Sunday, September 2, 2012

To bloom or not to bloom?

Now that the dog days of summer are upon us some of you might be noticing buds starting to form on your coleus plants. While tendency to bloom varies from variety to variety, even the most bloom-resistant types of coleus may start to bud in the fall if they aren't regularly tip-pruned. Shorter days and cooler nights are the signal that the end is near and they had better get around to setting seed before the frost. Several factors can contribute to encouraging coleus to bloom. The first is the age of the plant. Coleus plants kept over from year to year in the greenhouse or in tropical climates will need to be pruned regularly to keep blooming tendencies at bay. Most people find that starting each year with fresh plants, purchased or from their own cuttings, is the best way to avoid age-related blooming. The second factor is stress. Temperature extremes, getting too dry, insect infestations, too much or too little light, and being pot bound could cause your plant to go into survival mode and try and set seed. The third factor is the variety of coleus you are growing. Seed-grown varieties are the most likely to bloom early, as are trailing varieties and some older varieties. The fourth factor is day-length and cool nights as mentioned earlier.
Whether or not to let your coleus bloom is a personal preference. Some folks just like the flowers! Coleus blooms are a spike of tiny flowers ranging in color from pale blue (almost white) to purple. They are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, which for some people is enough of a reason to let them form. If you have several you can cut them for an attractive blue bouquet. However, there are consequences to letting coleus bloom. As the plants mature and form bloom spikes the coleus can begin to look rangy and unkept. Occasional pruning can help control the size of the coleus and encourage branching for more bushy growth. In addition to blooming, coleus with very large branches can be susceptible to splitting and breaking, especially during wind storms or when being moved. Last, but not least, if you use a systemic insecticide in your soil please do not allow your coleus (or any other plant) to bloom. Butterflies and hummingbirds can be harmed by the nectar of flowers from plants grown in treated soil, and systemic insecticides have been linked to bee colony collapse disorder.
Many people will be timid about cutting their coleus at first, but coleus are very forgiving plants and benefit from being trimmed. They will grow back stronger and bushier than ever. Pruning or pinching coleus is easy! You can use pruners, scissors, or pinch them between your fingernails. If the coleus already has a bloom or a bud simply back down the stem to the first node with a set of leaves and trim just above them. Even if you can't see evidence of new leaf growth leaves will eventually sprout from the node. If you see tiny flower buds forming in the new growth trim back even farther. Occasionally a coleus will have gone too long without pruning and it will be difficult to find new growth without buds. If a coleus is in this condition and the plant is unsightly sometimes the best remedy is the compost bin. Taking cuttings from a coleus that has started to bloom out is usually futile since bloomy cuttings will make bloomy plants, if they root at all. 
Some of the most beautiful coleus varieties will bloom as fall approaches. The trick is to regularly monitor your coleus and pinch back when needed to keep them looking great!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Growing Responsibility: Growing Coleus Naturally, Part 1

