Monday, October 6, 2008

The Sport Report

First, a big thank-you goes to Dale Griep for the title of this post. Dale recently started a thread on Dave’s Garden (you know, the big online garden-chat site) about sports that had popped up this season, and since then the thread has attracted comments from respondents in at least three countries! I thought I’d post a few sports here. More will follow anon, once I find some of my older pictures on the CDs that hold my digital files from the past couple of years.

Refresher course: simply put, a sport is a part of a plant or an entire plant that is different from its parent plant. Variegated foliage (as in coleus) and flowers (such as in camellias, chrysanthemums, dianthus, and roses, among others) are probably the most commonly encountered types of sport, but growth habit (such as many dwarf conifers), fruit color (such as yellow-berried American holly), fruit taste (such as sports of the Red Delicious apple), and other differences are also the expressions of sporting. Many but not all arise from genetic mutations.

The opposite of a sport is a reversion. An all-green shoot on a variegated holly or euonymus is a reversion back to the original, non-variegated appearance of the parent.

It’s not always obvious if a given coleus is a sport or a reversion, given the mystery-shrouded history of many cultivars, as you will see.

You know the drill: picture first, then words.

Most of the foliage in this picture is typical of Duke of Swirl, a beauty that (for me) takes a while to get going but then really puts on a show. So what is that in the lower left-hand corner? That shoot looks just like Camouflage, which has in turn produced two sports (an olive green one, and another with dark red-purple leaves with a green edge) at Atlock. Or is one of those supposed sports in fact a reversion to the parent – or grandparent – of the other three? I need to get in touch with Chris Baker of Baker’s Acres in Ohio to ask him about the origin of Duke of Swirl, which he introduced to the world. Maybe then we can figure out the family tree for these four.

Mardi Gras has always been a prolific sporter at Atlock. There are two different sports (one red and one yellow/green) happening here – or is one of them a reversion to Mardi Gras’ parent? The yellow/green one looks a whole lot like Dappled Apple, which is another Baker’s Acre offering. Chris and I could get into quite a conversation!

Careless Love came to Atlock several years ago as Wine and Lime, but I eventually realized that it was the wildly variable (and very aptly named) Careless Love. The typical pattern isn’t shown in this picture – there should be roughly equal, blocky areas of wine red and chartreuse on the foliage. These shoots are obviously heading in different directions. An older plant at Atlock bears five different variations along with the so-called “typical” pattern, but which one (if any) reveals the coloration of the original? I wish we could preserve and propagate a selection with leaves that are one color on one side of the midrib and a different color on the other side, but the cells at the tip of the shoots (and the hormonal/chromosomal forces within them) apparently just won’t go along with my dream. At least so far . . .

Freckles is an oldie, almost certainly dating back many decades. Sometime along the way it sported Sedona, a superb, dark orange selection that provides a stunning backdrop for its handsome blue flowers (assuming its people can resist the urge to pinch them out!). I’ve watched stock plants of Freckles and Sedona bear shoots of each other, but this year I noticed for the first time the all-chartreuse shoots at the bottom of the plant in this picture. This picture shows a fair number of shoots (toward the bottom) that bear orange leaves with chartreuse edges and scattered splashes, which is not the typical overall "splashy" look of Freckles (toward the top). What isn’t easily seen here are a few leaves lightly washed with orange, and that’s the variant I hope to propagate successfully. Cuttings have rooted, so we’ll see what they do over the next months and years.

The leaves in the center look almost like typical Careless Love (see above), but what’s going on with the rest of this plant? What we’re looking at here is a plant labeled Gay’s Delight, which typically offers a strong brushing of purple-black on chartreuse. The shoots to the left and right come close to the normal appearance of Gay’s Delight, but there are irregular gaps in the black-purple markings. Note also the all-chartreuse shoots at the top left and the one with green spatters on red. Is this plant of Gay’s Delight trying to tell us that Careless Love arose as a sport from Gay’s Delight? Or is the reverse in fact the real story? Or did an all-chartreuse prototype, or one bearing an entirely different color pattern, give rise to both of them and others?

