Colorful Coleus Plant Varieties for the Garden

Not Your Grandma's Coleus

March 10, 2020
Coleus Plant

As a young girl, one of my first plants was a coleus grown from a cutting my grandmother gave me. I’ve been in love with them ever since. Discover the many colorful varieties of coleus which you can find today to add to shady beds, sunny borders, and containers.

Not only are coleus easy to grow, but also this plant gives season-long color and texture, and perform well in containers or planted in the ground. Plant breeders have come up with lots of new and different types of coleus that will brighten up your shady spots and even sun-loving varieties that thrive in hot sunny locations.

Coleus Varieties

This Victoria favorite now comes in a surprising array of colors and combinations—burgundy, chartreuse, red, pinks, cream, yellow, orange, green, and purples that are dark enough to pass for black. Leaf sizes and shapes vary widely as well from spade-shaped to spears, wide or narrow, with ruffled or lobed edges, and even ones that look like duck feet!

  • There are tall varieties such as ‘Giant Exhibition’ which grows up to 4 feet high. They enjoy part-sun to dappled shade.
  • Or for edging or hanging baskets, check out low-growing sprawling types like ‘Trailing Plum’ or ‘Ruby Ruffles’ that grow about 10 inches tall but spread 2 feet or more across. They also enjoy part sun to partial shade.

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‘Giant Exhibition’ coleus grow to be about 4 feet tall and have huge leaves. They make a good backdrop for other plantings.

There are too many to choose from! Many of the newer ones are hybrid plants that do not set reliable seeds so they have to be propagated from cuttings. We start all ours from seed so we are limited as to what we can grow but even so it is hard to narrow my wishlist down to just a few.

  • There are the mainstays like ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Wizard’ which both enjoy semi-shaded beds.
  • ‘Black Dragon’ is a must-have for its dark velvety leaves, and the Fantastic Foliage series has lots of colors for sun and shade.

Coleus are great paired with a blossoming plant.

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My favorite combination is ‘Salmon Splash’ impatiens paired with ‘Wizard Coral Sunrise’ coleus.

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I grew them in windowboxes on my shady porch last summer and loved the way they brightened up a drab corner!

We have yet to try the “fuseables” that have several seeds combined in one pellet. They germinate and grow together offering a ready-made mix for container growing.

  • ‘Chocolate Mint’ and ‘Lime Delight’ is a popular combo.

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I love the chartreuse sweet potato vine on the left paired with the lime green and cream coleus on the right. Red impatiens and a dark leaved begonia add even more color to this container.

Tips on Growing Coleus

Start the seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost.

Coleus have that familiar square stem which lets you know they are in the mint family but don’t worry, they won’t take over your garden. They are very frost tender Southeast Asian natives, only hardy in zone 11, so they are grown as annuals. If you can’t bear to part with them come fall, just take some cuttings to winter over indoors. They root readily in a glass of water and make a dependable, carefree houseplant.

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I winter over a cuttings from few of each of my favorite coleus to give me a headstart on the season.

A favorite plant in the Victorian era, their colorful foliage was used outdoors in elaborate bedding displays. They are called flame nettles in England and sometimes called painted nettles here in the US. The amount of sun they get affects the colors.

Varieties that tolerate full sun need at least a half day of sunshine to develop the best color while most do fine in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. I have grown them in fairly deep shade and they still look great but get a little tall and lanky.

A prudent pinch of the growing tip every now and then will keep the plants compact and bushy and also prevent them from flowering and going to seed. Well-drained, evenly moist soil will keep them from wilting on a hot day but don’t let them sit in water. A soggy location will rot the roots.

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Containers will need frequent watering and a half-strength feeding of fertilizer every other week will keep the plants lush and happy. Plants growing in the ground don’t usually need any extra fertilizer if the soil is good; if not, a monthly drink of half-strength fertilizer will perk them up.

To make a visually striking display, weave some colorful coleus into your flowerbeds this summer.

See the Almanac’s complete Coleus Growing Guide for complete planting and plant care information.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.