At Rosy Dawn Gardens we try to be as environmentally responsible as possible. All of our packing and shipping materials are recyclable and biodegradable with the exception of the small plastic bag on each root ball. We feel that this small bag is preferable to using a plastic pot that is not recyclable in many areas. The trays that we use to grow our plants in the greenhouse are reused over and over. When they have outlived their usefulness we can return them directly to the manufacturer (local to us) for recycling.
It is important to us that we send pest and disease free coleus plants to our customers. It is also important to us that we use as few chemicals as possible while producing our coleus, both for our own safety and for the safety of the environment where we live and work. We have tree frogs and toads that live all winter on our greenhouse, which we feel is a testament to our safe practices. Amphibians are some of the most chemically-sensitive creatures on our planet!
Earth Day is fast approaching, so I thought it appropriate to begin a series of posts about growing coleus naturally. When growing coleus outdoors, we seldom have a problem with insect pests at Rosy Dawn Gardns since there are a bevy of predators about, including birds, toads, and wasps. In Michigan, our cold winters kill or set back the life cycle of a lot of insect pests. We also refrain from using pesticides in our yard and garden, which allows beneficial predators to prosper. However, in climates where there is little or no frost, in houses and greenhouses, and occasionally outdoors where there are no natural beneficial predators, the absence of those predators may lead to some uninvited guests on your coleus.
Soap spray works very well for most common soft-bodied coleus pests such as mealy-bugs, spider mites, aphids, thrips, and white flies. It can be applied directly to the area of concern, so you don't have to spray plants that don't need treatment. Pure soap sprays are safe for use inside the home, in the yard and garden, and in the greenhouse. There is no residual effect, so once the spray dries it poses no danger to birds, bees, pets, etc. Of course, the trade-off is that the spray may need to be reapplied in a week or so, especially if there is a new hatch of eggs.
Soap sprays can be easily made at home or purchased ready to use. A simple recipe of one teaspoon soap to one quart of water can be put in a sprayer bottle and used as needed. An optional drop of cooking oil can be added to help the spray stick to the leaves. We use Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Almond Soap, but I have seen recipes that call for Ivory, Fels Naptha, and Murphy's Oil Soap. Some people even use dish detergent, but we prefer to stick with the purest soap possible without all of the additives in most commercial soaps and detergents. Dr. Bronner's is so safe you can brush your teeth with it! We just don't know how safe those other soaps and detergents, with their chemicals and additives, are with coleus and the environment. Ready-to-use commercial insecticidal soaps can also be purchased at your garden centers. Read the ingredient labels since some of these "natural" products contain actual insecticides in addition to the soap.
Coleus plants handle soap spray very well when it is mixed and used as directed, but even the safest products have to be used carefully. The spray needs to come in contact with the pest to be effective, so make sure to wet the undersides of leaves and the leaf axils (where the stem meets the leaf). Do not use any sprays in full sun or when temperatures are high (early morning is best so they can dry before that day gets hot and sunny.) Do not use on stressed or thirsty coleus. Be careful if the plants are very young and tender - you should test a few leaves first and wait for 48hours to see if they hold up well.
For people, pets, and wildlife: Avoid getting soap in your eyes, and do not take it internally. Wash your hands after applying any product to your coleus.
For just few pests you can dip a cotton swap in rubbing alcohol and just wipe the bugs away. Avoid prolonged or excessive contact with alcohol and plants, and use the same common-sense safety precautions as with the soap.
By far, the best way to prevent damage from pests is a healthy, well-grown coleus. If all the basic needs are met a coleus, or any plant for that matter, is less likely to succumb to an infestation. Good quality soil, regular feedings, and adequate water and light are the best defense of all!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Coleus under lights

Now that Spring is more than just a wistful thought, gardeners who overwinter their tender perennials indoors will be taking stock of their plants and planning their summer containers. A Coleus that has wintered inside a house may not look like it did when it came in last fall. If it was under bright grow lights and not too far from the light source it may not be the worse for wear, with fairly bright color and stocky growth. After a repotting and a trim it will, with some hardening off, be ready for its summer home. If your coleus plant has spent the winter in a window, too far from the light source, or had to compete with other plants for space under lights, it may be pale, spindly, blooming, or all three. Can this coleus be saved, or should you start over with a new one?
If you make the choice to try and rehabilitate your coleus, you first have to assess the condition of the plant. Look at the roots. White, healthy roots should be netted throughout the root ball. Signs of trouble are brown and/or scarce roots, slime or moss, and a musty or rotten smell. If any of these problems exist, try to remove as much of the spoiled soil as possible and repot the coleus in fresh soil, making sure not to over water the coleus.
Next, check the plant for pests. Look on the undersides of the leaves and in the leaf axils (where the leaves join the stem) for tufts of cotton, tiny webs, sooty and/or sticky substance, or the insects themselves. If you find pests you can remove them with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. If it is not too large, you can give the whole coleus plant a gentle bath in tepid water with a few drops of dish detergent added. Cover the roots or pot with plastic wrap and only submerge the foliage.
The next step, if neccessary, is to give the coleus a trim, especially if it is blooming or has developed a lanky appearance stretching for light.
Finally, if you haven't already, repot your coleus. Fresh soil, a larger container, and some time-release fertilizer will get your coleus off to a great start.
Now that your coleus has been inspected, cleaned, groomed, repotted, and fertilized it is ready to begin getting gradually accustomed to the outside world again!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Overwintering Coleus: Placement and Light

