Garden Variety is an occasional column about growing plants without grief.
On the sunniest Deep South day, wisely planted under the dark green backdrop of a shady tree, a clump of coleus will shimmer with most all the pinks and greens and yellows of other flowers—without a single bloom.
When Vincent van Gogh wanted to study the play among pure red and rusty orange and lime green and blue, he painted a coleus. It’s a plant grown just for the mottled leaves, easy to find in any plant nursery all summer (and not in the pricey section either). What’s not to love?
And, by the way, Van Gogh’s coleus was in a flower pot indoors, which is fine too. The agreeable coleus is happy to live outdoors in the heat then overwinter in a sunny window. (Painter’s gaze optional.)
Coleus’ wild ancestors came from warm regions of the old world, and they naturally grow in the shady, damp places under trees. In Georgia, plant them in deeply shady spots after mid-April and make sure they get water if it’s not raining much. These babies can handle a lot, but not dehydration.
They’ll grow maybe a foot or 18 inches tall in a Georgia warm season. People usually pinch off the unimpressive flower spike to encourage the plant to grow more leaves instead.
Coleus will live until the first frost touches them. In the metro, that’s roughly Halloween, give or take a few weeks.
When the cold weather is coming in the fall, you can keep a coleus in two ways. For a bouquet, snip off stems of any length you like and put them in a vase in a sunny window sill. They are liable to still be around for a Thanksgiving centerpiece.
Or try cloning: Fill a flowerpot with store-bought potting soil or mix. (It’s a sterile mix of compost or peat or old bark with other stuff that’s not too dense but that will stay damp.) Cut about four inches off the end of a coleus stem and remove all but the topmost four leaves. Stick that coleus stem in the dirt, all the way up to the leaves. Put it in a sunny windowsill and keep it watered. That’s it. New roots will grow under the ground, and new leaves will grow above it.
Then, come spring, plant that clone right back outside.
A word on pronunciations: Nanny, my mom’s mom, said COLE-yuh. Two syllables, straight from the country. You sometimes hear CO-lee-us, three syllables. (I’ll go with Nan.)
Maggie Lee has been gardening in metro Atlanta for half her life and now runs Yonder Farm, a cut flower and herb farm in Fairburn.