We coleophiles could spend plenty of time and words trying to figure out which came first, couldn’t we? Maybe someday we’ll be able to look into the cells of a given selection and know exactly from where the selection arose. Maybe not. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the visible expressions of those intriguing instabilities tucked away in those cells.

More later.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Coleus Day!

Two weeks ago tonight, the Atlock Farm crew was wondering if the clouds and rain would banish themselves – and they did. A rainless, though quite humid, Coleus Day on September 13 brought out a couple of hundred attendees. Here are some pictures of the happy crowd who helped make the day a big success.

By the way, I didn’t take these pictures - I was going nonstop for all six hours, meeting and greeting and spreading the good word about coleus. Not wanting to miss out on capturing the moments, I asked a good friend of mine to take some shots with my camera. If you’re in one of these pictures and I haven’t identified you, please contact me at I’d like to meet you and introduce you to the rest of the audience.

Ken Selody, owner of Atlock Farm, “rang up” quite a few enthusiastic customers.

Here I am – on the left – getting ready to sign a copy of my book for two fellow coleophiles.

Greenhouse #60 showcased about 120 different, photo-worthy coleus that drew the crowds in.

Andrea Filippone’s daughters loved Myrtle the Wondercat, but who wouldn't?

I would have included more photos, but the vertical shots were posted horizontally on the preview, and the very nice shot of Joy Andress, my new coleus pal, wouldn't upload.

Technology: servant or master? If you're out there reading this and believe you might be able to help me with these ghosts in the machine, please contact me at Ditto with my problem of adding active links to other sites. Thanks!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Washington Post article today

Just a quickie today, folks. Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post visited Atlock Farm on Coleus Day, and here's what he wrote:

Sorry that it's not linked, but the software isn't responding to my request to add the link. I'm looking into this. In the meantime, please cut and paste the URL (above) into your browser.

Naturally, I'm thrilled with the article! Please post a comment in the box under the slideshow box if you feel moved to do so.

Also, below is a teaser picture from Coleus Day. I know I promised to make a post soon after Coleus Day, but I've been here, there, and everywhere (a Beatles song in my head now) and will make a bigger post soonish.

Engulfed in coleus - not a bad thing, huh?

No, I'm not in that picture. That comes later.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Gardens at Atlock Farm

Things are heating up as everything comes together for Coleus Day at Atlock Farm on Saturday, September 13, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Please see Atlock’s website at for directions.

This post offers an extensive armchair tour of the gardens and other sights at Atlock. I hope to see many of you among the coleus soon!

A note to anyone who has been following this blog: while I think I’ve been quite diligent with making regular posts lately, I will be distracted over the next couple of weeks getting ready for the big day. Soon after the 13th, look for at least one big ol’ post on Coleus Day and then a more-or-less regular series of posts relating to a wide range of subjects relating to coleus.

Remember: picture first, then words.

The formal garden behind the shop contains masses of coleus planted underneath 20 Brugmansia treelets, some of which have been in fragrant bloom for a while. The green stuff among the coleus is Galinsoga (quickweed), which I’ve come to accept as an acceptable filler/groundcover. Besides, I grew tired of wading through the beds and bending over to pull that stuff, so there it is. The dwarf red barberry hedges hold everything in place.

Don’t look for any coleus here. This intimate, formally structured garden adjacent to the shop garden billows with Angelonia in five colors. At the back of the picture are mainly self-sown Eupatorium. What you can’t see on the left side of the garden are a row of Salvia leucantha for late bloom, six imposing pots making a definite statement, and a stately row of eight white ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia).

A little strip planting near the previous garden (and across from the red/tropical border) changes dramatically every year. This year the bed showcases Cynara (artichoke), interplanted with Verbena bonariensis and underplanted with a pink Verbena and the sultry Alternanthera ‘Gail’s Choice’. Next year’s combination will be quite different, if I have any say in the matter.