It is officially the end of summer at Rosy Dawn Gardens. The coleus that were not fortunate enough to make it into the greenhouse are charred by frost and hanging limply over the sides of their pots. Inside the greenhouse, life goes on in colorful splendor, defying shorter days and cooler temperatures. Fall invariably brings a flurry of emails from our customers asking if there is a way to overwinter their coleus. So... What do you do if you do not have a greenhouse but you can't bear the thought of letting your beautiful coleus succumb to the the ravages of winter?
I won't sugarcoat it - keeping coleus in the house can be a tricky proposition. All the things that coleus love in the winter are in short supply inside the average home: good light, humidity, and good air circulation. It can be done, however, and many people do pull it off successfully by creating, in their home, the atmosphere that coleus need. Some people devote a whole spare room or basement area to their tender annuals, and some can only find a single window or corner of a room to spare for the cause. Either way, the goal of keeping the coleus alive until spring can be achieved.
The first consideration has to be light, since window placement is often the primary factor when deciding where your coleus are going to spend the winter. Unfortunately, windows in the average home seldom provide the ideal environment for coleus. If you place the coleus too close to the window they may be subjected to drafts and injured by contact with cold glass. Often there are heat vents in front of windows which can blast the coleus with hot, dry air. Windows often provide inconsistent levels of light. Your coleus could sit in relative darkness during the early part of the day and be blasted by too much direct sun in the afternoon. Plus, the coleus have to be very close to the window. Positioning your coleus a mere 12-18 inches away from the glass may not provide enough light for good health, even at the brightest point in the day. Despite the reputation of coleus as a shade-loving plant, they will not thrive in the low light conditions of the average home and, at best, lean and stretch for the light and become spindly. The simplest answer to this problem is to provide artificial light to supplement or substitute for natural light.
There are a number of options when purchasing artificial light. No-frills, 48" fluorescent shop light fixtures are very inexpensive at hardware and home-improvement stores and are the best buy for the amount of light you get. They can be suspended on chains, affixed to a stand, or set up between two stacks of bricks or other sturdy, non-flammable material. Standard fluorescent bulbs are economical and will do the trick for a few months indoors, or you can use the more costly grow-light bulbs for a full spectrum of light. I would definitely recommend grow-lights if your indoor growing situation is permanent. There are other types of grow-light fixtures available in all sorts of sizes and configurations, ranging from little light strips that can be mounted under a cupboard to stand-alone fixtures like goose neck lamps. Spotlights can be ceiling-mounted, but most grow lights have to be within a few inches of the top of the leaves to be effective. The most deluxe (and costly) option is a ready-to-use indoor gardening center that has one to three levels and all of the bells and whistles for growing coleus and other tender plants inside the house. One could build a similar set-up with minimal carpentry skills and some ingenuity. For many years before erecting our first greenhouse I started seeds and overwintered tender plants under homemade banks of lights in the basement and in other nooks and crannies in the house. I found it preferable to have free-standing fixtures and be independent of our limited windowsill space. Grow lights can also be used to supplement natural light in front of a window or door wall. Suspending or supporting fixtures above your plants will give you the ability to provide your coleus brighter light on cloudy days and extending the short days of mid-winter. There are other types of grow lights on the market as well. The newest type are energy-efficient LED grow lights, and if you want to make the investment it would be a great way to go. I have never used them, so I cannot offer instruction on how to use them. Comments from readers would be welcome!
If a windowsill is your only option, then you have to make do. Coleus have been kept over the winter for generations in a kitchen window, sometimes as nothing more than a cutting in a jar of water. It may not have been the loveliest of creatures come spring, but the coleus survived to see another summer.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Winding Down

