By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
Perhaps you know them as painted nettle or poor man’s croton, depending on where you’re located, but for many of us we simply know them as coleus plants (Coleus blumei). I, for one, love them, as do many others. They have some of the most stunningly colored foliage—in combinations of green, yellow, pink, red, maroon, etc. Coleus also have a wide variety of leaf sizes and overall shapes. This means that no matter what area you are looking to put coleus, you can find one that will be perfect. These plants are great for adding color in the garden (or home), especially in those dark, drab-looking corners.
Coleus is probably one of the easiest plants to grow and propagate. In fact, the plants root so easily that you can even start cuttings in a glass of water. They can also be propagated by seed indoors about eight to ten weeks prior to your last expected spring frost.
Coleus can be added to beds and borders for interest or grown in containers. They need fertile, well-draining soil and usually perform best in areas with partial shade, though many varieties can also tolerate sun.
When growing coleus, keep in mind that these beauties can grow rapidly. Plant coleus close together as bedding plants or tuck them into baskets and containers for a fast growing and spectacular addition.
Caring for coleus is just as easy. They need to be kept moist, especially newly planted coleus. Container plants also require more frequent watering than those grown in the garden. Although it’s not required, the plants can be given a boost of half-strength liquid fertilizer during their active growth in spring and summer.
Their spiked flowers usually appear in summer; however, these can be removed if desired. You can also pinch the shoots of young coleus plants to produce bushier growth.
Another factor in coleus care is overwintering, as these plants, which are considered tender annuals, are highly susceptible to cold temperatures. Therefore, they must either be dug up, potted, and brought indoors for overwintering or grown through cuttings to establish additional plants.
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Coleus is a magnificent tropical plant, noted for the beauty of its colorful, mottled foliage.
Summary of Coleus facts
Name – Coleus
Family – Labiaceae
Type – perennial, indoor plant
Exposure – shaded
Soil – ordinary, well drained, soil mix
Foliage – evergreen
Flowering – June to September
It can be grown in the garden during summertime, and also indoors over winter: it adapts perfectly.
Coleus' needs when it comes to care are pretty minimal, making it a great introductory plant for novice gardeners or those who just don't have a lot of time on their hands to tend to their plants. Still, there are a few care tips you'll want to keep in mind to help your coleus plant thrive in a container. First thing's first: Make sure your pot is large enough to comfortably accommodate the mature size of the coleus. Choose something that the plant can "grow into"—coleus is fast-growing, and you don't want to have to be replanting it constantly when it outgrows its container. From there, maintain moist soil conditions consistently and keep the plant out of the sun.
Generally speaking, coleus is a full shade plant—while recent cultivars have made it more tolerant of sunlight, it still does not like direct, sustained sunlight and needs either shade or partial shade in order to thrive. If you notice the colors of your coleus plant look washed-out and dull, that's a good indicator that it might be getting too much sun. Likewise, if your plant starts to lose leaves, it usually means that it's in a spot that's either too dark or too cold.
When it comes to growing coleus in containers indoors, a lack of light is usually not a problem. However, during cold winter months, coleus plants grown indoors may have trouble getting just enough light. To help, place your pots somewhere where they'll receive filtered sunlight through windows, or provide them with supplemental lighting.
One of the reasons that coleus plants grow so well in containers is because they prefer the loose texture of potting soil versus more dense ground soil. When potting, use a high-quality mix, and make sure that your pot has good drainage to help prevent root rot (soil that is too heavy or dense can also cause the roots to rot). Additionally, coleus plants thrive best in soil that is neutral to acidic, specifically with a pH level between 6 and 7.
Coleus plants are not very drought tolerant, so it's important to develop a good watering cadence that allows you to keep your coleus well-hydrated but not soggy. In hot months, coleus plants grown in pots outdoors will need watering once or twice a day. If grown indoors, watering every two or three days is usually sufficient unless the air inside your home or grow space is especially dry. If you pot in a porous material like terracotta or clay, consider lining them with plastic to keep the soil moist.
As a tropical plant, coleus loves warm weather. It does not tolerate cold weather or cold soil well, so keep your plant indoors until temperatures reach at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you notice the leaves of your coleus blackening, chances are it's beginning to die because of cold temperatures and you should take it inside. Indoors, keep your coleus plant in a warm room with ambient sunlight, away from any harsh breezes (like in front of an air conditioner). If your space tends to have dry air in the winter months, a humidifier can go a long way in keeping your tropic-loving coleus happy.
Like many plants with colorful foliage, coleus plants need regular feeding. To keep your coleus thriving, mix a slow-release fertilizer into the potting soil when you are starting your plant's container. Then, feed it a diluted liquid fertilizer every week or two as it continues to grow. Because the plant needs frequent watering, any nutrients you provide it with are typically washed away quickly and it will need more frequent feeding than it would in a garden bed.
When you first plant your Coleus, whether it be in a container pot or directly into the ground, give it a good soaking of water to saturate the soil. For waterings following this, only water once the soil has started to go dry. Aim to keep the soil moist but not wet, avoiding watering too heavily, as the plant is susceptible to root rot.