Without a doubt, the red/tropical border is the most spectacular garden at Atlock this season. Big. Colorful. Exuberant. Note the recently trimmed hedges and the mass of purple plum (Prunus ‘Thundercloud’, I think), which provide a solid frame for the celebration they try to contain. The huge, backlit leaves of Alocasia ‘Calidora’ and the three spiky, purple-red-brown Cordyline baueri just might take your breath away. In the back is the peacock house under construction. Every fine garden needs a memorable structure, and this is Atlock’s centerpiece.

Here’s the red/tropical border from another angle. The colors really stand out from this vantage point, especially the chartreuse Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’. See the coleus in the lower right corner? An elongated mass of ‘Burgundy Wedding Train’ offers little green leaves with dark red centers, and the orangey pink ‘Fanatic Radish’ peeks out from behind the gray urn.

Big is sometimes very good (and often showy). The giant castor beans (Ricinus communis) came up from seed dropped by last year’s plants, which were considerably smaller than these big boys. I need to stake them before Miss Hanna (predicted to be visiting us this coming Saturday) or some other mighty wind knocks them around. Although the honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Shademaster’, is it?) and the hedge provide some protection, I’m not taking any chances with these showstoppers.

While a little shadowy in this picture, the paintbox is far from gloomy (see the next picture). These coleus were planted a while back, cut back once, and have since been allowed to do their thing. What you see is what they do: most are thick and beautiful, but a few are thin and kinda homely. But the homely ones are looking mighty fine elsewhere at Atlock.

No, they’re not this bright; the flash cast a little too much light for this picture of the paintbox. That’s ‘Jo Donna’ in the upper left with the red and yellow foliage. New to me last year, this coleus has knocked my socks off this year. It may well knock an established coleus off of my Top Ten list.

The long border this year is a celebration of color and texture. Five coleus (and Perilla ‘Magilla’, which might as well be a coleus, it seems to me) combine with three sedges, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ (a dark red grass), Halorhagis (a brown-green groundcover) from Down Under, Cordyline ‘Red Sensation’ (“spikes”), waffle leaf (Hemigraphis), Plectranthus ciliatus, Oxalis vulcanicola, Hibiscus acetosella ‘Coppertone’, and, most prominently, golden daisy-flowered Melampodium. I hope the peacocks like their view of the garden next year.

That’s a group of ‘Yalaha’ in the lower right-hand corner, behind the fringe of Cordyline ‘Red Sensation’. They should be on fire for Coleus Day (except for the specimens that appear to have sported into a much darker-edged incarnation). The planters are constructed of highly rust-prone steel and might be filled with something complementary in the near future.

I dare you – no, I double dog dare you – to tell me that ‘Lancelot Velvet Mocha’ is not one of the most sensational, attractive, and useful coleus to come down the pike in a long time. What a color! What an adaptable plant! Here it does its thing with Melampodium and the yew hedge.

Not far from the long border, this planting of ‘Alabama Sunset’ appeared in a previous post, but now it has a large pot beautifully filling the formerly empty space at the lower right. I plan to ice the cake by plunking a big specimen coleus into the pot for Coleus Day.

What do you do with the leftovers from planting up 208 stock plants into hanging baskets? Well, I parked them next to one of the greenhouses, and there they’ve sat and grown since. I’ll award a prize to anyone who can name them all . . . and how did I miss not filling that one empty cell before taking the picture?

Count ‘em: 104 hanging baskets, each holding one of the cultivars selected for propagation and sale next year. The red and green ‘Wine Country’ in front looks great, doesn’t it? It should remain attractive if we keep it fed and watered in a roomy-enough pot. This one really goes downhill if not treated like a baby bird. After Coleus Day all of these pots will be fitted with hangers and then placed high up on the poles above.

‘Smallwood’s Driveway’ makes a stunning combination with yellow-edged Lantana ‘Samantha’ and caramel-colored Ipomoea ‘Sweet Caroline’ (I know that name isn’t quite correct; should “Bronze” appear in the name?). This started out as a much less voluminous hanging basket dropped into an urn on a pedestal, but the plants have since burgeoned and devoured their support. The camera flash certainly brought out the colors, didn’t it?

