15 Tips for Growing Beautiful Coleus Plants in Containers or Pots
Thinking of growing coleus in pots, but aren't sure where to start? Coleus love to be grown in pots or containers, and do quite well in a variety of different spaces. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner provides 15 tips for growing beautiful coleus plants in containers this season!
Container gardening has become very popular in recent years. If you live in an apartment or a smaller place with little space for large garden beds you can still bring some greenery into your space. Coleus plants can be a colorful addition to any container, or hanging pot. In fact, growing coleus in containers is a great way to grow them, regardless of how much space you have.
Being able to control the soil and water conditions makes growing lush looking plants easy. Coleus are a perfect addition to container gardens because they are small, fast growing, and they can grow in a wide variety of sun conditions from full shade to full sun. There are also several varieties that are best for full sun, depending on your location.
So no matter which direction your outdoor space faces, there is a coleus for you. Here are 15 tips for growing spectacular coleus plants in containers!
Choosing Your Variety
First things first. You will need to choose a coleus. There are a few ways to do this. Let’s look at the primary ways that you’ll likely choose the coleus variety that best suits your garden space.
Choose Based on Location
There are new introductions of coleus plants that like being in the full sun. The colorblaze series for instance takes full sun and the colors get more intense the more hours of sun it receives. Some of the older varieties prefer shady locations.
Choose Based on Usage
I will get into this more later on, but think of how your coleus will function. Do you want it to be the main feature of a pot? Will it just be an accent in a pot? Or do you want it to spill out the container? There is a coleus type for each of these.
Choose Based on Appearance
Are you doing a green and white pot? Do you want pink to match the pink begonias? Do you want a bright yellow one to brighten up a pot? Again, there is a coleus to fit your needs.
Pick The Right Pot
Pretty much any pot will work, but the pot you choose will determine how much work you’ll have to do for your coleus.
The first rule, which applies to all container gardening, is make sure your pot has drainage holes. Putting pebbles at the bottom of a pot is not enough. Coleus are prone to root rot and do not like sitting in water.
Make sure the drainage hole is large enough so that it doesn’t get clogged with soil. If you have your heart set on a pot without drainage, use a liner pot with holes and place it inside the pot without drainage. Make sure to pour out any excess water from the pot without drainage.
The next thing to consider is pot size. You can plant coleus in a variety of pots, large, or small. Larger pot sizes means less frequent watering. If you are planting a mixed annual container for a front door, deck etc. a large pot works great. It fills a space and the plants work together to hold in moisture.
Smaller pots are good too. If you only want to plant a single coleus in a pot, then a smaller one will work great. I love a grouping of various small pots each with a different varieties in them. It does need to be watered more often. But, small pots are great if you want to overwinter. You’ll just need to bring the whole pot inside.
As for the type of pot, anything is fine, plastic, ceramic, cement etc. But I will say if watering is a main concern I find terracotta a great choice because it absorbs water and will help keep the plant moist longer.
Soil is Critical
It doesn’t matter what pot you choose, if the soil is bad your coleus will not thrive.
In my early days as a gardener I made this mistake. I was young and trying to save money wherever I could. So I went to the garden center and saw potting soil was $7/bag whereas black earth was only $2/bag. Well that seemed like a no-brainer, dirt is dirt right? Well, not quite. My container plants did not thrive that year in black earth. The leaves were yellow, the plants were stunted, and a lot of them perished.
Potting mix is much lighter than the black earth that is intended for garden beds. This is important for containers. They need to be able to hold and drain water freely without getting heavy and waterlogged. So splurge on the potting mix, it’s worth it.
I still like saving money wherever I can. Some people will dump their containers into their garden beds and start with fresh potting mix every season. This is fine, but not entirely necessary, especially if you have large containers.
I usually dump or scoop out the top 6-12″ of soil and replace with fresh soil. Or you can mix in some compost or worm castings to refresh last year’s potting mix. You want about a 3:1 ratio potting mix to compost.
After a long winter the container soil might be dry and almost dust-like. Really dry soil becomes hydrophobic, which means it doesn’t easily absorb moisture. If you water your pot and the water pours out the bottom immediately, your soil might be hydrophobic.
You will have to soak the soil and stir and massage the water in. Or place the pot into water and let it soak up from the bottom. Once the soil is evenly moist, plant your coleus.
Now you have the perfect pot filled with light fluffy potting mix it is time to plant your coleus.
Coleus are actually easy to plant, they’re very forgiving. If you bury their stems they will just make more roots.
Carefully remove the plant from the container. Loosen the pot and pull the plant out by the root ball not the stems. If it comes out with the roots in the shape of the pot, you will need to crack the roots. Just take the root ball and split it in half and maybe even in half again.
If it was really matted on the bottom I will rip off the bottom mat of roots. This is important, as the roots will just continue to grow in a circle and strangle itself if you don’t loosen the roots. This will result in a struggling plant.
Watering is Everything
Watering is everything! But if you have a good fluffy potting mix like I mentioned above, watering will be a lot easier.
