Vanquishing a Summer’s Worth of Gardening Despair
By Peter Gribble
Summer’s here at last. The sun inched to Solstice and has begun its imperceptible retreat. Though when summer looms over the dominos of West End high rises, it means less sun on balconies, particularly south facing ones. On a south-facing, size-of-a-cell-phone balcony we have to squeeze all our potted plants into the narrow sliver of high noon sunlight by the railing to snare every passing photon. If we don’t, our pot-bound captives will do it for us. Within weeks the geraniums have stretched themselves leggy, the bright, annual hanging baskets are anything but perky. As for the lone, listing, paling tomato with the once high expectations …
At this frustrating juncture in July, it’s tempting to end the photonic charade and tip pots, dirt and plants over the side and withdraw indoors and draw the blinds on gardening altogether.
In the shadowed jungle of tall buildings, botanical suicide is uncalled for when a single solution solves the problem.
It’s Coleus. The Latin name Solenostemon scutellarioides sounds like a viral infection but no, it’s the common, easy-to-grow, ubiquitous, favourite houseplant passed down generations from windowsill cuttings.
Taxonomists no longer recognize the genus name ‘Coleus.’ On plant tags you may see Solenstemon but also Plectranthus, a close relative producing very similar plants. Since everyone else knows both as Coleus, let’s keep it simple.
Coleuses have been hybridised over the last several decades into an impressive Justice League of muscular gardening spectaculars. Adaptable to sun and/or shade conditions (check the label) these dazzling superheroes are able to leap tall buildings … ah, stay on tall buildings and their assorted balconies regardless of exposure and direction vanquishing a summer’s worth of gardening despair. And with what wonderful, crazy names!
I was already intrigued by Coleus’ range of vivid colours and quick growth but last year a name stopped me in my tracks: ‘Texas Parking Lot!’ It’s sun to shade adaptable Coleus but the moment you see the flinchingly sunburnt pinky-red leaves under a haze of yellow-chartreuse flecks (grows 30-36”), suddenly you’re stranded far from the mall in a breathless, overheated North Dallas parking lot on a scorcher of a day. I would shake the hand of the person who came up with that brilliant name!
The other variety I grew last year was Fishnet Stockings™ … of course, for the fun name but equally for its unusual colourings. Young leaves start out black with a central magenta vein but as they mature shades of bright green bubble through the black to expand the darkness into a fine lattice of suggestive, sexy netting … but only suggestive and sexy after you read the name on the tag.
The Coleus bug has bitten me hard. So far this year I’ve collected 13 varieties, mostly bought for the colours but some for the names. I don’t discount the possibility I may have to slow down as I’ve run out of pots, soil … and room.
Hybridizers have developed series. Dümmen RedFox has the ‘MainStreet’ series. Some names are: Chartres Street (bright green, grows 16-36” tall); Wall Street (rusty red with yellow edges, 16-20” tall); 5th Ave. (pale pink centre bordered by a dark green burgundy and edged with light green, 18-36” tall) and Rodeo Drive (light green with burgundy with frilly edges, 16-24” tall.) This series tends to be happier in shadier conditions and are generally shorter growing though you should check the tags for exceptions.
I’m in love with Campfire (one of the Premium Sun series from BallFloraPlant.) Growing to 14-28” tall, its deep, burnt orange leaves shimmer with an under glow of ultra violet. It’s as close to an accurate description as I can get … but I’ll be gazing into this entrancing campfire all season.
One of the tallest Coleuses is the glorious Kingswood Torch, sun and shade tolerant, growing to 36-42” with a warm, red coal in the centre of its leaf surrounded by burgundy glinting with orange and sparkled with chartreuse at serrated edges. The reverse is almost as interesting with a dark, rich burgundy with every vein precisely highlighted in light green.
Proven Selections® has a gorgeous prize winner called Gay’s Delight (no joke!). He’s a bright, festive, lime-green leaf sporting a purple-black thong, a 24-36” Coleus who can strut his stuff in sun or shade on any Davie Street balcony.
