Coleus basics for all gardens

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'Marooned' coleus:jpnse grass

Coleus — named the annual of the year for 2015 by National Garden Bureau —  may conger up visions of Victorian or Grandma’s gardens. But don’t be fooled, today’s coleus varieties have come a long way with brilliant choices for shaded or sunny spots with ruffled or frilled foliage, solid colors, splashes, blotches, streaks, flecks, margins and veins. The wide and exciting range of coleus varieties available should nicely augment anyone’s planting palette.

Here are some coleus basics to get you inspired and growing from the NGB:

Getting Started

Raising coleus from seeds is relatively easy. Seed strains offer uniformity and may include mixes or consistent coloration with identical plants. Seed packets can be quite affordable and a wide range of coleus varieties available from seed vendors. Time seed sowing to be 8-12 weeks before the last frost date. Sow seeds in at least three inches of growing medium (maintain at 70 degrees F) and seeds should be sown on the surface as they require light to germinate. Well-timed, even watering, misting (for humidity) and frequent observation are encouraged.

Overwintering coleus plants as houseplants is an option although temperatures near 70 degrees F are required. Rotate plants and pinch back as needed to maintain form. Consider grow lights to provide adequate winter lighting conditions.

Designing With Coleus

Solid color coleus varieties such as Redhead and Lime Delight Premium Sun (both bred for the sun) can be very impactful and make a statement in the mixed border while those with variable coloration may become “color echoes” for neighboring plants with similar (or contrasting) flower and/or foliage colors. The repetition of certain coleus colors and form can lend unity and harmony in the garden. While a solitary specimen can add a “punch” of color, consider the impact of mass planting as well. Foliage with lighter coloration can provide illumination in shadier locations while dark colors (for example, any coleus with Chocolate its name) in the same setting will create depth and contrast. Consider coleus just one of many available tools in your gardening “toolbox.” (Note the dramatic contrast of the velvety ‘Marooned’ coleus and Japanese grass in the photo above.)

Coleus in Containers

All coleus have excellent container potential if they are given adequate well-draining soil mix, reasonable nutrients and the proper sun exposure to thrive. Avoid windy locations as coleus can be prone to breakage in extreme winds. Slow release fertilizers are recommended for your containers although half strength liquid fertilizer applied every 2 weeks over the growing season should be sufficient. Coleus do not show their best coloration if over fertilized so be conservative and consistent. You may want to consider water retention additives to help alleviate some watering needs, particularly in sunny locations. Drainage is vital so consider adding additional drainage holes as needed.

The container style, color and ultimate placement should also be considered in advance. Coleus filled containers, if moveable, allow for instant color as they can be positioned as needed and used to add color, provide immediate interest and accent areas of the garden, deck or patio.

Coleus certainly has the potential to be included in hanging basket arrangements. Some of the trailing selections are ideal for the edge of an elevated container while larger varieties can be utilized for a strong foliage contribution in the center of the basket. Consider watering needs as coleus are naturally thirsty and a hanging basket can be one of the most challenging situations in terms of moisture retention and associated watering needs. Wind protection is also warranted.

Coleus Problems

Coleus may become stressed by lack of heat and moisture. Excessive or inadequate moisture may lead to challenges with insects or diseases. A healthy coleus plant is the best defense against these challenges. Slugs, snails, spider mites, mealybugs, whiteflies and occasionally aphids may be challenges under certain conditions. While there are few fungi, bacteria and viruses that affect coleus, there may be occasional issues of stem rot, root rot or downy mildew which all have a direct relationship to moisture inputs and associated growing conditions.

Relocating the plant, pinching healthy cuttings for re-establishment or removing the plant might be options to consider. Healthy, young plants will frequently outgrow some of these challenges if properly “encouraged” or may never exhibit problems because of their vigor.

When going with bromeliads, go big

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orange bromeld

Bromeliads instantly add a touch of the tropics to the landscape. These tender tropicals (Zones 10A to 11) come in many sizes, but one of my favorites is Aechmea blanchetiana ‘Big Orange.’ Topping out at nearly three feet tall — and brilliant orange in color — this bromeliad simply pulsates with color. When the sun shines on it, and it should because this bromeliad loves full sun exposure, it practically glows. Who needs blooms when you’ve got such powerful hues?

Mix it up with purples like the huge purple crinum or the shorty red bromeliad (Neoregelia ‘Hoja Roja’) and you’ve got a traffic-stopping combo. I like this little red bromeliad (also a full-sun fanatic) that slowly spreads the joy. orange:red bromelds

Oh baby, I’ve got the blues, blue ginger that is

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blue ginger

Blooming now in the shade bed is one of my favorite tropical perennials, blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora). This handsome member of the spiderwort family originally hails from South America.

According to Wikipedia, this plant was first described by the naturalist Johann Christian Mikan in 1823, and later became a popular addition to British gardens. Hardy in Zones 9a south, this distinctive plant with its upright growth and shiny green foliage can get as tall as six to eight feet. My plant has been in place for about six years, and is almost five feet in height. Over time it has slowly expanded in its protected bed under a large live oak. Blue ginger prefers partial shade and my plant receives dappled sun throughout the day. It also requires a rich soil and plenty of moisture. 