The Atlock staff includes two gorgeous cats, both of whom earn their keep by dispatching destructive four-legged plant munchers, being uniquely beautiful, and entertaining us and many customers. Even some people who aren’t too fond of cats admit that Cleo is a looker. She strolled in to Atlock eleven summers ago and has been a subject of attention and many photos since.

Cleo takes a great photo if you work with her or if you catch her in a slow moment, but this kitty knows what a camera does and constantly poses for it. Myrtle the Wondercat has held everyone under her spell since she arrived a mere couple of months ago. She leaps at insects, jumps out from hedges as I pass by, practices projectile purring, knows what a lap is for, runs like the wind, climbs to the top of the little greenhouse so that I can entice her with my fingers from below, drives Cleo crazy, and accepts the affection of everyone who cares to offer it. My thanks to Rob Cardillo, garden photographer extraordinaire, for providing this photo of Myrtle uncharacteristically at rest.

Were all getting ready to put on a show for Coleus Day!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Return to the Frelinghuysen

I spent some time at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum yesterday (Tuesday, August 26) to check out the big raised-bed planting (see “Do you still think . . .” from August 5 for more info) and to see how the other coleus were faring. Nicely, I'm glad to report. But first, I'd like to recognize someone who helped plant the raised bed: thank you, John Lazenby, for your efforts and interest in this project.

Remember: picture first, then words.

The coleus in the raised bed are thriving, except for 'Tiger Lily' (which never kicked in and is growing backward, really), and 'Velvet Mocha', which has developed a herd of livestock, aka mealybugs. Mealybugs happen. A quick horticultural-oil spray probably took care of most of them, though. While some people have offered that the dark-stemmed cultivars attract and perhaps even foster mealybugs - I'm one of them - the adjacent and equally dark-stemmed 'Black Trailer' was apparently free of the bugs. Go figure. By the way, the numbered squares correspond to the segments of the cell-phone tour that to date has been heard by more than 180 people. The “Do you still think . . .” post from August 5 gives info on the tour, narrated by yours truly.

A few Lantana flower clusters peek out from a mass of 'Freckles', with a bamboo providing a clean green backdrop. Sharp!

Here's what Pam Harper calls a color echo: the pink of 'The Flume' picking up on the flowers of a Fuchsia magellanica selection. Cool and very sophisticated, I think.

The yellow flowers of a Lantana selection provide a sharp color contrast with the wildly cut and colored (sounds like a hair style!) foliage of 'Merlin's Magic'.

Note how the dark purple of Alternanthera 'Gail's Choice' precisely echoes the dark tones in 'Swiss Sunshine'. Depending on the light, moisture, fertility, and whims of 'Swiss Sunshine', its coloration can include shades of red, yellow, green, and purple-black. It sports like crazy, too, and a couple of them are on display at Atlock. Will they remain stable so that we can propagate them? Who knows?

‘Meandering Linda’ (also known as ‘Trailing Plum’ and ‘Saucy Sally’, among other names) creates a color lesson with a variegated selection of Ficus elastica. The complex tertiary colors of red-violet and blue-green interact with much simpler-looking black and white – do you see all of them and how they relate to each other? Can you imagine how this would look if the red-violet were paired with white on the coleus foliage, and the blue-green sat against black on the Ficus?

Finally, here’s a single specimen (yes, one plant) of ‘Gay’s Delight’ growing in a bed at the Frelinghuysen. To the left and right are shoots that most closely resemble (but aren’t exactly) ‘Gay’s’ familiar, darkly smudged chartreuse pattern, but notice the all-chartreuse shoots at the top, which look like ‘Lifelime’ and ‘Green Giant’, among others. Then marvel at the spattered leaves in the upper left and the blotchy ones in the center, which remind me very strongly of ‘Antique’ (and ‘Cranberry Salad’, for that matter) and the “standard” pattern of ‘Careless Love’, respectively. So which came first? Later on this blog I’ll explore the fascinating subject of sporting and reversion, which are expressions of mutations - instabilities, if you will – that occur deep within the cells of many coleus.

