5 tips for making an impact in your landscape without flowers

coleus 'Lord Voldemort' in Buffalo
Coleus ‘Lord Voldemort’ is named for the villain in the Harry Potter books. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

“You don’t have to have a flower to make an impact,” said Kristin Pochopin, interim director of horticulture at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

You can see that lesson on display at this year’s Celebration of Coleus and Color, which is again sponsored by Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com. The show will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Saturday, June 18 through Sunday, July 24.

This exhibit is included with regular admission to the Botanical Gardens:  $9 for adults, $8 for seniors (ages 55 and older) and students (ages 13 and older with ID), $5 for children ages 3-12 and free for Botanical Gardens members and children 2 and under. The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is located at 2655 South Park Ave., Buffalo.

How to make an impact without flowers is a good lesson to learn anywhere in your landscape. It’s especially important if you have a shady garden because there aren’t many long-lasting flowers that grow in shade. (See our discussion of impatiens, a favorite flower for shade that is now being bothered by a blight.)

Tip #1: Choose a plant with colorful foliage.

Coleus is an annual that is prized for its colorful leaves. Bonus: It does well in shady areas.

While it always seems sunny and bright under the dome at the Botanical Gardens, that area actually gets filtered, indirect light. In addition, taller specimens on exhibit can shade smaller plants that are added for the seasonal displays, Popochin said, so coleus does well in that area.

She has found that the colors of many varieties of coleus that she is using are actually more vivid in the indirect light of the dome than they are outside.

coleus Lime Shrimp in Buffalo
Coleus ‘Lime Shrimp’ has an interesting shape to the leaf. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

“The sun can wash out the colors of the foliage,” Popochin said. Growers have labeled some varieties of coleus as being tolerant of sun, but she has found that some varieties of coleus aren’t as tolerant of sun as the labels would suggest.

Last year, she grew a chartreuse variety of coleus called ‘Wasabi’ outside around the gazebo, but it got burned by the sun, so she is using it in a different spot this year.

“Sometimes you just have to play around,” she said.

And that leads us to our next tip.

Tip #2: Experiment.

If a plant doesn’t do well in a certain spot, try moving it to a new spot. Coleus does well in pots, so you can move your container from spot to spot.

coleus Apocalypse in Buffalo
Coleus ‘Apocalypse’ has a dark leaf, but is more appealing than its name. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Tip #3: Look for interesting combinations

The theme for this year’s show is “dark,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll see boring, monotone plants that fade into the shadows.

Popochin likes to mix colors, and many of the varieties that she has chosen to fit into the theme, such as ‘Lord Voldemort’ and ‘Apocalypse’ are multi-colored.

In addition, the leaves have different textures and shapes.

“I like to use different colors and different leaf shapes and have them play off one another,” she said.

And while coleus are attractive enough to use as a specimen plant in a small container on a patio table, if you have a large area to fill, don’t be afraid to plant masses of coleus for a swath of color.

Coleus comes in different sizes, too. Choose plants of different heights and stagger the heights of your plants from tall to low, she suggested.

Shayne dark artwork with coleus
Use sculpture as a focal point in an area of your garden that doesn’t have flowers. This piece by Shayne Dark is surrounded by coleus.

Tip #4: Use sculpture or found objects as focal points

A large sculpture can become a focal point in an area without flowers, whether it’s a shady area or a sunny area where the perennials are done blooming. Works by artist Shayne Dark, who was in residence at the Botanical Gardens last year, are featured in the Celebration of Coleus and Color.

It would be great to use an original sculpture in your own garden, but if that seems out of your budget, see if there’s something at local garden centers that appeals to you.

And if even that is out of your budget, get creative with “found objects.” These are items that might be discarded, but are displayed as artwork in what has become known as “Buffalo-style gardens.” Items that I have seen on garden walks include an old gumball machine, a wringer washer potted up with plants and a mannequin draped in a gardening apron.

Tip #5: Save your favorites

Coleus is easy to propogate, Popochin noted, and many people are able to overwinter it, too. If a coleus plant does really well in your yard this year, bring some inside. You won’t have to worry about finding that exact variety next year– you will already have it on hand!


6 Comments on “5 tips for making an impact in your landscape without flowers

  1. My parents have bought a house and they want to make sure they have a great landscape. I appreciate you talking about the importance of experimenting with dealing with this. You never know what color combinations or plants can provide your space with the best style for you.

  2. This past winter, for the first time, I over-wintered three varieties of Coleus. I simply put them under fluorescent lights in the basement. It was surprisingly simple and successful.

    As we got closer to Spring, I made cuttings from my “parent” plants and was ready for potting new plants.

  3. Take cuttings for more coleus for next year. Overwintering is just keeping the coleus in a bright room and cut it back so it does not get leggy or flower. I use them as house plants some years.

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