How to Grow, Propagate, and Care For Coleus Plants: A Complete Guide
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Coleus plants—a centerpiece of indoor and outdoor landscapes, are prized for their colorful foliage that radiates beauty in many shades of pink, purple, green, yellow, orange, maroon, and rust. In addition to their stunning foliage, these tropical beauties are easy to grow and propagate through seeds and stem cuttings.
With the development of new cultivars, the Coleus plants are not just shade plants anymore. Now they can grow in full sun, partial, and deep shade, offering growers the lovely leaf color throughout the season. These unique features of Coleus plants make them popular among gardeners, beginners, and houseplant collectors.
They can be grown and maintained as houseplants, border and container plants, garden beds or landscapes, and in balcony gardens.
Coleus plants are toxic
Coleus plants are toxic to animals and cause skin irritations.
This guide aims to provide information on coleus plants (Coleus scutellarioides), their landscape uses, and how to successfully grow and care for them indoors and outdoors.
About Coleus Plants
Coleus, also known as painted nettle or trailing coleus, are hardy annual foliage plants of the Lamiaceae or mint family. These plants have origins in the tropics of Asia and can grow and survive in any environment, meaning full sun, part shade, complete shade, and they have heat tolerance.
Like other members of the mint family, coleus has distinct square stems with small and colorful opposite leaves. They are fast-growing plants and reach a mature height in the first growing season.
Coleus scutellarioides' former names are Coleus blumei, Plectranthus scutellarioides, and Solenostemon scutellarioides.
Coleus Plants Features
Unlike most spring flowering annuals, Coleus plants are admired for their brilliant foliage that offers unusual patterns of leaf color, shape, style, and size. The variegated coleus leaves present different and unique color combinations, such as pink, yellow-green (chartreuse), orange, burgundy, and maroon.
These colorful annual plants are fast-growing and mature three feet tall within a single growing season. Leaf size varies from 1 to 8 inches depending upon various cultivars.
Coleus plants occasionally bloom and produce tiny blue to white flower spikes in summer but are insignificant compared to showy foliage. These flower spikes are pinched off to save energy for healthy foliage.
Coleus plants make the perfect garden plant in spring for an immediate rainbow of colors and patterns due to ease of growth.
Landscape Uses for Coleus Plants
- Attracts pollinators
- Great for hanging baskets, container plants, flower beds
Once a popular staple of Victorian-era gardens as bedding plants, Coleus, and their new cultivars are available now to fulfill various gardening and landscape applications. They can be used in hanging baskets, container plants for patios, porches, and landscape flower beds.
These versatile plants make the most decorative additions to summer gardens as bedding plants or color accents.
Their outdoor plantings in early spring attract various pollinating insects with their vividly colorful foliage.
Coleus Plant Care Guide
USDA hardiness zones
Ornamental plant feature
Where to Buy
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How to Grow Coleus
Coleus plants (better known as easy to grow and hard to kill) are warm-loving, low-maintenance annuals grown for their foliage (not for flowers). They can be grown in garden beds and containers with great ease. Generally, these plants are fast growers and mature in a single growing season.
They are winter hardy in the USDA hardiness zones 10 to 11 but grown as annual foliage plants in other climates.
Coleus plants thrive best in well-draining soils, and poor soil drainage causes severe damage to their foliage. With the development of many new cultivars, these hardy annuals can tolerate full sun, part, and complete shade. So, the coleus plants will flourish in various light conditions with their all glory.
When & How to Plant Coleus
The best time to add coleus plants to your garden is when the danger of frost has passed, and soil temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, select a garden site with excellent drainage that receives only morning sun to partial shade throughout the day.
Dig a hole in the soil that is as deep as the coleus plant’s root ball and twice as wide. Place the plant in a hole and backfill the hole with soil. Space each transplant 12 inches apart to encourage healthy plant spread with good aeration.
After planting, give a thorough watering to the new plant to prevent drying out of the roots. Keep the soil moist but not overly wet for 7 to 10 days to promote vigorous growth.
When growing coleus in containers, use a rich, well-draining potting soil mix (amend it with compost or sand to improve drainage) with pH levels of 6-7.
For outdoor plantings, always select a wind-protected area because succulent stems are vulnerable to injury due to cold temperatures.
How to Grow Coleus from Seeds
Coleus plants are easiest to grow and propagate with seeds and stem cuttings. Many nurseries and garden centers sell the seeds of new coleus varieties. However, the seed-grown cultivars need more maintenance than vegetatively propagated coleus plants.
To grow coleus plants from seeds;
- Sow the seeds in starter trays filled with seed germinating growth medium indoors about 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost date.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil and water them lightly with a spray bottle.
