Out with pests, up with coleus

Published August 22, 2006

A few weeks ago, I spent my summer vacation in northern Idaho. When I heard people complaining about the bothersome wildlife, my interest was piqued.

They were explaining how they tried everything to keep these persistent pests out of their gardens. Their plants ended up trampled or eaten, and nothing seemed to keep the animals away. They were speaking of the deer that I absolutely loved to see each morning when I took my walk. Of course, my plants back home were not being eaten by Bambi's relatives.

Recently, in Florida, interactions between alligators and humans led to three untimely deaths, not just yard damage. Every so often there are stories like these about humans and wildlife colliding with such terrible outcomes.

I have had gardeners say they keep their back yard as just lawn so they have a clear view down to the water's edge. They are a little more creative in the front yard. Alligator encounters are serious business.

As long as we continue to expand into wildlife habitat, we will have these encounters. The Idaho gardeners had a long list of "home remedies" to keep the deer away and ideas about plants the deer didn't like to eat. Unfortunately, I know of nothing to keep alligators, snakes, spiders, or some of the multitude of insects that call Florida home away from our gardens. I did enjoy my encounters with deer that would stand very still when I was no more than 15 feet away from them. I do not think I would be able to say the same of alligators!

My trip also reminded me that summer is the most unpleasant time to live in Florida. The heat and humidity curtail many of our activities, and gardening is one. My mother in Idaho had a tree that needed removal from her yard, and even in the 90 degree heat (which is unusually hot for northern Idaho), it was a somewhat pleasant task. I would not have wanted to saw down a tree and then cut it into small pieces for waste disposal to pick up at my house.

Upon return to Florida there was no lack of work that needed doing in my yard, but it is very hard to get motivated. The weeds were very prolific while I was away and some of the shrubs just grew like crazy.

I have found that if I work a few minutes in the morning before I go to work and then an hour or so right before dark, I can keep everything in control and not wonder when I will be hit with heatstroke.

Another concern in my yard is the apparent attack by hundreds of slugs. I have used very, very little slug bait in the past and none recently. This year both my portulaca and begonias have been defoliaged by these slimy creatures. It is probably too late to use the bait now. It is amazing how one plant will be almost completely stripped of all foliage and the same type of plant not 6 inches away is perfectly fine. I have decided I will not add more flowers until fall. The remaining annuals and perennials have filled in nicely and there are not too many bare spots.

I'm very pleased with the coleus I planted in the back yard. Before the rains started, the plants relied on me for supplemental water. The poor things would wilt and look like there was no recovery possible. But after the addition of some water, they would perk back up. They have not only survived, but thrived along the border's edge and add much needed color. I couldn't ask for a plant that requires less care, and they were also inexpensive.

Coleus is also one of the most easily propagated plants you'll grow. Just snip off a branch with five or six leaves on it and stick the stem (about 2 to 3 inches stripped of leaves) into a jar of water. In just a few short days, there will be a multitude of healthy, white roots starting to grow. Not long after that, you can plant the rooted cutting in a pot filled with good soil and the plant will take off. Once it is firmly rooted, you can then plant it outside. This cycle can be endless if you desire. You may also purchase coleus seeds if you are even more patient.

Although this may be Florida's least comfortable season to be outside, do try and keep up with your yard chores. And make sure you also allow for some quality time enjoying your landscape.