Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Coleus Paradise in New Jersey

OK, you skeptics, I hear you laughing, but consider this: the Garden State, which I’ve called home for more than 15 years now, contains its fair share of superb gardens. As part of a program known as Open Days, the generous owners of some of them open their gates to benefit the Garden Conservancy, the organization founded “to preserve exceptional American gardens for public education and enjoyment” (taken from the Conservancy’s website, which you might like to visit).

This past Saturday, Graeme Hardie welcomed several hundred visitors into his exquisite suburban garden, one that offers exuberance, thoughtful design, and a wide range of plants, including a masterly palette of coleus.

Come on over!

The formal planting along the street offers a hint of what is to come in the back garden: a thoughtfully composed celebration of tropical and hardy plants appreciated for their shapes and colors. A broad stripe of ‘Sedona’ (the rusty orange coleus) and ‘Purple Haze’ stands out against the various green and white bands and offers a launching pad for the airborne heads of the Euonymus topiaries. Note the absence of an unbroken lawn sweeping from the house to the street: why plant only grass and a few trees and shrubs when there are so many other ways to accent your house?

This view from a second-story window gives a good idea of the overall design of the back garden, which makes excellent use of a relatively small space. From the gate (to the right of what you see here, and which you’ll see in the next picture), the path leads up the steps and onto the terrace, then another series of steps leads visitors down the slope to another path and then back up to the gate. Areas not covered in hardscaping overflow with plants, and modern sculptures (including the running figure at the edge of the terrace) add punctuation. As we walked around, Graeme gave me the inside scoop on the two masses of coleus seen in this picture. The specimens in the pots on the terrace are the original plants bought in May, and those in the area at the lower right were all started from cuttings made from the terrace plants.

Two visitors are about to be amazed as they enter through the side gate to be greeted by the mass planting hinted at in the previous picture. ‘Sedona’ and ‘Purple Haze’ make an appearance here as they do in the front garden, but in a less formal role. Did you notice the blue wall? Try to picture what this scene would look like if the wall were painted with a more conventional color, such as white, gray, or dark green. The blue offers an unexpected but appealing contrast to both the bright and dark colors throughout the garden, and it makes the wall an exciting, important part of the overall design.

From another angle, the mass of ‘Sedona’ and ‘Purple Haze’ seems less assertive, broken up by the lines of Euonymus and other low shrubs running through the planting. Notice how the chartreuse in the centers of the leaves of ‘Saturn’ and on the sported foliage of ‘Careless Love’ picks up on the coloration of the large hosta leaves toward the back and the mass of tiny cloverlike Oxalis leaves in front. Virtually every plant appears to relate to its neighbors in this garden.

On the far side of the garden, another blue wall interacts dramatically with coleus and other container-grown plants. ‘Alabama Sunset’ on the left flows into a mass of ‘Purple Haze’, with Setcreasea pallida ‘Purpurea’ and a canna (’Australia’, perhaps?) offering tongues of contrasting purple and dark red. The green asparagus fern in the lower right and the Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) behind the wall offer some calming green among the more restless colors. Do you imagine the prow of a ship making its way through surging waters here?

While most of the coleus in Graeme’s garden flow through the garden in simpatico waves of rusty orange, gold, chartreuse, and wine-red, the lower part of the garden is home to an almost combative, eye-opening combination of the cerise-edged, dark-centered ‘Tabasco’ (or ‘Tobasco’, ‘Mississippi Summer’, or ‘Molten Lava’; take your pick of names) and eerily yellow-green golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia punctata ‘Aurea’). There’s nothing subtle about this pairing, which reminds me of some of the madly rushing, demonic spirits in the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria sequence at the end of Walt Disney’s masterpiece among masterpieces, Fantasia. I intend to unashamedly copy this combination next year!

I hope the Hardie garden - call it Paradise or a paradise, if you choose - inspires you to use coleus as any artist uses his or her tools and materials to create something beautiful and memorable. It does me.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Roundup Time

Many gardening rituals are observed annually at Atlock Farm: potting hardy bulbs in fall for forcing into bloom during winter, removing the perennials and hardy woody plants from winter storage in early spring, and placing winter-weary tropical plants outdoors in late spring, for example. As the Curator of the Coleus Collection (I’m still working on getting the gang to call me that), I’m in charge of one of the most important coleus-related rituals, namely making sure that the entire collection is renewed before the end of summer. If all goes well, come late winter we’ll have vigorous plants for chopping up into plenty of cuttings, which will be rooted and potted up for sale.