Coleus are very sensitive to water. They droop and sag when they are dry. If you notice this, do not wait, give them a drink asap. They go from droopy to the crispy point of no return really fast.
Try and water your containers in the morning or evening, or when the container is not in direct sun. Aim for the soil as much as possible and avoid spraying the leaves. Constantly wet leaves are more prone to pests and diseases.
When watering, it is better to give your plants a really good deep soak less often instead of giving little bits of water more frequently. Water until it runs out the bottom of the pot. However if your container is really dry and just runs out immediately, place the container in a dish of water so it can soak the water up from the bottom.
I have what I call the plant infirmary which is a cheap plastic kiddie pool filled with water in the shade. I rotate pots of plants through it. You’ll be amazed at how they perk up after spending some time in the pool.
Depending on how large the container is and how much sun the container receives will determine how much water it needs. If it is a small pot in full sun it might need to be watered multiple times a day in the summer heat. A large pot in the shade can probably go a few days to a week without water. You will get to know your containers and establish a watering pattern that works for you and your plant.
Pick The Perfect Location
Location is important when it comes to containers. Look at the sun exposure of where the container is. Does it get full sun, part sun, or shade? All these locations are actually OK for a coleus. For full sun locations choose a variety that can handle sun. The ideal amount of sun for most varieties is partial sun.
Bright morning or late afternoon sun with some shade in the heat of the afternoon is the sweet spot for coleus. But coleus will also take full shade, they will grow slower and not be as brightly colored. But they are a great plant choice for an ultra shady north facing deck, or a dedicated shade garden. Remember the more sun they receive, the more water they will require.
Protection from wind is also important. Coleus is delicate and constant harsh winds will shred the leaves or cause them to curl in distress.
Get Sunlight Right
Coleus are very versatile when it comes to sunlight. While they are mostly thought of as shade shrubs, some of the newer introductions can take full sun. Check the tag when purchasing your coleus to see if it will take full sun. If your coleus leaves are bleached out and/or crispy, it probably means too much sun.
Coleus will take full shade (less than 4 hours sun), they will grow slower.
A great option for coleus includes lots of bright early morning or late afternoon sun with a bit of dappled shade protection during the heat of the afternoon.
I think this one can be overlooked at times. For me, annuals are around for such a short time. I want them to grow as big and lush as possible in a short amount of time. Fertilizer really helps this.
When it comes to perennials and gardens I am all about naturally amending soil with compost and natural fertilizers. However when it comes to annuals in containers I am all for the chemical blue stuff. I think of it as feeding long term perennials and shrubs healthy whole foods, it releases energy over time.
Whereas short term annuals get the candy, a quick hit of sugar that boosts it for a short time. A 20-20-20 works great. or a bloom specific one, such as a 10-30-20. I fertilize every 1-2 weeks with a diluted mixture (follow the directions).
Never fertilize dry plants. This will burn them. Water the coleus, then add the diluted fertilizer. Also try not to get the fertilizer on the foliage, aim for the soil. Too much fertilizer can cause problems, so make sure you don’t go overboard.
Deadhead, Pinch and Prune
The final step to maintaining your container coleus is to deadhead, pinch, and pruning them.
Coleus do bloom. They are tall spikes of violet-lavender or white flowers. I find them unremarkable. I love coleus foliage. When a plant starts producing flowers the foliage starts to become smaller. There are a few exceptions where I don’t mind the tall flower stalks. If it is a large thriller coleus and the flower color meshes with the theme of the pot, I will leave them. But most of the time I prune off the flowers of the plant in the container as they pop up.
If you want your container coleus to grow wider, pinching the stems off will encourage more lateral growth. It will result in bushier plants. I had a pot last summer that had one gigantic coleus in it, and it was at least two feet tall.
I let it go and it grew big lovely leaves and up and up it went. However, if that wasn’t a look I wanted, I would have pinched or pruned the top off and it would split into tow lateral branches. Changing the shape and growth of your coleus will change the whole look of a container.
Pruning can be done. Coleus are great little bonsai plants. They can be pruned into little balls or big lollipops. They are fast-growing and will grow thicker if they are pruned. This isn’t necessary, but it is fun and it creates an interesting look!
Plant With Companions
I feel like we’ve covered all the mechanics of planting coleus in a container, now it is on to the fun part, design! I love pairing coleus with other plants to create beautiful and interesting container designs. There are many different container gardening ideas that can be easily fulfilled by adding coleus as a layered plant. They mix well with any of the following plants.
Also known as creeping Jenny, lysimachia is a best friend of coleus in containers. Lysimachia is a creeping ground cover that is used as a vine in containers that spill out of pots. Golden lysimachia is my favorite.
Its golden yellow foliage pairs beautifully with coleus that has that same yellow in their leaves. Colorblaze Golden Dreams, Wizard Jade, and French Quarter to name a few.
Begonias and coleus are another great pair. Play with the color of the begonia and the color of the coleus to make things tie together and pop. Nonstop Deep Rose with Wizard Rose coleus is a great pink combination in a shady pot.