Coleus plants in containers will need more frequent watering than those grown in the ground. During hot and dry summer months, Coleus container plants will need watering at least once a day, sometimes twice. However, always be careful not to overwater, as too much water will destroy the roots and leave the plant unable to absorb any water or nutrients.
The Coleus plant loves the shade, making it an ideal plant for bringing some bright and vibrant color to darker corners of your garden. This plant would have lots of shade in its natural tropical habitat, where tall trees would protect it from the sun, so try to replicate this at home by providing the Coleus with ample protection from the sun’s harsh rays. Bright, direct light will scorch the leaves, causing the vibrant colors to fade or become bleached, or resulting in browned edges or transparent patches.
The ideal spot for this plant is one that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. This is because the sun is much stronger in the afternoon and will cause damage to the plant, so it’s best for it to be in the protection of the shade during this time. Allowing the plant to get some natural light but giving it shade during the heat of the day will result in the best color on the foliage of the plant. If you don’t have an appropriate spot with afternoon shade, there are some Coleus varieties that can tolerate afternoon sun, but be sure to research your variety before you buy it and ensure you have an ideal area for it to thrive.
This tropical plant likes it hot, with an ideal temperature range of 70 to 100° F. It can tolerate very warm weather, but the same cannot be said of the cold. When overnight temperatures drop to below 50° F, the Coleus plant can run into trouble. If you have grown your Coleus in a container pot, then the ideal scenario would be to bring it inside when the colder weather sets in, putting it in a warm place with bright but indirect light. It can return outside once the weather warms up in the spring, and temperatures consistently exceed 50° F.
This plant can tolerate high humidity, as it would ordinarily experience this in its natural tropical habitat. However, the Coleus does not rely on high humidity to thrive and will do just fine in average humidity levels.
If you are growing your Coleus in a container pot, then a time will come when it outgrows the space and needs to be repotted in a larger container. A root-bound plant will stop growing, so if you want to your Coleus at its current size, then you can keep it in its pot for an extended period, but eventually, its health will suffer, and you will need to give it more space to spread out its roots.
To repot the plant, gently pull it out of its current pot and remove as much of the soil as you can without harming the roots. If the plant was particularly pot bound, then you can gently massage the roots between your fingers to encourage them to spread out in the new pot and continue healthy growth. Select a new container that is around two inches in height and diameter larger than the previous pot, and put enough potting soil in the bottom so that the plant will be at the same level in the pot as it was before. Gently place the plant into the center of the container and fill the edges with new soil.
Coleus plants prefer well-draining soil to help prevent overwatering and root rot. Use a mixture that contains plenty of perlite, which will help to ensure the soil drains well as well as aerating it. Once you have completed repotting the plant, give it a heavy watering and then, continue care as normal.
The best time to repot your Coleus is in early spring, and as a moisture-loving plant, you may want to think carefully about the construction of the container you are using. Terracotta pots have a tendency to absorb moisture, so if you’re using a pot such as this, then you should line it with plastic wrap so that the moisture is retained by the soil.
Coleus plants kept in containers can be fed a liquid fertilizer once a month throughout spring and summer. It isn’t necessary to feed the plants during fall and winter, as this is a period of minimal growth. If your Coleus plants are growing in the ground, then a slow release fertilizer may be a good option. To encourage abundant leaf growth and vibrant foliage, choose a fertilizer which has high levels of nitrogen.
This plant has a habit of becoming quite leggy. To encourage a fuller growth in a bushy style, you can prune the bottom stems of the plant. Snip off spindly stems with sharp shears, ideally a short distance above a leaf node. This should result in the stem forking out at the cut point, creating a denser plant. You can also prune the plant to keep it looking neat or to prevent it from overgrowing, though this isn’t essential.
Flowers will appear on the plant in the summer, but they pale in comparison to the beauty of the brightly colored foliage, so it is best to remove the flowers at the stem as soon as you notice buds appearing (Horticulture Magazine). The flowers do very little visually for the plant, and the energy that is spent producing the flowers means that energy is taken from elsewhere. By removing the flower buds in their infancy, the plant will redirect its energy to the continued production of colorful foliage.
The Coleus plant can easily be propagated with stem cuttings, or from seed (University of Florida- Gardening Solutions).
To grow a new Coleus, take a stem cutting from the mother plant of around five inches in length. The cut should be made just below a leaf node, and you can then remove all of the leaves from the stem except for the top pair. At this point, if you wish, you can dip the cut end in rooting hormone. This can help to encourage root growth, though it is really down to personal preference and isn’t essential to successful propagation.
You can propagate your stem cutting in water or in potting soil, and both work equally well. To propagate in water, simply place your stem cutting in a glass or jar, with enough water in so that the bottom half of the stem is submerged in water. Keep the cutting warm, ideally providing warmth from the bottom, and refresh the water when necessary to ensure it remains clean. Within several weeks, you should start to see roots appear from the bottom of the stem. When this happens, you can pot the plant into a small container and continue usual care, or plant it directly into a garden bed. If you are propagating in soil, you will follow a similar pattern, but using a small container of potting mix or propagation medium instead of a jar of water.