I take an inventory of all of the coleus toward the end of July, setting aside three good-looking specimens of every coleus that remain after the spring sales season. If three good specimens aren’t available, then it’s up to me to propagate the missing cultivars and nurture them until it’s time for the big roundup. I allow about a month between propagation time and the roundup.

Here are some of the larger, more established plants in the Ark (the greenhouse we call #10):

And here are still more. This shows most of the recently propagated ones:

Everything came together on September 1 this year, when we potted up nearly 200 hanging baskets (two each of nearly every coleus in the collection). You ask, “Why not three of each, since three are set aside?” Well, I like to have a choice between three specimens, and sometimes one of the three plants peters out before the roundup. Also, it’s enough of a squeeze to find room for 100 baskets in each of two greenhouses, let alone in three, plus the “heir and a spare” approach usually results in at least one very healthy specimen of every cultivar come late winter.

Here’s a cartload of nascent stock plants, ready to be potted up:

Alex (front) and Wilson (back) got the job done in about two hours! Here they are tending to ‘Odalisque’ (a super trailer) and ‘Pele’ (an all-arounder):

While everything is being potted up, the Curator makes sure that everyone remains in alphabetical order. Believe me, it’s worth the effort to keep the plants in alpha order, especially when someone is looking for a specific cultivar in a hurry.

Here’s a good-sized chunk of the collection, all potted up and ready to be watered:

Normally we’d hang the baskets in the two greenhouses immediately after watering them in, but as of now (early September) we have a bit of a space issue. So the plants remained outside over the sunny, beautiful Labor Day weekend, and here’s what happened to 'Night Skies':

The above is a perfect example of what can happen if a plant is not hardened off (acclimated) before placing it outside, whether during the coleus roundup or at spring planting time. But as Ken Selody (also known as El Jefe) says, “They’ll be fine. They have roots.” He’s right: coleus are tough, and it takes more than a bad sunburn to get most of them to throw in the towel.

Yet another reason to love coleus!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

This is a test

Yes, this really is a test. I fired up my brand-new iMac today and want to see if the software works. If it does work, expect an entry on my recent visit to the Rutgers garden to appear soon. In the meantime, I hope the attached picture from Rutgers appears. It shows one of several attractive plantings in the garden.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Proving Ground

Remember the volunteer seedling I discovered in one of the gardens at Atlock Farm? If you don’t, here is a picture of it in its infancy:

aOver the past month or so since that photo was taken, very favorable conditions encouraged that little seedling to grow much larger. However, notice how the bright pink on the youngest leaves is completely absent from the upper, newer foliage.




aAlthough most of the pink has vanished and the basic color of the foliage now looks like mud or something similar, it might not stay that way forever. It’s time to put the seedling through its paces, which means I need to propagate more plants from the original one and test them out under various conditions.

Time to break out the scissors and Oasis!




aFirst step: decapitate the seedling. It’s big enough to withstand having its top half removed for cuttings, leaving the base of the plant to branch out as it will.




aNext step: prepare cuttings from the top half for insertion into the little Oasis wedges, in which the cuttings will root. Here’s the initial length of stem.




aAnd here’s what that stem looked like after I made five cuttings. The little bits are the cuttings, and the rest is the material headed for the compost pile. Note how most of the leaf surface and some lengths of the stem have been removed.




aFinally, here are the five cuttings inserted into a strip of Oasis wedges.





Check back in a few weeks to see how the cuttings rooted and to marvel at how large the decapitated original plant grew (I hope!). Now and again I’ll revisit the progress of the whole lot. Maybe the bright pink coloration will return, or maybe something completely unexpected and surprising will happen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

All’s Fair

Last Friday (August 3) I judged at the New Jersey State Fair in Sussex County (when not spotting, admiring, photographing, and promoting coleus, that is). Not long ago, a few been-there, seen-that coleus might have been relegated to out-of-the-way corners of a public venue as this, but no longer. It seems to me that coleus are becoming as ubiquitous as petunias, geraniums, and ornamental sweet potatoes. Fine with me!

I suspect that the flower competition held later in the week will offer a class or two for coleus, probably as cut branches and maybe in mixed containers. Watch out, you exhibitors of zinnias and dahlias and many other flowers: the popularity of coleus as entries in shows and fairs is definitely on the rise.

What follows is a mini-tour of some of the coleus I found during the first two days of the New Jersey State Fair.