16 days to Coleus Day at Atlock!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Photo Extravaganza!

Today I'm posting pictures that I hope will whet your appetite to attend Coleus Day at Atlock on September 13, or certainly to check out the pictures I'll post of the event. Less than three weeks to go! I'm going to be conservative with the words and liberal with the pictures (hmm, are the national political conventions about to take place?).

First I hope you'll enjoy the picture, then the words - the caption - below it.

The Red Border (I still can't bring myself to call it the Tropical Border) contains a few coleus. This pic was taken in the early evening after a nice long sprinkler session, so the colors are punched up a bit from the flash and the water. That's 'Burgundy Wedding Train' at the bottom and orangey pink 'Fanatic Radish' in the lower right-hand corner.

The other end of the Red Border isn't at all red (or very tropical, for that matter), but it does contain a refreshing coleus combo for shade. 'Buttercream' offers a cool contrast with the chartreuse tones of golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') and the black-green foliage of one of the very hardy Meserve hollies (Ilex x meserveae).

A bit of anxiety here: the coleus in the formal garden behind the shop are taking their good old time filling in. I think I just might let that cursed quickweed (Galinsoga) grow up and make a nice green filler among the coleus. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Most of what you see are 'JoDonna' on the left and 'Meteor' on the right. Similar here but quite different elsewhere.

Four ancient lemon plants hold forth on one side of the formal garden and provide extra shade for lighter-colored coleus that burn in more sun. Front to back: 'Schizophrenia', 'Max Levering', 'Lemon Chiffon', and just a bit of 'The Line'. The quickweed is mercifully a bit more slower-growing here.

Another flash-altered picture, this time of the Paintbox. The coleus are very happy here - I suspect this bed might end up being photographed as much as the Red/Tropical Border. 'Max Levering' stands out as the bright yellow one with the red flecks. Dark-blotched 'Stormy' next to it is distinctive but much too eager to bloom . . .

Check out the Long Border for some bold color combinations and textural contrasts. There are some coleus here, but they're not easy to see in the picture. A bit of 'Sedona' glows in the lower left corner, and there's a dark streak of 'Lancelot Velvet Mocha' back and to the right. 'Yalaha' is filling in farther back, as is 'Royal Glissade'. 'Red Coat' is not happy.

Now for a few containers: here's 'Inky Fingers' mingling beautifully (I think, anyway) with a Carex and a Cordyline in an assertively orange container. This pot will be placed strategically in the gardens to show it off; right now it's associating with a whole lot of other containers in a holding area. Look for it.

'Swiss Sunshine' provides a transition from the cream-colored pot to the much darker Pennisetum 'Prince'. Don't take a cultural cue from the name: 'Swiss Sunshine' shrinks from too much sun and looks its best where given afternoon shade. We also have it in a vivid green container, but those plants are still recuperating from a case of sunburn. Dumb me.

Into the greenhouses: here are 104 different stock plants all in one place. A duplicate collection grows in the adjacent house. Those plants were cut back recently and will not be as lush and colorful on Coleus Day as these plants, but they probably will turn out to be denser, stockier plants when the time comes to propagate them next year.

The adjacent house - where the other block of 104 grows - holds an exciting mix of specimen plants and cultivars under evaluation for possible inclusion among the anointed ones. White-centered 'South of the Border' continues to hold my interest, as does the flashy 'Stella Red' near the top right corner.

'Odalisque' is without doubt my favorite of the traditional trailers (I don't consider 'Inky Fingers' a trailer but more of a leaner; otherwise, it would be at the top of the list for sure). This behemoth started out as one little cutting 17 months ago and now demands daily watering and more than a just casual glance.

