings on my kitchen windowsill await planting.

A King Kong coleus in my husband's Aunt Belle Temple's Victorian-era terracotta planter. I often put the pot on a millstone in the back yard. By the end of the summer the coleus was almost three feet high, as seen below. Not as sun tolerant as other varieties, it did well in the dappled sun, shaded to the west.

I bought some root hormone to give Mabel's cuttings a boost but just snips hers off and shoves them in pots around her greenhouse. Having just spent almost $100 on coleus varieties for a round raised brick garden up at the Brick House, I wanted to figure out a way to make this less expensive each year. According to Mabel all you do each fall is bring in one good specimen plant and pluck off stems with a few leaves and a long enough stalk and put them in their own pots in early spring.

By summer you have individual coleus plants, large enough to plant in a container or garden. Of course, I'm sure light and the right amount of water helps, too, so this will be an experiment for me over the winter (ah, someday a small greenhouse...). Besides, some coleus varieties, like King Kong, are perfect for the holiday season in their bright colors and red and green tones. Who needs poinsettia?

At the Brick House I wanted to do a Victorian-style circular garden in the raised brick bed out front. In the center are three TropiCannas that will grow to be over 5 feet. Once the heat arrives and with regular watering, this bed will be full and lush in no time with several coleus varieties surrounding the cannas in tapered heights.

I have a lot of respect for a plant that is willing to put all of its show into its leaves. The coleus seems such an indulgent plant yet easy to grow and wonderful in planters. I'm convinced the Victorians liked coleus because it was a sexy, showy plant when they, under their own societal conventions, had to be so restrained in other ways. They could mass it in drifts and enjoy the exciting floribunda of color. I don't like to let coleus bloom just as I don't like to let hosta send forth their ugly spikes. For the same reason–that beautiful and variated foliage–I enjoy hosta but fear we don't have enough cool shade and too much summer heat here to try some. Maybe a woodland boarder garden would work with hosta but soon I will have cows along the woods when the yard around the house gets fenced in. For now I'll enjoy big splashy pots and beds of coleus.

**NOTE: I found this online on a coleus chat Q&A:
"What I do is to let these cutting/propagated coleus go to seed, allowing the bees, flies and butterflies to pollinate the flowers. Then I save that resulting seed. It's a little messy, but just allow the flower spikes to dry up and cut off the stem, below the flowers. I fold large white artist paper in half twice to make a pocket to put the flower head. There it dries additionally and will collect any seeds that fall out. The seeds still in the dried foliage then has to be 'threshed'. This is the messy part. The advantage of all of this trouble is that you can get some really unusual plants. Colors and combinations that I've never seen for sale. I'd really recommend trying this as the purchased seed raised coleus I've grown doesn't get a foot tall before it starts to head out. Some of the coleus sold by these firms is supposedly from plants originated over 100 years ago."

1 comment:

Marcia@Frugalhomekeeping said...

Those plant arrangements are stunning! I may have to look for some at the nursery. I like Caladiums, too.