Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
October, 2007
Regional Report

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Leaf margins on this coleus look like they were lightly brushed with paint.

Psychedelic Coleus

Crazy color combos with descriptive or engaging names have burgeoned in the coleus hybridizing world in recent years. Grown for their foliage, these tropical plants appear in various shades of red, rose, burgundy, deep purple, green, chartreuse, orange, coral, copper, and cream, as well as mixtures with splotches and streaks of multiple colors. Leaves vary in size and shape, and some foliage has crinkled edges, deep lobes, or a quilt-like texture.

Abundant Choices
Coleus colors add pizazz to just about any container combination. Just be sure to match sun exposure and moisture requirements with your other plant choices. Or, rather than choosing by color, have some fun with their names: there's something to go with just about every possible theme or interest. Southwesterners might choose 'Sedona' or 'South of the Border'. Phoenix Suns fans could match team colors by pairing 'Rustic Orange' with purple 'Cantigny Royale'. Do your kids devour the Harry Potter books? Start a children's reading garden with the almost-black 'Sorcerer' or 'Lord Voldemort' (deep purple leaves with a lime green margin.) A packet of 'Wizard Mix' seeds will provide a kaleidoscope of colors. I could get carried away with this, but you get the idea!

Most nurseries don't carry a wide selection of coleus, so you'll need to order seeds or plants early in the year to get the best selection. (Most growers ship only in the spring, missing out on Southwesterners in full-on plant mode in the fall.)

In comparison to the foliage, their bloom stalks are rather plain Jane, and after blooming, the plants tend to become gangly. Thus, pinch back flower heads as soon as they appear. Pinching also promotes a bushier plant.

Growing Tips
Coleus are perennial but are usually grown as annuals. In winter, coleus will take the low desert's direct sun. A filtered light location or a spot with morning sun also works. They can rot if kept too wet in winter, so keep soil on the dry side. They won't survive when the thermometer drops to freezing, so place them in a sheltered location, such as against a warm wall. Consider growing them in containers and moving them indoors if cold is predicted. If that isn't possible, be sure to take some cuttings before a freeze. Coleus are easy to propagate, either in water or a soil-less mix.

In summer coleus need a shadier spot than in winter, although some of the newer hybrids, such as the Sunlover series and the Solar series, were bred to take full sun. Of course, low desert gardeners know that our direct sun is especially harsh and it's best to take those plant tags and descriptions with a grain of salt.

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