Sue Novello and John Beirne, two local coleus mavens whom you’ll read about in later blog entries, were the driving force behind creating two large raised beds that flanked the entrance to the Garden Expo building. Ornamental sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), cannas, elephant ears (Colocasia) chicken gizzards (Iresine herbstii), Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), and other tropical foliage plants vied for attention along with several coleus cultivars. I can’t identify the coleus that makes up the red stripe in the middle of the picture – maybe it’s ‘True Red’? - but I think there’s a bunch of yellow-edged ‘Solar Flare’ below it and some red-splashed ‘Careless Love’ above. One sprig of ‘Gold Giant’ appears at the extreme left. Dazzling!

A different view of the entrance beds shows the one-of-a-kind ‘Tilt a Whirl’ and a few more shy sprigs of ‘Gold Giant’. Please keep the coloration of ‘Tilt a Whirl’ in mind as you look at and read about the coleus in the next picture.

The local Master Gardeners put together a large and impressive sales area just inside the entrance of the Garden Expo building. They opened with a good number of first-rate coleus on hand, and by late Saturday most of them had disappeared! Offerings included the pink-veined, cut-edged ‘Peter Wonder’ at the top left, the orangey, animated ‘Tilt a Whirl’ (I’ll come back to this later), the chartreuse, dark-veined ‘Gay’s Delight’, and the mostly orange ‘Sedona’ in the bottom right. Remember the plants of ‘Tilt a Whirl’ in the previous picture? Depending on several factors, including time of year, temperature, soil fertility, and light, the main color of ‘Tilt a Whirl’ can range from brown to orange to apricot, and the leaves may be prominently fingered and twisted to much less so. That’s coleus for you, some playing the chameleon, while others appearing more or less the same throughout the season.

Coleus were featured in some of the more impressive entries in the professional competitive section, including this large windowbox. I want to say that’s the multicolored ‘Solar Eclipse’ on the left, with some large leaves of an unknown cultivar (maybe ‘Japanese Giant’ still developing its coloration?) at the top. Although not in bloom, the pink-edged coleus provides just as much color as the zinnia, don’t you think?

Here are two views of an imposing and complex container planting included in a large commercial display. At the top (left picture), an unidentified, large-leaved coleus attractively picks up on the colors of the two sweet potatoes (Ipomoea ‘Blackie’ and ‘Margarita’) above it. A more diverse combination at the base (right picture) features the always unpredictable ‘Religious Radish’ (note the variable pink edge) and one of several dark red-splashed green selections (‘Cranberry Salad’? ‘Antique’? one of the variants of ‘Careless Love’?). I wanted to remove the pink Impatiens, but my more sensible self prevailed.

I hope to enjoy discovering plenty of coleus at the 2008 New Jersey State Fair, too.

Readers, please feel free to contact me with your coleus sightings at mail to:rayro@optonline.net. I’ll be happy to hear from you!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Midsummer in the Oasis

Whoever invented Oasis, the lightweight and water-absorbing foam blocks gleefully embraced by flower arrangers, deserves a big thank-you from coleophiles. Now available as little “cubes” (better described as “wedges,” really) nestled neatly into plastic strips, wet Oasis seems to coax roots from a coleus cutting almost overnight. We keep a good supply of the Oasis strips on hand at Atlock Farm, the nursery in central New Jersey where I frequently engage my gardening muse, and over the past month I have put many of them to work.

It took only two weeks for this little scrap of ‘Red Ruffles’ to send out plenty of healthy white roots within its own private Oasis. >>>>

Midsummer – or July, if you subscribe to summer as running from June to August – is the time for assessing and rejuvenating the coleus collection at Atlock. As the practicing Curator of the Coleus Collection (Nice title, yes? Too bad no one else calls me that), I try to set aside three healthy, typical-looking specimens of every selection in the collection before all of the plants of a given coleus are sold, are discarded during the necessary end-of-July purge, or meet some other fate. Quite a few plants end up in #10, the little greenhouse-cum-ark where they are assembled three by three, but every year some cultivars inevitably fall through the cracks. So after making a list of the ones not yet set aside, I make my way through the collection of mature stock plants, taking the necessary cuttings and inserting them into the aforementioned Oasis oases.

<<<< Like the cuttings of ‘Red Ruffles’, sections of 28 different cultivars quickly rooted into their Oasis bits and were then moved into four-inch pots.

Don’t think for even a minute that the same list of coleus cultivars is propagated, offered for sale, and prepared for overwintering year in and year out. While we have many long-time favorites at Atlock, some cultivars fail to make the cut each year: they develop a disease or other cultural problem, or every example of the original cultivar sports and/or reverts (so the cultivar is lost to us unless acquired elsewhere). Some fall out of favor because they resemble a superior selection too closely, or they no longer appeal to the Curator, El Jefe (otherwise known as Ken Selody, owner of Atlock Farm), or customers. While we want to offer a wide selection of superior coleus, we don’t want to spend time, effort, and resources on also-rans.

