Coleus are one of the most colourful and easily grown of all the houseplants. They thrive outdoors in warmer months but cannot tolerate cold, wet winters and absolutely perish at the thought of frost.
Indoors coleus can survive under fairly low light conditions and cool temperatures if kept on the drier side. It is a member of the mint family (all mints are easily identified by their square stems) and is native to Java.
This gives a clue to what it takes to keep coleus really happy: high natural light and warm conditions. For the most spectacular results provide a sunny, warm window, keep the plant out of cold drafts, water and feed regularly.
With such loving care the plants can get quite bushy and the rainbow of colorful leaves will make what little attention they demand very worthwhile. At any time of the year, provided that conditions are warm and bright, cuttings can be started either in water or in sand and/or a light, freely draining potting mix and will form new roots quickly.
Coleus seed also germinates quickly under the same conditions and can make a great “green” project for you or the kids since the colourful foliage will start to develop with the earliest leaves.
An easy method is to make a miniature terrarium with a plastic Coke bottle. First separate the black base from the clear bottle bulb by immersing it in hot water. Then carefully cut around the bottle neck about 10cm. down from the bottle top, creating a bell jar.
Place the bell jar over the base and you have a miniature terrarium! To successfully start coleus seed, fill the terrarium base with fresh, sterilized potting soil, moisten this, then sprinkle the coleus seed over the top and cover the seed very lightly with a little more potting soil.
There is no need to moisten this top layer of soil. Once the bell jar is placed over the base the rising water vapour will keep the seed moist. Place the covered terrarium in a warm, bright window in morning or mild midday sun.
Do be careful that the terrarium is not in such a hot position as to cook the seed or seedlings that will appear within 2 weeks. Once the seedlings are about 5cm high the bell jar top can be removed and the seedlings can be lightly fed with half strength Phostrogen.
After the seedlings have developed for another couple of weeks they can be “pricked out” into pots keeping the most colourful for indoor decoration while the rest can go out into the garden once conditions become warm.
Coleus seed can be started now in a warm, sunny window and the plants will be ready to transplant by spring. They should be bushy and colourful by Christmas, making them excellent as a special “home-grown” gift of love and beauty for holiday giving.
The plants also carry attractive spikes of blue and purple flowers once mature. To keep the plants bushy it is often best to occasionally remove these with 10 to 15cm of stem cut just above a set of leaves.
Pinch out the flower spike and you have a cutting to start the cycle again. More coleus are grown in school classrooms than most plants because they fascinate children with the wonder of Nature!
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