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Indoor Garden

A Touch Of Color

June 02, 1985|BILL DOWNER

When it comes time to brighten the home with a bit of natural color, we too often think immediately of the traditional solutions--bouquets or flowering plants. But plants with vibrantly colorful foliage can add as many vivid hues to your home as any flowering plant. And, unlike most flowers, their colorful foliage often lasts year-round.

COLEUS At times suggesting tiny Oriental carpets, the richly colored foliage of coleus--often variegated in deep purple-red, yellow to pale yellow, green, orange or near white--is a good substitute for flower color in the home. Most coleus available in plant shops and nurseries are considered to be hybrids of two species-- C. blumei and C. pumilus . Some of these plants are excellent subjects for hanging baskets; others are most desirable when grouped in a simple pot.

They are fast-growing and need regular, judicious pruning to keep their shape (this includes the removal of flower bracts when they appear). All coleus need good light--even some sunlight--to retain their colors. Too little light results in loss of leaves and loss of color. Too much sunlight bleaches out the colors of coleus.

As with most house plants, any good potting mix will meet the plant's needs. Keep the mix evenly moist but not wet. Feed lightly once a month with a complete fertilizer, but if your coleus grows too fast and becomes weedy, your best bet is to cut back on the fertilizer.

Pests to look for are mealybugs and whiteflies. Treat mealybugs as suggested below for crotons. If whiteflies--they look like tiny specks of white ash floating about the plant when they are disturbed--become a problem, isolate the coleus from other plants in your home. Then spray it with insecticidal soap, following label directions carefully. Warning: Whiteflies reproduce at an alarming rate. If after a week or so they still persist, destroy the plant before you are faced with a general whitefly infestation.

Suggestion: Coleus is easy to propagate. When you prune the plant, place the cuttings in a small container of water; be sure to keep the water fresh. When roots appear, pot the new plantlets in good potting mix. Keep them moist and in a bit lower light until they are established. Then move them into the stronger light they need to develop their coloration.

CROTON(Codiaeum variegatum) Although sold as crotons in plant shops and nurseries, these natives of tropical Asia are actually of the genus Codiaeum . Both, however, are members of the same plant family, Euphorbiaceae , which includes a wide range of unusual and beautiful plants. Crotons are shrubs with highly ornamental, brilliantly colored foliage and are generally considered to be greenhouse plants. With some extra attention, however, they can delight for a long time.

First, they like as much light--even some direct sunlight--as you can give them. If you place them in a lower light, they may survive, but their colors will fade to a rather dull green. Second, keep them away from drying drafts, both hot and cold. Mist your croton occasionally to help increase humidity. Keep their spectacular leaves spotlessly clean. That will also help avoid spider mites.

Any good potting soil will be suitable. Water well, making certain that the entire mix is thoroughly soaked. Pay particular attention to the area nearest the edges of the pot, where small hair roots that take up moisture and nutrients are apt to be located. Then let the potting material become almost dry before watering again. Light feedings of any complete fertilizer are needed monthly, but during the winter, you will be able to get by with smaller feedings.

Evidence of spider mites is generally found on the undersides and in the axils of the leaves, especially the younger ones, where the mites will appear as tiny specks--spiders making tiny webs with their fine threads. Insecticidal soap usually eliminates these pests, but follow all label directions carefully. Mealybugs can occasionally be a problem on crotons. Check the plant regularly for this woolly, white pest, and if it appears, dab each of the mealybugs with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Continue until there is no evidence of the pest. If the mealybugs persist, insecticidal soap should help.

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