- Keep the soil medium consistently moist by covering it with plastic wrap and positioning the tray in light ( requires optimum lighting for seed germination).
- Seeds will germinate within 10 to 20 days at temperatures 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. After germination, remove the plastic wraps and continue to grow seedlings by regular watering.
- When the coleus plants are eight weeks old, transplant them into bigger containers with a high-quality potting mix. Allow the plants to grow until outdoor temperatures rise to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
How to Care for Coleus Plants
Coleus plants are fast growers that reach their full size in the first growing season and add vibrant colors to summer gardens and terraces. They thrive best in complete to partial shade; however, new cultivars of coleus plants can sustain the full hot sun.
On the other hand, the coleus varieties intolerant to full sun will discolor in the scorching heat. These tender annuals prefer well-draining soils and will die in saturated growing conditions due to root decay.
There following are the most crucial care factors to grow and maintain this tropical plant healthily:
- Allow topsoil to dry between waterings. Water more during heat spells.
Coleus plants require consistently moist soil but not overly wet to develop and produce healthy foliage. During dry, heat spells, the coleus in outdoor containers needs watering twice a day compared to those in garden beds.
Otherwise, the long dry periods will stunt the plant growth and turn the foliage brown around the edges. Be sure these containers of outdoor plants have drainage holes to drain the excess water.
While the indoor potted coleus plants only need water applications when the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil surface is dry. Allow the soil to dry between each watering and prevent soggy soil conditions.
Use a soaker hose or drip system to provide water to your coleus plants to the base without wetting the foliage. The wet leaf surfaces will encourage fungal and bacterial infections.
- Full shade to partial shade, avoid direct sunlight
Traditional coleus plants prefer to grow in full shade to partial shade and are intolerant of the scorching sun. While the newer cultivars developed through stem cuttings loves to grow in full sun. For example, the ‘Alabama Sunset’ and ‘Burgundy Sun’ are full sun cultivars.
Too much sun will scorch the stunning foliage of deep shade coleus plants. So, planting them in garden beds where they receive filtered morning sun and partial sun throughout the day will promote fuller foliage growth.
On the other hand, keep the containers of indoor coleus plants in warmer rooms with a bright indirect light exposure for vibrant foliage.
🌡️ Temperature and Humidity
Coleus plants thrive best in warmer climates and are grown as garden perennials in the hardiness zones 10 to 11. In colder regions, these tropical plants will die even with the season's first frost.
Therefore, bring the containers indoors when the soil temperatures drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Keep them in warmer rooms and maintain higher humidity levels.
For indoor plants, use a humidifier or pebble tray to provide the plant a warm, humid environment. Once the soil temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, bring the containers outdoors and position them in full sun locations.
Overwintering Coleus Plants
These foliage plants are hardy perennials in warmer regions (USDA hardiness zones 11 and above). These annual plants need protection from chilly temperatures in areas outside of their hardiness zones.
Bring the containers indoors in the fall to overwinter and keep them in bright, indirect light spots. Or take stem cuttings of healthy plants to propagate indoors until spring.
For indoor coleus plants, maintain higher humidity levels with water applications every three to five days.
Humidity and soil moisture are crucial factors for overwintering coleus plants.
🌱 Best Soil for Coleus
Coleus plants thrive in moist, rich, and well-draining soil. When growing them in garden beds, amend the soil with organic matter or sand to improve nutrition and drainage.
In addition, use organic mulch to retain the moisture for longer during the hottest summer days.
For container coleus plants, choose a high-quality potting mix with slightly acidic to neutral pH levels. Also, use pots with suitable drainage holes to prevent mineral build-up and root rot.
Coleus plants do not need regular fertilizer applications when grown in organically rich soil.
However, container-grown plants need frequent applications of all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Apply liquid soluble fertilizer for indoor potted plants in June, July, and August for a summer foliage growth boost.
Do not use the fertilizer formulations for flowering because the higher phosphorus levels will cause coleus plants to become leggy and bloom.
😎 Pruning and Maintenance
These fast-growing annuals need frequent trimming and pinching of flowering stalks or stems to maintain the plant shape, branching, and denser foliage growth. For a compact and bushy growth, regularly cut off the growing tips when plants are about six inches tall.
Also, to pinch back your coleus, prune off leggy stems and flower buds through the summer. Removing these leggier stems will activate the dormant leaf buds, creating a bushier and pleasing shape.
How to Propagate Coleus from Cuttings
Coleus plants can successfully grow through stem cuttings, and here’s how to multiply them;
- Select a healthy stem of the coleus plant and cut off the four to inches long part right below the foliage bud.
- Remove the bottom leaves from the cutting and dip them in the rooting hormone solution for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Place the cutting in a moist potting mix (a soilless growth medium would be best here due to zero contamination) to cover the nodes from where the leaves were removed.