Three specimen plants that I'm paying special attention to: 'Freckles' in the upper left corner, 'Solar Flare' in the upper right, and the ever-amusing 'Careless Love' at the bottom. 'Freckles' has become my signature coleus, appearing on (so far) the T-shirt I sell, on my "fancy" business card, and as the pattern for a sumptuous cotton throw I had made. More later.

Last is a before-and-after treatment of one of the coleus topiaries being cosseted for the Big Day. I admit that not not everyone likes the smoldery look of 'Lancelot Velvet Mocha', but that don't bother me none. It makes a very willing topiary subject. This one is descended from the first batch of 'LVM' cuttings rooted at Atlock last summer.

After the cut. I'm certain I've cut this head back at least six times in its relatively brief lifetime, and it keeps coming back thickly and eagerly. Much of this plant literally fell off last April, but you've never know it when looking at it: new growth quickly sprouted and created a fine-looking new head.

So there's the three-weeks-and-counting preview of Coleus Day. Please visit Atlock Farm ( on September 13 from 10:00 to 4:00, or check in on this site soon afterward!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Six Questions about Coleus

This is a post for those of you who have been asking for more "hard-core" information on growing coleus. I wrote this a while back for an article that appeared somewhere (sheesh, there's a senior moment!), and it addresses some important aspects.

New viewers to this site (and repeaters, if you wish): if you would, please contact me at to let me know you've paid a visit, and feel free to make comments and suggestions!

Sorry, no pictures with this one. But I'm planning to take a bunch of them at Atlock Farm over the weekend and am hoping to make a big post on Sunday or Monday. Coleus Day is three weeks away . . .



The so-called “sun coleus” are varieties that tolerate a great deal of sun or even require it to show off their best coloration. Coleus are no longer plants strictly for shady sites – hybridizers and coleus enthusiasts continue to offer spectacular selections that will provide as much color (or more) than many other sun-loving plants, including other annuals and many perennials. Generally, grow the light-colored ones (those with white or pale pink or yellow in their leaves) in spots that receive only the first hour or two of morning sun. Most others do very well with lots of morning sun (before it gets strong and hot), and some, including the sun coleus, luxuriate in all the sun you can throw at them. Experiment with your favorites to see what they can handle.


Flowering directs a plant’s energies toward seed production. Since we grow coleus for their colorful foliage, it makes sense to pinch out the flower buds as you notice them. Don’t wait until the flower clusters are big and unsightly. Pinching will encourage the plants to send out more shoots and leaves, resulting in a denser, more colorful plant. Some coleus produce beautiful blue flowers, though, so you might want to stop pinching about six weeks before your expected first frost to enjoy them at the end of the season.


If you want to keep your favorites over winter for the next growing season, the easiest thing to do is to root some cuttings in water a month or two before your expected first frost. Make the cuttings about four to six inches long, take off the lower leaves and flower buds, and then place them in a glass of water. Roots will quickly form, and then it will be time to plant the cuttings in a pot containing well-drained potting mix. Keep your new plants warm and in as much sun as you can give them (under lights works, too). As the plants grow, you can take more cuttings and repeat the process to make even more plants. Don’t plant them outside until all danger of frost has passed.


Coleus are easy to grow from seed. However, almost all coleus grown from seed will probably not look like the plant from which it came, except for those intentionally produced by seed companies and offered for sale (such as Rainbow, Wizard, Carefree, and Black Dragon). Most of the coleus we grow today are kept “true” by raising them from cuttings taken from a parent plant.


Start at your favorite local nursery, or ask your gardening friends for a cutting. Local gardening resources (such as a public garden or gardening expert) can provide help, too. Several mail-order companies offer coleus; check out for a list of American and overseas sources. There are now hundreds of different coleus being grown and enjoyed worldwide.


If I could grow only one coleus, it would be ‘Alabama Sunset’, which offers changing combinations of chartreuse and red, depending on the amount of sun it receives. It grows well in gardens and containers and goes to flower reluctantly. However, plenty of other coleus grow well and offer beautiful coloration, and they are waiting to becoming my next (and your) favorite.