Less flamboyant and more subdued, introspection shading to melancholy, moodiness suggesting unresolved issues, is Dark Star, another prize winner from Proven Winners® Colorblaze® series. Leaves, the deepest red-burgundy wine, are so intense as to be almost black. ‘Dark Star’ invokes some troubled antihero simmering in the Coleus Justice League. Dark Star is both shade and sun tolerant, standing ambivalently at 12-24“.
Coleuses are NOT edible despite names implying culinary uses. The FlameThrower™ series (the name may be in reference to an English common name for Coleus, ‘flame nettle’) have Spiced Curry with narrow green leaves and long, brown edges and midribs; Chili Pepper is similar to Spiced Curry but in greens and yellows with redder accents; Chipotle has narrow, light green leaves with dark reddish borders and splotches. All of these are more compact at 12-18” tall and suitable for smaller pots and mixed containers. Think of fibrous begonias as fillers and trailing fuchsias as spillers.
Then there are the drinking Coleuses. From the ColorBlaze® series is Dipt in Wine, (20-36”), which should be poured in a glass with its rich Cabernet-Sauvignon-Burgundy colour, its centres and finely trimmed crenulate edges in yellow (doubtless bottled on the Château Coleus Estates.) Another in the series is Royale Apple Brandy a burgundy red leaf generously edged in bright green (24-34”) (with the ‘e’ betraying French origins one assumes it was double-distilled in Normandy.) A smaller leafed version of Gay’s Delight is Caipirihna, celebrating Brazil’s national cocktail made with lime and Cachaça, the sugar cane liqueur. Appropriately close by is the PartyTime™ series with Lime, a sun tolerant variety lime green with lemon centres and veining and is unusual for its semi-trailing habit (16-20” tall). This series also has the thirst quenchers Ruby Punch, Sangria and Pink Fizz. The Pineapple Coleus, a bright yellow green with cranberry sprinkles (16-20”) adds a hefty garnish.
Coleuses have always been easy to grow and are adaptable as houseplants as well as on summer balconies. Use ordinary planter box mix when planting them up in larger pots. Keep evenly moist with regular watering and don’t let them dry out or let them get soggy. Fertilize every two weeks with a general all purpose fertilizer and watch them grow more spectacular each week. By summer’s end and into fall their final height is reached by spires of flowers, usually blue to purple. Leaf colour is heightened or nuanced by the amount of sun, heat and shade. Hardy to zones 10-11 means Coleuses can’t endure the slightest frost. Bring them in well before frost or take cuttings during the growing season. Root them on indoors near a bright window, mist them occasionally and don’t over water – they can rot quickly – and await next summer’s extravaganzas.
Buying Coleus in May or June will find them in 4” pots and in need of immediate transplanting. A July purchase and they will already be growing on in larger pots and reaching near halfway to their maximum sizes. Pinching them back will slow this while encouraging them to bush out. Some people also snip out the flower buds to stimulate additional growth as bottom stems can begin dropping older leaves.
One can only guess the hybrids and names to come. Instead of American ‘MainStreets,’ ‘Canadian Crossroads’ would be a great idea! Imagine the Portage and Main Coleus; the Yonge and Bloor; the Sherbrooke and St. Denis; the Denman and Davie Coleus! Why stop there? Place names and bus routes are as good: the English Bay Coleus, the 99 B-Line Coleus and, not forgetting, the Wreck Beach Coleus!
Speculate the cross-pollinations being planned, perhaps mixing a lethal cocktail of Royale Apple Brandy, Caipirihna and Dipt in Wine with an extra squeeze of Lime – hold the Pineapple – and strain through Fishnet Stockings. Or one might wonder how Gay’s Delight and Dark Star would get along. They’ve sun and shade in common … perhaps by the light of a Campfire …
It’s reassuring that humanity and Nature can still cosy up to each other with humour and affection. What better way to celebrate a summer’s gardening success.