Saturday, June 5, is the last day for placing orders in the 2010 season!! Beginning Sunday, June 6, all items will be listed as out-of-stock until our 2011 catalog is released online December 1. I want to send a big Thank You to all of our customers for making 2010 another successful season for Rosy Dawn Gardens! Now I might actually have time to post more than I have been able to for the past few months.
We have had an unseasonably warm and sunny May and it is a relief to be done. Temperatures in the greenhouses have routinely been over 100 degrees, and many of the May orders were picked in temperatures well beyond that! For those that wonder why we close our business in early June, please imagine yourself spending long workdays in that hot, steamy environment seven days a week! Coleus like warmth, but since we grow ours in plugs even they don't do so well after a certain point and need to be planted in pots. Beyond those tangible reasons for calling it quits in June, there is our mental health to consider. We have not had a day off since January 1 and that gets a little old - even for workaholics like us! We have missed birthdays of our children and grandchildren. Easter, Mother's Day, and Memorial Day are non-existant in our home as they are all days we pack coleus to ship the next morning. Our youngest son is graduating from high school next week and we are happy to say that since we are ceasing shipping at this point we can actually attend!
Now for the gratitude portion of this post...
We so appreciate our customers and our business! We have made so many great friends and, despite the heat, we really enjoy the beautiful coleus and working with them every day. Our customers are so great and many send pictures of their coleus and their gardens and share important details of their lives with us. At this point in the year we also have the opportunity to support local organizations with donations of coleus for their fundraising. Since we are so busy most of the year it is good to be able to give back to the community in some small way.
Have a great summer in your gardens, patios, decks, balconies, and indoor light gardens!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Introducing a New Coleus

We occasionally get letters from customers that are excited because they have discovered a new coleus seedling or sport (mutation). I can understand that excitement! We see nifty sports and seedlings from time to time, and of course we always hope that they are something new and unique. However, we have to remember that most new discoveries end up on the compost heap. Appearance is just one of many important factors that we, as gardeners, are looking for. At Rosy Dawn Gardens we are not interested in introducing a plant that is difficult to propagate and cannot be reliably grown in a wide range of conditions. We have to prove to ourselves that any new coleus is a garden-worthy coleus and not just another hot-house beauty that needs to be coddled and protected in order to survive.

At Rosy Dawn Gardens, introducing a new worthwhile variety takes patience and time. First we collect data about the plant so we can create a full description to present to potential buyers. Cuttings of the coleus need to be taken to see how well it propagates. The resulting plants are then grown outdoors during the summer in several different locations: full sun, shade, morning sun, etc. They are grown in the ground and in containers. They are grown both alone and in combination with other coleus and container plants. We take notes about its height at maturity, when and if it blooms, its growing habit (does it grow upright, bushy, or trail?). Then we watch to see how well the plant overwinters. If it does well with the rigors of outdoor life, grows vigorously, resists disease, overwinters well, and propagates easily, then we might have a coleus with more than a pretty face to recommend it! Usually we repeat the process for two to three years before introducing a coleus to commerce.

This year we have introduced a lovely coleus called 'Chloe' (shown), a seedling out of 'Flame Thrower'. She is a bushy coleus with a mounded form and she grows a bit larger than her parent. Her pink color and green edge sparkle just like her namesake: our granddaughter Chloe! We have been evaluating this coleus for two full years and have been very pleased with all facets of her growth habit and vigor. We hope you agree!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hot Combo!

Here is a great combo pot of which I have done variations for several years. I always use the coleus 'Burning Bush' and the upright Fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bondstedt' with its dark leaves and tubular red flowers. The third coleus is always a compact yellow: 'Defiance', 'Sizzler' or 'Max Levering' (shown) are all good choices. 'Defiance' is beautiful with its shock of red-orange down the middle that echos the colors of its potmates. 'Sizzler' has charming, scalloped leaves that are spattered with droplets of color that were born to work with this grouping. 'Burning Bush' has always been one of my favorite coleus. It has an amazing bright red-orange color when given bright light, and it doesn't get tall and lanky. No matter how many coleus I may use in a summer you can be sure that 'Burning Bush' will have a prime location!
The other nice feature of this particular combination is that both coleus are compact and have a mounding form that will spill over the sides of the pot when they mature. A bit of pinching to shape the plants is all that will be needed.