And then of course there are always some New Ones, bought on field trips to nurseries, obtained from fellow coleophiles, or discovered on the nursery premises as sports, reversions, or seedlings. (I introduced you to one enticing seedling in my previous blog entry, and at least one future missive will discuss other New Ones.) Just like the veterans, three suitably sized plants of each New One need to be on hand around the beginning of August for official addition to the collection. Out come the scissors, off come a few shoots, and into the Oasis the little cuttings go.

Within a week from today (August 2), cuttings of the most recently acquired cultivar – the elongate-leaved, richly earth-toned ‘Lancelot Velvet Mocha’ from Proven Winners – should have rooted into their chunks of Oasis, and then the three best-looking ones will be potted up and added to the assembled multitude. In a few more weeks, after completing our yearly ritual of potting the vigorously growing, neophyte stock plants into roomy hanging baskets, the entire collection – labeled, recorded, and otherwise duly curated – will begin settling in for winter.

Yes, some coleus growers plan for winter in July. And in winter we dream about July’s warm Oasis.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Seed Germinates

While knocking around in one of the gardens at Atlock Farm a few weeks ago, I spotted a tiny but colorful plant and immediately went over for a closer look. To my surprise, it was an infant coleus. While volunteer coleus may be commonplace in areas with warmer winters, in central Jersey it’s quite rare for me to spot one coming up from a seed that most likely spent the winter outside.

I carefully pulled the seedling out of the garden with a little soil attached and then nestled it into roomier quarters – a four-inch plastic pot of a nice, open growing medium – and set it among the rest of the coleus in one of the greenhouses. Since then it hasn’t missed a beat, and already I’m fantasizing about introducing the next ‘Alabama Sunset’ or ‘Inky Fingers’ to the world in a year or two.

Well, chances are my little rescue will remain merely a gleam in its stepfather’s eye. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and some eyes are a bit myopic. Also, I’ve been around the neighborhood long enough to be aware that the already changeable foundling may well mature into a homely ogre. Some calamity may befall it before I have a chance to make a few cuttings from it to test its vigor and genetic stability (think colorfastness, if you will).

But I have hope. Something special could be in the works here.

And so it is with the Coleus Society. Just last week this website went live, and already there have been 171 hits on the site – two more since I sat down to write this! I know that any number of futures, from rosy to ashen to something in between, awaits the site and the Society. But for now I’m happy to watch the seedling Society grow and to help nurture it as others interact with it.

PLEASE NOTE: no reasonable person expects an infant to run the 100-yard dash or to engage in a spirited debate. For the time being, this site and the incipient Coleus Society may appear to develop slowly, and my blog will take the form of a weekly monologue. However, kids inexorably grow up, so perhaps with your interest and input the Society will in time become a strong, healthy, and vigorously interactive member of society.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Welcome to the blog!

Welcome to the blog! Allow me introduce myself: I’m Ray Rogers. I usually describe myself as a freelance gardening author and speaker (see www.showplants.net), but in this sphere I’d like to express my alter ego as a long-time coleus enthusiast and someone who wants to help create the Coleus Society. This site went online just a few days ago, so please bear with me as the kinks get worked out. Not that there seem to be many, thanks to the creative and diligent efforts of my website designer, Cie Stroud (www.ciestroud.com).

OK, enough for now with the introductions. I’ll be sharing plenty more about myself and others as the site and the Coleus Society develop. Today I’d like to encourage you to explore the site and fill out the survey linked on the Membership page (if you haven’t done so already). The information you provide will be carefully considered and will help make the Society a reality.

Sometimes I call myself a horticultural missionary, so I view this blog as my personal pulpit (call it a soapbox or stump, if you like) for proclaiming my zeal for all things coleus. It’s my hope that as the site and Society develop, many opportunities and outlets will arise for us to share our enthusiasm and knowledge. Until this site offers a more direct public method for give and take between you and me, please feel free to contact me at rayro@optonline.net. Typing “coleus society” or something similar in the subject line will be appreciated.

I’m looking forward to meeting many coleophiles (my pseudo-technical word for coleus enthusiast) through this site and in person. Perhaps by this time next year we’ll be putting the final touches on the plans for the first meeting of the Coleus Society. A coleophile can dream, can’t he?