Blue ginger can also be grown as a house plant, as it does not tolerate freezing weather. My plant has been killed back to the ground once or twice during especially cold winters, but has sprouted back. I have rooted cuttings to share, and if you are growing it in a marginal climate this could be one way to ensure that you will continue to enjoy this plant.

Another good reason to plant alliums

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A. GlobemasterAs you select and plant spring-flowering bulbs, consider alliums. Not only do they present great long-lasting, late-season color and texture in their globe-like blooms, but they return season after season and once the blooms fade and the heads dry, the seed heads remain in the sunny garden all summer long for a touch of contrast.

There are several allium varieties from huge to diminutive and bloom colors from white to deep purples.

But this morning as the chilly winds begin to blow out of the north, I discovered yet another good reason to plant these bulbs. Out in the garden a gang of goldfinches perched on the sturdy dry stems gracefully feasting on the little seeds that form at the outer ends of the dried blooms.

Alliums are truly the bulbs that keep on “giving.”alium seed heads

Garden shoes for the long run

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My favorite garden shoes, the L.L. Bean gum shoe

My favorite garden shoes, the L.L. Bean gum shoe

Call me a traditionalist. I don’t mind. When it comes to what I wear on my feet when I head out to the garden, I go with the tried and true, old-fashioned L.L. Bean gum shoe. And even though I realize there has been a rash of garden shoes, clogs and boots on the market in recent times, here’s why I believe my Bean’s shoes are the best gardening footwear to be found:

• Easily slipped on and off, no bending down to fasten buckles, etc.
• They offer good traction, important when it comes to wet surfaces
• Unlike some of the clogs and sandal-type shoes, they always keep your feet dry
• Good summer and winter when you want warm socks
• Just hose them off when you are ready to head indoors
• Long-lasting and bottoms can be replaced
• They are available in both men’s and women’s sizes

Beating the heat with color

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strwflwrs:lantana

 

Are you growing strawflowers or lantana this summer? These colorful annuals are perfect for those hot summer days when lesser plants wither and shrivel. Heat-tolerant, these annuals from Proven Winners just keep blooming no matter what with no deadheading needed.

Mine are in a large terracotta pot placed where they get plenty of sun and their non-stop color can be enjoyed. The strawflowers also have a little surprise in that come sundown, the perky blooms close up for the night, reopening the next day when the sun shines.

Rhubarb season

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Image

It is that time of year, the rhubarb is ready. What a treat it is to harvest something fresh from the garden now when even the trees are struggling to wake up from the winter. We’ve already enjoyed rhubarb crisp, and today I’m picking more stalks to make my husband’s favorite, cinnamon-fragrant rhubarb bread.

Rhubarb is easy to grow, but like a like of northern perennial plants, it requires a period of dormancy. That means it is definitely not a plant for the Deep South. Each fall my rhubarb patch  — which stands guard at the end of the two rows of raspberry canes — gets an application of compost and a thick mulch of hay once it goes dormant. In the spring when things start to thaw, the tender stalks spring forth. Occasionally rhubarb will send up a bloom stalk, which should be removed as it redirects the plant’s energy. Avoid harvesting too many stalks from a particular plant as this too can weaken the plant. It is important to plant several and give them room to divide and spread so you’ll have plenty of rhubarb to enjoy fresh in baked goods and even have enough to stash in the freezer for treats later on. To harvest, just select a stalk and holding it near the base, give it a tug at a slight angle from the base of the plant. The stalk should pull away without breaking.rhubarb bloom

Anyone who grows rhubarb should also consider growing Sweet Cicily, a perennial herb with attractive fern-like foliage. This old-fashioned herb has many uses and in Colonial times its seeds were harvested and crushed for their oil. Today we grow this plant to help naturally sweeten rhubarb dishes and reduce the amount of sugar. You’ll need to experiment a bit, but I find that about a tablespoon of minced leaves added to the rhubarb in a crisp recipe for example, will “sweeten” it up nicely along with the sugar/oat topping. As the season progresses, the Sweet Ciciy will put out lacy panicles of white blooms. Image

Here’s the rhubarb bread recipe which is from my friend Susan Manning, who it also happens I got my start of rhubarb from as well! It makes two small or one large loaf, which is even better the next day. And my recipe for rhubarb crisp with a brown-sugar and thick cut oat topping.

Sam’s Rhubarb Bread

2 large eggs
3/4 cup oil
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups diced rhubarb
1/2 cup chopped nuts
3 cups all-purpose flour (can use half whole wheat flour)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Combine eggs, oil, sugar, rhubarb and nuts. Mix dry ingredients together and blend into rhubarb mixture. Divide between two loaf pans (4×8) or one large (5×9) loaf pan which has been greased and dusted with flour. Bake at 350 degrees about one hour or until loaves test done. Cool completely on rack and wrap in waxed paper.

Rhubarb Crisp

3 cups chopped rhubarb (fresh or frozen)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon minced Sweet Cicily (if desired)
1 cup thick cut oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a one and half-quart baking dish, spread rhubarb and sprinkle with the Sweet Cicily and cinnamon. Combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, oil and salt. Spread topping on rhubarb and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Serve warm.

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