How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Coleus Plants
Coleus is a versatile shrub, that grows well in shady areas/ Some varieties that can grow quite well in sunny spaces. Growing coleus in your garden can provide that additional "pop" of color that you may be missing. In this article, certified master gardener and coleus enthusiast Laura Elsner teaches you how to plant, grow, and care for coleus!
Flowers come and go in a garden, but the foliage is constant. So it is important that the foliage in a garden is beautiful and interesting. That way when the flowers fade there is still something that catches our eye. This is where coleus shines. Their foliage is so intricate and colorful that it rivals any flower in the garden.
But unlike a plant that relies on a flower to make its statement in the garden, coleus shines all throughout the season with foliage alone. These brightly colored plants can make excellent companions in shade gardens, or in areas that get full sun, depending on the coleus variety. There are many different options to choose from, making it a gardener’s dream as a filler plant or ornamental groundcover.
While it is technically a tender perennial (zones 11+), for most regions in the United States it will be annual. Use it in containers to liven up annual and mixed perennial beds. The colors of their leaves will be sure to attract attention. Let’s dig into how to plant, grow, and care for coleus, so you can add them into your garden or shade garden and create a colorful harmony all throughout the season.
Coleus Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual, Tender Perennial
Native area China, Japan, Korea
Hardiness Zone USDA 11+
Season spring and summer
Plant Spacing variety dependant
Planting Depth to the crown of the plant
Height depends on the variety
Watering requirements moderate
Pests Spider mites, aphids, mealybugs
Diseases stem and root rot
Soil Type light, hummus, well draining
Plant with Begonias, lysimachia, calibrachoa
Tolerance warm weather loving plant
Dutch botanist Karl Blume discovered and brought the coleus back from Java to Europe in the 19th century. It became a widely popular plant in Victorian England as a traditional bedding out plant. It made its way over to the United States around the same time and gained the same popularity as a traditional bedding plant in a Victorian style garden.
Coleus was originally named Coleus Blumeii, But in the mid 2000s the Latin name has changed and now coleus goes under the scientific name Solenostemon Scutellariodes. This is due to botanist finding different traits and dividing plants into smaller categories because of similar traits. Plants are constantly shifting in the botanical world. However, gardeners and plant enthusiasts usually keep to original names. So coleus it is.
Unlike roses or hostas that have specific organizations that manage and oversee new introductions, there isn’t an official organization pertaining to coleus. So it’s hard to pinpoint specific cultivars. There can be various spellings and names of the same cultivar. Coleus remains a bit mysterious, but beautiful nevertheless. So let’s dig into how to choose and grow beautiful coleus for your garden.
There are almost 300 species of coleus. Some came over from the species plectranthus. It’s really hard to get a number for how many varieties there are as there is no official organization for coleus.
But there is coleus for everyone. From sun varieties to ones that perform best in shade. There are upright ones and low-lying trailing ones. Some coleus have large leaves, some have small leaves, and some have ruffled or elongated leaves. They come in almost all colors, except blue. I guarantee you will find coleus that will suit your personal tastes and conditions.
One of the biggest benefits of growing and cultivating coleus is that it is ridiculously easy to propagate. Coleus is also widely available to purchase and in my experience, they are gaining popularity so finding particular varieties is even easier than before. Here are some methods to obtain coleus for your garden.
I’ll start with the easiest way, go to the garden center or greenhouse/nursery and purchase one. They usually will be in stock when all of the bedding out annuals are in stock in your area. Choose one that catches your eye. But also consider how you will be using it. There are Large varieties that are tall and look great as the thriller in a container. There are small low-lying trailing ones that can spill out of containers.
However, there are also coleus varieties that perform better in the sun, and better in the shade. Choose the one you like and that suits your needs in the garden. Or be like me, and just buy a bunch of them and worry about where they’ll go later.
Rooting coleus is ridiculously easy. Simply cut off a new, green stem, and plop it in water and it will root. It will live indefinitely in a vase of water.