Foliage and flowers, this is a great combination of both texture and color. The small million bell petunia-shaped flowers spill out around the larger leaf of the coleus. This is a combination of the sun-loving varieties. I love a hot pink calibrachoa next to deep wine-colored coleus, such as Newly Noir. It is unexpected and beautiful.
Coleus and Coleus
Coleus look great planted with other plants, but they really were made for each other! Consider planting different varieties of coleus together to create garden harmony.
Play with the colors of each plant. Place a bright green electric lime coleus next to a variety that has green trim, like chocolate-covered cherry coleus to make its green edge jump out.
Play with textures. Put a feathery wavey Wasabi next to a large Kong.
Or play with different heights. Like trailing burgundy wedding train coleus underneath a large Big Red Judy.
Or consider buying coleus as mixtures such as wizard mix or Fairway mix for an easy mixture of varieties that go together.
The beauty of coleus in containers is that they are in such tight quarters, the colors and textures of different varieties placed together can create a big visual impact.
Plant as a “Spiller Thriller”
I was talking about this in the beginning when you’re choosing a coleus. When I design a container I always keep this principle in mind. The thriller, the filler, and the spiller. The thriller has to be something big and amazing that draws our attention and anchors the pot. The filler has to be lower lying and really fills a pot. The spiller are the vines and trailers that dangle out of the pot.
Coleus is an amazing container plant because there are varieties for each of these roles.
Thriller coleus are the big leafed, tall plants. This includes a lot of varieties. Golden Dreams, Rediculous, Pineapple Brandy, and Watermelon to name a few. Plant these either in the centre or back of your pot and it will be the anchor that the eye is first drawn to.
Filler coleus are the smaller varieties. The role of the filler is to fill up the pot and to be a color or texture that plays with other filler plants and the thriller and spiller in the pot. Any of the Wizard, or Fairway varieties or mixes are perfect for this role. They are about 8-12″ tall and can provide a large mass of foliage. Use a large alocasia variety as a thriller and then plant Wizard mix coleus all around it as the filler.
Spiller coleus are the low lying trailing plants. Burgundy wedding train and chocolate drop are two varieties that come to mind. They trail downwards and out of a pot. I think it’s a great and unexpected alternative to the regular ivy.
Use Hanging Baskets
If space is your main concern for growing containers of coleus, you are in luck, there is another option, hanging baskets. Coleus do fabulous in hanging baskets. They don’t require a lot of maintenance and their foliage makes a statement.
They look great in mixed hanging baskets with other plants like begonias and calibrachoa. Or they look great by themselves as a big single mass of coleus, or various types mixed together. It is best to choose large hanging baskets. The small ones at the store look great, but soon the roots take up all the space in the small pots and you will be stuck watering twice a day or more to keep them alive. I like big baskets that have a coconut coir liner to hold in moisture.
For coleus, the ball basket takes a metal basket and gets a coir liner insert. Snip some holes in the bottom of the liner in between the basket holes. Then gently push some coleus plants through. Fill the liner with soil and plant some coleus on the top. Soon it will grow into a big beautiful ball of coleus. This can be done with any variety, or a mixture of varieties.
Bring Them Inside in Winter
Coleus are actually tender perennials. They don’t tolerate frost well, and won’t typically come back after a winter freeze. If you live in zones 10+ your coleus will live in your containers year round. For the lower zones they can be treated like annuals and be composted once the frost kills them. Or they can be overwintered indoors.
To overwinter them inside, either take the whole pot inside and treat it like a houseplant. Or dig up one from a larger container, repot it, and bring it indoors. This needs to be done before the first frost. Coleus can not take a bit of frost. But, even before that, once the temperatures start dipping below 50F (10C) they don’t grow and they might as well come in if the season is coming to an end.
They do better if they are slowly introduced to indoor life. Leave them near an open window (if it’s not too cold) and gradually bring them to their winter resting spot. I leave mine in a sunny window. They do require quite a bit of watering. They will droop when they need a drink. I do not fertilize in winter months.
Trim Into Topiaries
I wanted to finish the list with one of my favorite things to do with coleus. Trimming them into topiaries. This can actually be done with almost any annual, geranium, petunia, and lantana to name a few. But I love the foliage of coleus when it is a little tree. To do this either take a cutting, or an existing plant and choose the one main stem on it.
From there, strip all the leaves from the main stem. It will keep trying to sprout more. Keep stripping the new leaves off the main stem. Once it gets to a nice height, I cut the top off and it will start growing a nice bushy tree. The more you trim it the bigger and bushier the top will get. Don’t be shy, I will cut mine to almost nothing and they always come back bigger and better.
You can use these as centerpieces in your container displays, or just keep them as houseplants. I keep mine in little individual terracotta pots and I bring them outside in the summer and back in for the winter. I tuck them in and amongst my other annual pots, they always attract a lot of attention.
Coleus and containers go together. In fact, I plant all my coleus in containers because it is easier to control their conditions and give them ideal environments to grow large and lush. So grab some coleus and pot them up and place them in your outdoor sitting areas and enjoy their colors all summer long. When winter arrives, container coleus can easily be moved indoors, allowing you to enjoy this plant year round!