- Cover the pot with a plastic sheet and keep it in a bright and warm location.
- Within 2 to 3 weeks, new roots will develop. Remove the plastic sheet and continue the new plant growing in a container or transplant it in garden soil (early spring is the best time for transplantings).
The propagation of coleus through stem cuttings is easy and low maintenance, so consider taking cuttings of your most prized coleus plants before the fall before the first frost. Otherwise, these tender annuals will be killed by frost.
Common Coleus Pests & Diseases
Generally, coleus plants are hardy annuals that remain pest and disease free when grown when provided with ideal growing conditions. However, the mealybugs and aphids are to watch for during spring due to abundant new growths and leaf buds.
Coleus, downy mildew disease is caused by Peronospora lamii and spreads through airborne spores. High humidity levels (above 80 percent) and poor soil aeration favor the development of infection. The symptoms of downy mildew disease include large and irregular lesions on the foliage, followed by falling off and stunted seedling growth.
The best way to prevent coleus downy mildew is to maintain good aeration and humidity levels. Avoid the wetting of leaf surfaces to discourage spore germination. Also, space each coleus plants 12 inches apart in garden beds for good air circulation.
Prune the infected plants and foliage to prevent spreading to healthy neighboring plants. Apply fungicides such as Alude, Stature, and Alliette as your last resort.
Stem and Root Rot
Overly wet soils with poor drainage are the main reasons for Coleus stem and root rot. It causes root decay and stunted plant growth with muddy brown foliage. The only way to restore a healthy plant appearance is by repotting.
Repot the plant in fresh potting mix with excellent drainage properties and avoid overhead water applications.
These are the most common pests of many ornamental garden plants. Mealybugs infest the stunning foliage of coleus plants, feed on plant juices, and interrupt their healthy growth. Their feeding damage includes premature leaves falling and loss of plant vigor to fight back pests.
Use rubbing alcohol and horticultural oil sprays to deter mealybug infestations on coleus. Be sure to check the bottom side of the leaves when applying treatment.
There are almost 600 coleus varieties and hybrids available to suit every gardening and landscape preference and need with their varying foliage color combinations and patterns. Some popular and unique coleus plants to decorate summer gardens are;
Coleus FlameThrower Salsa Roja: this variety features stunning and uniquely-shaped foliage in burgundy/red colors and thrives best in full sun and shade. It grows up to 12 to 18 inches with compact, tidy growth and is a perfect container plant.
Campfire: It is a fast grower and reaches a mature height of 20 inches in the first growing season, and has the most distinctive red-colored foliage.
Kong series: this coleus plant (Kong rose) grows up to 20 inches tall and thrives best in complete shade. It features massive foliage of up to six inches wide in various colors.
Fishnet Stockings: it is a unique variety with vividly colorful leaves in lime green and dark purple to black veins running through it. This plant grows best in pots with a mature height of 30 inches and prefers full sun. Pair the fishnet stockings with petunias or pansies for a gothic feel.
Wizard Scarlet: this cultivar offers bright pink leaves with white or golden margins and grows only 12 inches tall (low-growing coleus). It makes the best filler plant in large containers and very front of garden borders.
Colorblaze Chocolate Drop: this cultivar is perfect for flower beds, mixed plantings, and containers with attention-grabbing foliage. It produces green leaves with dark crimson venations and grows as an annual plant in USDA hardiness zones below 10.
FAQs on Coleus Plants
Are coleus annuals or perennials?
Coleus plants are grown as annuals for summer flower beds and landscapes, but in warmer regions (zone 10 and 11), they are perennials.
How long do coleus plants live for?
Coleus plants can live for three to four years in frost-free zones when adequately cared for and maintained.
How big do coleus plants grow? Do coleus plants spread?
Coleus plants can quickly grow up to 3 feet tall in a single season. These fast growers can spread through self-seeding (if the flower stalks are allowed to set seed), but pinching off flower stems encourage more foliage growth.
Should you cut the flowers off coleus?
Coleus plants are mainly grown for their foliage, not for flowers. So, their flower stalks should be removed through the active growing season to conserve energy for root development and foliage growth.
Is coleus toxic to dogs or cats?
Coleus plants are poisonous to dogs and cats and cause skin irritation. Its foliage contains diterpene coleonol and coleon O, which are highly toxic to dogs and cause vomiting, diarrhea, and depression upon ingestion.
Where to buy Coleus Plants?
Coleus plants are stunning with their bold, brilliant, and patterned foliage. Their additions to indoor and outdoor gardens offer a striking appeal and flowering perennials. Buy these lovely plants from Neverland with complete care and a propagation guide.
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