If the plan is to take cuttings and grow them in soil, then I recommend you get them growing in the soil before they form giant roots in water. I find the bigger their roots, the harder it is for them to transition into the soil. I prefer to get them into the soil right away.
To do this take your green cutting that has either been freshly cut, or been in the water just long enough to sprout a few small roots and dip it into rooting hormone. This isn’t necessary, but I do find it really helps get the roots going quicker. Then place the cutting into evenly moist potting soil.
Cover the cutting either with a plastic dome lid, or bag, and leave it away from the sun for around a week. After a week, remove the covering and move to the sun. Keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy through this entire process. You will be able to see that the first two sets of leaves have perked up if the rooting was successful.
Starting From Seed
Starting coleus from seed is a fairly easy task. Find some coleus seeds from a reputable source. Coleus does not come in electric purple or blue. This drives me nuts because some sellers will have these crazy plants on their websites and they are not real. If they look too good to be true, they probably are.
Finding a Good Mix
I recommend Wizard Mix or Fairway mix as easy coleus seeds to come by. Start your seed 8-12 weeks before the last frost date. Place your seeds on an evenly moist soilless seed starter. That is the best option, but if that sounds like too much, just use evenly moist potting soil. By evenly moist I mean not sopping wet, you can’t squeeze water out of it.
For containers, you can go fancy and buy a seed starting dome container. But yogurt and berry containers, or plastic leftover containers work fine. Just be sure to poke holes in the bottom so the excess moisture can drain out.
Then lightly cover the coleus seeds and place them somewhere warm to germinate. Coleus actually requires light to germinate, not full sun, just bright indirect light. I place my seeds on top of an older model refrigerator (I was recently informed that new fridges don’t get warm on top). Or I will put them on the counter where the dishwasher is as it provides a bit of bottom heat as well. Another option is to purchase a seed germination mat, which I recommend if seed starting is your thing because it cuts down on germination times on all sorts of seeds by providing heat.
Checking on Your Starts
I check on my seeds daily. I set a timer on my phone and just give them a quick check. Make sure they aren’t dried out or too wet. As soon as you see sprouts remove the lid and bring them to light. This could take two weeks.
All seeds start off with tiny leaves that don’t look like the plant they will become. This is called the cotyledon. Don’t be alarmed that it doesn’t look like baby coleus. The second set of leaves it sprouts, known as the true leaves, will be little coleus leaves. Keep them in bright light, rotate them, and run your hands or blow on them, or even use a fan to mimic the wind and strengthen their stems.
Also, turn them so they don’t grow tilted to the light. If your plants look long and leggy, they aren’t close enough to a light source, the sun or a grow light. Let them grow and get bigger, keep them watered, but not wet. You can pull them apart into separate containers, or leave them growing in a mass. If you have too many, you will need to thin out some of the seedlings. As they grow more sets of leaves you can pinch them back so they grow bushier.
You spend all this time and effort nurturing and caring for your baby coleus. The final frost is over and the weather is consistently above 50F (10C) and you plant all your coleus. The next day it is shock and horror. They are shriveled to nothing. All that hard work is gone. This is because they need to be hardened off.
Plants were grown indoors (this goes for cutting started indoors as well) are not used to the full sun and wind and weather. They need to be slowly introduced. Don’t skip this step. It takes a week or less and it ensures your plants are ready to face the elements. I bring my coleus inside over the winter and then back out in the summer and they need to be re-hardened every spring.
Start by bringing your seedling out for a couple of hours. Leave them in the shade, then bring them back in overnight. Then bring them out for a bit longer the next day, then back in. Then slowly add some dappled sunlight. If everything looks good, leave them out overnight. Then add more sun. Then they should be ready to go. If at any time they get droopy or bleached, bring them into the shade. Keep them watered well throughout the process.
Your coleus babies are now ready to be planted in the garden, In the next section, I will guide you through proper conditions to get the most out of your newly grown coleus throughout the season.
Planting coleus is a very easy procedure. Pick the perfect location (read the how to grow section to find that perfect spot). Now take your coleus and gently tip it out of its container. They can have fragile stems that you don’t want to break. Don’t worry if you accidentally break one, they regrow quickly. If the roots are small just take them and plant them up to the crown (where the soil meets the stems) then gently covered them in soil.
If the coleus is really root bound in the container make sure to ‘crack’ the roots. That is to say, split them apart. I usually rip them in half once again. This allows the roots to grow down into the soil and not just wrap around until it chokes themselves. Now water well. If you have the option, try and plant on a cool cloudy day, or in the early morning or early evening. I’ve planted in the heat of the day, and it’s OK, but it takes them longer to perk up, recover and start growing.
How to Grow
I do know some people have no luck with coleus, they find that they rot and snap and dissolve away. I don’t usually have any problems with mine because I choose my location and the conditions they will be in carefully. If you have them growing in their optimal conditions they can grow big and lush. Here’s what they need.
Coleus is traditionally thought of as a shade plant. It’s true, they do great in the shade. But there have been a lot of new introductions that love the sun. When choosing coleus do some research on if it is a sun variety, or a sun/shade variety.
Full shade is defined in the garden as 4 hours or less of sun. Most plants, even shade plants, do not like the full dark shade. Some varieties of coleus however do well in shady conditions. I use coleus in some planters that receive so little sun that even begonias won’t flower. But somehow coleus will thrive.
It doesn’t grow to its full size potential, but it provides a little pop of color in a dark area. I recommend varieties that are smaller and more green/white for full shade. Like Wizard ‘Jade’ or Wizard ‘Rose’ are good choices for full shade locations.
This area of 3-6 hours of direct sun that part shade/part sun offers is great for coleus. This is a dappled shade garden that receives morning or evening sun, but lots of protection from the harsh afternoon sun. This will also make coleus with lots of color variation in their leaves show the best. In full shade, all the greens, whites, and yellows are more prominent.
In full sun the reds, pinks, and burgundies become the dominant color. But in partial sun/shade, all the colors will appear more evenly. In a variety such as El Brighton, where there are so many intricate colors, placing it in a part shade/sun location will ensure all the colors can be seen. A spot that receives morning sun, or late afternoon sun is great for part shade/sun.
Some of the newer varieties of coleus, such as the ColorBlaze series, have been made for the sun. These coleuses get big and are bright. All the reds, pinks, and burgundies become intense in full sun. Take ColorBlaze golden dreams, in a shady spot it is a plain green color. Add some sun and it has veins of a dark burgundy. In full sun the center of its leaf will turn a brilliant burgundy color with a small golden-yellow margin.
I’m not going to say one is better than another, they all look nice, but it is something to consider when you’re looking at your coleus. Coleus in full sun will have more intense darker colors than ones in the shade. If the leaves are getting bleached out or crispy, it’s a sign of too much sun. Even coleus meant for full sun do appreciate a bit of dappled shade protection from that extra intense afternoon sun. Also, sun-loving coleus varieties will require more water to keep them happy.
Coleus is divas when it comes to water, they do not tolerate long periods of drought. The moment you see the signs your coleus needs water, go water it. Don’t wait, they go past the point of no return real quick.
The amount of water will depend on the amount of sun the coleus is in. Coleus planted in the full sun needs significantly more water than coleus in a full shade location. When your coleus needs a drink its leaves will droop and it will look sad. Once it gets a good soak, it will perk back up. On a hot day, you may be watering coleus in the full sun one or more times a day (depending on pot size, soil, and the intensity of sun exposure). Full shade coleus might only need a soak once a week.
This is where I think most people go wrong with coleus. Watering is very important and it can’t be too little, but on the flip side, it can’t be too much. Coleus do not like being constantly soggy, this is where they rot at the stem and dissolve to nothing.
Keep an eye on your coleus and figure out the sweet spot and stick to that watering schedule. This sounds a lot more daunting than it actually is, you’ll find a groove. Chances are if you have other annuals with your coleus, they like the same amount of water. Newly planted coleus will require more water for the first few weeks as they are getting their roots established. Keep a closer eye on them.
Coleus likes light and fluffy soil full of organic matter. To check to see if your soil is too dense grab a handful of it and squeeze it in your hand. If the soil stays in the shape of the ball, you have dense clay soil. If the soil just crumbles away and doesn’t hold its shape, it’s light. However, if you have heavy soil, use peat or coconut coir (I prefer coir as it is a renewable resource whereas peat moss is not) to lighten garden soil. Just work this in with your regular soil.
To add nutrients to the soil, choose compost, aged manure, seas soil, or worm castings. Just top dress your beds that have already been prepared with peat/coir (if necessary). Topdressing means you don’t need to till it in, just put it on top and water it in and all the nutritious goodness will seep down. Do this either in the early spring or the late fall.
If you live in an area without defined seasons, sprinkle compost around the base of the plants, or consider using compost tea when you water to add nutrients.
For containers, an all-purpose potting mix works great, it is always light and fluffy and often has fertilizer and nutrients already in it. I have added potting mix into dense garden soil to loosen it up in lieu of coir and compost. It’s just more expensive and not very practical for large areas.
Dense soil is another reason your coleus is dying. If it is too dense and water can’t drain, the tender stems just rot away. Make sure you have light soil, this will also help regulate the water so it’s harder to over and underwater your coleus.
Climate and Temperature
Coleus are tropical plants, so they like tropical temperatures. Tropical regions are defined as areas where temperatures constantly remain above 64F. This is the climate that coleus thrive in. Anything below 50F and your coleus will stop growing and start to look droopy until it warms up.
Coleus can not handle frost of any kind. If you are in an area that gets frost, you will need to protect them. Keep an eye on the temperature and consider setting up frost alerts on your phone from your local weather app. Then be ready to protect your coleus from freezing weather. Here are a few ways to do this successfully.
If you grow coleus in pots that are easy to pick up, just take them either into a garage, shed, or into the house on nights where there is a frost warning.
For coleus in-ground or in pots too large for transport, you will need to cover them. You can purchase special frost covers at a garden center for this purpose. But this is definitely not necessary. Use old sheets, towels, and/or blankets to cover your delicate coleus from the frost. Do not use anything plastic, like a tarp.
If the plastic is touching the plant it will succumb to the frost. I use frost protection because I live in an area where we receive late summer frosts and then it warms up for a few more weeks and I like to extend my season. But this is also a good tip for anyone who lives in an area that will get a frost warning only a few times a year. Keep on top of frost and enjoy your coleus for longer, just like we do when planning out our shade garden in zone 3.
If you live in an area where there is a winter season, you can bring coleus indoors. Treat them like houseplants over the winter months. Or grab a few cuttings and root them over the winter.
Coleus can definitely benefit from an all purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer every two weeks as a part of your fertilizing routine. If you are fertilizing annuals, give some to your coleus as well. Fertilizing will help them grow fast and larger.
I love this since I live in an area where they only grow for 3-4 months. So I want as much growth in the shortest time possible. If they are perennial where you live, consider just amending your soil with compost to keep all your perennials, including coleus, healthy.
Never fertilize dry plants. Always water, then fertilize. Fertilizing dry plants will burn them. I also recommend not fertilizing in the heat of the day if possible. Also, avoid splashing the diluted fertilizers on the plant’s leaves.
The beautiful thing about coleus is how low maintenance they are. They provide beautiful foliage but require very little work.
Coleus actually do flower, usually little spikes of purple flowers. If you like them, let them flower. I personally think they distract from their foliage and I will snip off any flowers on my coleus.
Coleus can also be pruned if you want more bushy plants. If you want taller coleus just let it grow, but if you want it to get bushy and grow laterally, cut it back and more stems will grow.
I will also pick out any yellowing or brown leaves and that’s about it for coleus maintenance.
There are so many varieties of coleus. Some will be easy to find at garden centers, and others you will have to search for and track down specialty seeds or cuttings. Here are a few of my favorite varieties that are more easily available. Pop over to my article about 35 different coleus for more ideas.
ColorBlaze Golden dreams
Height: 36” Spread: 24”
Thus one is my old standby. It has greenish-yellow leaves with red running through the center veins. In full sun the edges turn a bright golden yellow and the veins in the center fill in with an intense dark red. Less light and the red will stay only in the veins, and the edges stay a more Lime green. It’s beautiful either way. It performs well both in pots and in beds.
Height: 14” Spread: 12”
Wizard rose is a classic color combination for coleus. It has bright pink centers that fade to a cream color and finishes off with a wide medium green border. It is a lower growing variety that prefers part shade conditions. It’s perfect for front garden borders or as a filler plant in containers. I made a combination in a container with a green dracena in the center. Then large bright pink tuberous begonias (NonStop Deep Rose). Then Wizard Rose coleus as filler with white alyssum spilling out the edges. The pinks, whites, and greens of the flowers and foliage play off each other perfectly.
Height: 30” Spread: 24”
Wasabi is a pure bright green, well, wasabi colored coleus. It thrives in the full sun or shade and is great for pairing with other plants because of its vibrant color. Wasabi also has an interesting shaggy leaf, like a shiso leaf. It has great texture and color all in one. Place it next to dark red varieties of coleus for a real pop. It’s a really big full bushy variety that fills pots and garden beds.
ColorBlaze Chocolate Drop
Height: 18” Spread: 24”
Chocolate Drop is a low-growing, trailing variety of coleus. It has small heart-shaped leaves, with red centers and then it bleeds through the veins to the green margins. It almost looks like a lace pattern. This is a great low-growing creeper through a rock garden or spilling out of containers. I must say, the ColorBlaze series, in general, is great, they are Proven Winners so they are reliable and easy to find at garden centers.
Pests and Diseases
Ok, this is one of the reasons I love coleus, they hardly ever have problems with pests. I have a collection of coleus I bring inside and outside every year. I also bring in a lime tree and an alocasia. The lime tree always, always, has spider mites. I have to treat it all winter. My alocasia has brought in aphids, and spider mites that I also treat. But my 7+ coleus have never brought in a pest (knock on wood).
So that is the good news, however, I will not discount the possibility that pests can infest coleus. Pests infesting a plant can be a sign that the plant is in a weakened state due to its conditions. So to prevent pests make sure your coleus is growing in moist, rich, draining soil and it is getting adequate, but not too much, sun.
The usual suspects when it comes to pests on coleus are spider mites, mealybugs, and aphids. All three can be problematic depending on where you are growing. First, identify the pest. Spider mites will form a thin veil of webbing on the leaves. If you look closely you will see networks of tiny spider like bugs (they aren’t actually arachnids) racing through the webs. You may also notice mottled leaves.
Aphids are small translucent bugs that will lay in piles on the stems and underside of leaves. They suck the sap from the plant. You may notice ants when there are aphids. The ants aren’t actually eating the aphids, they simply harvest the sap from the aphids. It’s ladybugs that are the aphid eaters. Finally, mealybugs are very obvious because they appear as white fuzz on the undersides of the leaves.
How to deal with these pests will depend on the severity of the pests and how you want to deal with them. For spider mites and aphids I always start with a good blast with the hose, or I run a tissue up the stems and squash the aphids and destroy the spider mite’s webs.
For mealybugs, a cotton swab and some diluted rubbing alcohol will clean them off. I usually start with that, and if that doesn’t work I grab the spray. I use a neem oil-based insecticidal spray and I use that weekly. Don’t use the spray when the coleus is still in the sun, wait for shade or evening to spray. After a few applications, the pests should be gone.
As for diseases, what I encounter most in coleus is the stem and root rot. This is a direct result of overwatering and/or not enough proper drainage in the soil. Heavy clay soils hold on to too much water. Pots without drainage will also hold water. Make sure you have loose soil and free-draining pots for coleus. If not, the stems will just dissolve and the plant will die.
Oh, I definitely don’t want to end on such a downer as bugs and root rot, So let’s talk about the fun part. Design! Coleus has many suitable uses in the garden.
Coleus does fabulous in containers. When I plant a container I use the “thriller” “filler” “spiller” method. A plant that is the main feature, some complementary or contrasting plants around it, and then some more plants that spill over the edges of the pot. The beauty of coleus is that it fills all those spaces. A large Kong coleus, for instance, can be large and beautiful and be the thriller of a pot.
Mix some geraniums for filler and calibrachoa for a spiller. As a filler plant, a lower growing Wizard Jade coleus works in a simple pot with a palm as a thriller and some ivy spilling out. Then there are trailing coleus, like Burgundy Wedding Train that has small heart-shaped leaves and would spill out of a pot beautifully with a simple cordyline dracena for the thriller and some lobelia filler. The possibilities and combinations are endless. Have fun designing containers with coleus.
In the garden, coleus can be used as blocks of planting to create contrast and interest alongside flowers. For instance, use red-leafed coleus like Redhead and block it next to intense purple salvia for a real pop. It also makes a great low-growing border to frame beds. Any of the Wizard or Fairway varieties are great for this because they are low-growing and other plants can be planted behind them.
Another option is to have coleus in hanging baskets. A large basket with a coconut coir liner that has holes cut in it and stuffed with coleus will form a massive ball by the end of summer.
My personal favorite thing to do with coleus is to pick the sturdiness stem and strip the leaves from it. Let it grow and it will eventually turn to a woody stem and then prune the upper leaves into a ball. This makes a gorgeous little coleus topiary. Which can be used as a thriller in a pot. Or I just keep them in pots and bring them in over the winter and back out in the summer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does coleus like sun or shade?
Some of the more old fashioned varieties are definitely made for the shade. But newer varieties can take full sun. Check the tag on your coleus to see if it can take sun. I find full blasting sun is usually too intense for coleus, they do best in part sun with a bit of dappled afternoon shade.
How often should I water?
This really depends in the amount of sun your coleus gets and the condition of the soil. In full sun they will probably need watered daily. In the shade, it might only be weekly. If the soil doesn’t hold water it may be more, if the soil is light and can absorb and hold more, it will require less frequent water.
Coleus will droop and tell you when they need water. Don’t wait when you see them droop, they go to the point of no return real quick. Container grown coleus will also require more water depending on pot size, but it will probably require daily watering as well.
Why is my red coleus turning green?
Coleus change color with the amount of sun they receive. If you brought a beautiful cored coleus home and it is starting to a dull green color it is probably because it is not getting as much sun. The more intense colors start to show up when they get more sun. This can be corrected, just put your coleus in more sun and the new growth will brighten up.
Can coleus survive indoors?
Yes! I think coleus is actually a very underrated houseplant. Their foliage is beautiful and they are pretty easy to keep alive. They need fluffy potting soil, and lots of water. When they droop, don’t wait, give them a drink.
Why is my coleus drooping?
She’s thirsty! Stop what you’re doing and give her a drink! There is a small possibility it’s too much water, but if you have light potting soil and drainage in your pot, it’s hard to over water a coleus.
What can I plant in a container with coleus?
I could write a whole article on the almost endless possibilities. For this faq thought I will stick to a few of my favorite coleus companions. Begonias are lovely in shady coleus pots, along with golden lysimachia, lobelia, and impatiens.
In sunny containers I love pairing them with calibrachoa, petunias, and purple fountain grass. Coleus also looks striking when planted with other varieties of coleus. Look for contrasting foliage colors and textures to create an appealing combination.
Can coleus get in water?
Yes, I’ve had cuttings growing in vases of water indefinitely. Once they have established huge roots in water however, it is harder to reintroduce them back into soil.
Coleus is one of my favorite plants across the board. They can handle so many different conditions. Sun, shade, indoors, outdoors, on the ground, or in containers. There’s coleus for almost anywhere. They are also so easy to grow and propagate. The tiniest cutting can grow a full coleus plant in a fairly short period of time. And finally, what I really love about coleus is that they provide their beauty without relying on flowers. The foliage is striking and everlasting throughout the season.
So grab coleus from a garden center, or find a cutting, or start them from seed, and start growing and enjoying coleus for yourself.