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Getting to know coleus; mowing tips

Coleus has been around since I can remember. They were one of my mother's favorite plants, and yet they are one of the plants which are re-emerging in popularity, with many new varieties, shapes, and sizes. They work well grown in containers or in the ground, used as specimen plants or as partners in a combination with other plants. Coleus come in different shapes and sizes from trailing varieties to big bushy mounds. They add vibrant splashes of color to flowing curves of texture. You need not look any further for the secret ingredient to complete your container gardens or garden masterpiece.

Coleus are native to southeast Asia and are considered tender tropical plants. They are grown here as annuals because they are hardy only in USDA Hardiness Zone 11. They like warm, moist, well-drained soil. Coleus should not be planted outdoors until spring nights remain above 50 degrees F. Coleus require average amounts of water and regular fertilizing, which will reward you with bigger, lusher plants. Dry soil and low humidity will cause coleus to wilt. However, they recover quickly after being watered. One problem coleus will not recover from is root rot, which is the result of poor drainage. Coleus will grow in full sun to medium shade, but their colors are most vivid in full sun. Half-day sun produces softer colors that are still very appealing. Large leaf variety plants such as Kong Coleus need protection from strong winds and hot afternoon sun, as the wind can damage the large leaves.

Coleus like a good pinch. They benefit from attentive removal of their flower spikes (and a set or two of the leaves below them) before they elongate and bloom. Pinching encourages branching and denser growth for a fuller, less spindly plant. It also conserves energy for foliage you want, and not spikes, flowers, and stragglers you don't want. Scissors, pruners, and your own thumb and index finger work quite will. You can, however stop pinching a month or so before your normal frost date. You deserve a rest after your diligence, and some selections might surprise you with their cheerful, bright flowers.

Mow high, mow often

A rule of thumb for mowing lawn grasses are to mow high, mow frequently, and allow the clippings to return to the lawn. Grass clippings an inch or less in length filter down to the soil surface and decompose relatively quickly. Longer clippings have a tendency to remain above the lawn where they appear unsightly and can shade or smother grass beneath. Long clippings need to be removed to avoid lawn damage.

Mowing frequency is based on growth rate of the grass. In spring and fall when grass is growing more vigorously, mowing should be more frequent than during mid-summer when growth rates slow. Mow often enough so that no more than 1/3 of the leaf surface of the grass plant is removed at one time. If the finished height is three inches, mow whenever the grass reaches four inches in height.

The higher the height of cut the less the maintenance required. This is because higher heights of cut promote deeper more extensive root growth. Shorter heights of cut promote shallower root systems and the need to supplement water and soil nutrients to keep grass healthy. Deep root systems have naturally greater access to soil water and nutrient reserves, thereby increasing their ability to tolerate environmental stresses such as dry periods. In addition to larger and deeper root systems, higher heights of cut restrict the amount of light reaching the soil surface. Since many lawn weed seeds require light for germination, the increased shading from a higher height of cut will actually suppress weed germination and growth, thus reducing the need for herbicide use or other weed control measures. Most lawns will provide a good quality turf if the mowing height is two to three inches.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.