Use your little finger or the end of a pencil to make a hole in the soil in which to place your stem cutting. Push the soil up around the planted stem to help if stand up, and then, supply the cutting with warmth while maintaining a moist but not wet soil. When you notice new growth on the upper part of the cutting, it means that root growth is also happening. To check root growth, you can very gently tug on the stem cutting, and if you feel some resistance, then it means sufficient roots have formed. If the cutting is easily pulled from the soil, then it means roots are not present or are not advanced enough to repot. Once the cutting is ready, you can plant it up in a longer term home and continue usual Coleus care.
Growing Coleus plants from seed is also an easy process and generally results in success. The simplest method is to use a seedling tray full of potting soil and evenly spread seeds across it. Add another layer of potting soil on top so that the seeds are no longer visible. Put the tray in a bright and warm place such as a sunny windowsill, or a sunroom or conservatory, and maintain moist but not wet soil. Using a clear plastic covering over the tray can also be added, which will help to increase humidity and help the seedlings grow. You can expect to see seedlings emerge through the soil in around two weeks’ time. If you used a plastic cover, you can remove it at this point, but continue to allow the seedlings to grow until they start to become too large for their container. When watering the seedlings, add water to the bottom tray so that the roots can absorb it from underneath this serves to protect the growing seedlings, which are not yet very strong. Once big enough, you can transplant them to a garden bed or planter.
Being a tropical perennial plant, all varieties of coleus plants grow in average room temperatures. Coleus plants need temperatures of between 65°F and 75°F (24°C – 27°C). The best care tip is to avoid sudden changes in temperature and protect them from frost.
Make sure that your tropical plants are not placed in a cold draft. Unsuitable places are near an open window, air conditioning vent, or drafty door. Direct heat isn’t great for your plant either. So, keep your houseplants away from radiators, furnaces, or other sources of heat.
A bright windowsill can provide enough light if the plant is shaded from direct sunlight. However, in wintertime, the cold from the window at night could also stress your plant.
Oh Coleus, how I love you so. You are colorful, you are bold, you are one of the easiest plants to grow in the whole world. And because we live under so much shade, you are the perfect plant for us.
If you have some space to cover in your landscaping, coleus is the perfect plant for getting the job done.
If you aren’t too familiar with coleus, no worries. Take a look at 7 tips on how to grow coleus below, so this can quickly become your favorite gardening plant too.
How to Grow Coleus:
1. Choose seedlings over seeds.
This is one of my favorite tips on how to grow coleus. Because I live in the Midwest, I tend to prefer seedlings over seeds.
Our planting season isn’t very long, so planting from seedlings helps me see results quickly. For coleus, I advise that you too opt for seedlings over seeds so you can start designing your garden and landscaping quicker.
Should you have a longer growing season and want to try seeds, you can find a package of 800 Mixed Rainbow Coleus Seeds for less than $4 here.
2. Opt for shade.
Coleus love the shade and can handle partial to full shade quite nicely. It can be hard to find colorful plants that do well in the shade, but coleus is one of them.
Their bright purples, reds, and greens will look fantastic even in some of the darkest spots of your yard.
3. Choose the right soil.
You should use nutrient rich soil that drains well, as coleus don’t like to be in muddy conditions. Loosen your soil well before planting so that the coleus can stretch their roots and expand as needed beneath the soil.
A planting mix stirred into the soil (or organic matter or compost) can help enrich the soil as well.
4. Remember, they grow quickly.
Don’t be tempted to crowd your coleus as they grow and spread out quickly! Don’t crowd your coleus and instead plant them a good 6 inches apart.
This way they can fill out nicely and you don’t need to worry about them smothering each other.
Take care of your plants by preparing compost now. See how you can make a mini compost bin here.
5. Watch for the shoots.
Some varieties of coleus will produce tall shoots. You can leave these, or you can pinch them back which helps the plant bush out more and look more full.
6. A little food goes a long way.
A slow release liquid fertilizer will be well received by your coleus. Consider feeding your coleus when you plant them and about 3-4 weeks after planting.
The food can encourage growth and color. One of my favorite plant foods to use is this one by Jobes. It is a great value and works wonders.
7. Feel free to bring them indoors.
Coleus is an annual plant, so it will not survive the winter months. Instead, as the weather starts to cool dig the plants up and pot them.
They are perfect for growing indoors and a nice way to enjoy live plants during the cold winter months.
Want to start your coleus indoors? Here is a cool Aerogrow pod kit idea. You can find these pods and start growing indoors no matter what the season. Find your pods here.
Are you ready to give these 7 tips on how to grow coleus a try? This truly is one of my favorite summer time plants, and I think you will like it too.
You can literally plant it and just let it do its thing. It is one of the easiest, low maintenance plants there is.
Want more gardening tips? Check out some of these other helpful gardening posts below: