‘Green Thumb’ Tip #7: Experiment!

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A sense of curiosity and wonder drive ‘normal people’ to transform themselves into dedicated gardeners.  We take pleasure in watching how plants grow.  Now, that isn’t a punch-line; it is a confession …

When I learn about a new plant, or a new (to me) cultivar of a more common plant; I often want to grow it myself to watch the process of is unfolding.  And I generally want to grow several in differing conditions to learn for myself how it performs, what makes thrive, and what it needs to look its best.  But most importantly, I’m curious whether I’ll like the plant; whether it is worth my investment of time and energy to grow in our garden.

We ‘click’ with some plants and dislike others.  It’s human nature.  But it’s hard to learn what we like and glimpse new possibilities for our garden space unless we are willing to take a chance growing new plants.  We learn much of what we know as gardeners through experimentation.

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Echinacea 'Green Envy,' which we planted for the first time last summer. All three plants returned and are doing well this summer.

Echinacea ‘Green Jewel,’ which we planted for the first time last July.  All three plants returned and are doing well this summer.

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Saying we’re “Watching the grass grow” is a joke simply because grass is both predictable and inevitable.  Why would we watch something like that?  We all pretty much understand grass.

Yet many good gardeners love it and can deliver a long monologue on which types are best and how to properly care for a healthy lawn.  That is their thing. 

Others of us delight with each patch of grass/weeds we convert into a bed for more beautiful plants….  And still other gardeners love growing the new cultivars of ornamental grasses coming to market each year.  They take pleasure in watching the wind set their Miscanthus and Carex dancing in the changing light.  But how will we ever take pleasure in the beauty of Carex mixing among other perennials, unless we are willing to experiment with planting a few?

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Colocasia esculenta in its third summer has grown much larger than I expected. This wasn't sold as 'Thailand Giant,' but I'm beginning to wonder.....

Colocasia esculenta in its third summer has grown much larger than I expected. This wasn’t sold as ‘Thailand Giant,’ but I’m beginning to wonder…..

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Many frustrated gardeners who boast of their ‘brown thumb’ may be growing the wrong plants.  They may not feel confident in buying plants they haven’t already seen neighbors and friends growing in their gardens.  Or maybe they are growing familiar plants in the wrong conditions or with inconsistent care.  A more pleasing garden will result when they begin to experiment with fresh ways of doing things.

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This experimental raised bed is bordered with hypertufa planters and planted with a combination of hardy Begonia and ferns, with a few Caladiums planted each spring.

This experimental raised bed is bordered with hypertufa planters and planted with a combination of hardy Begonia, Hellebores and ferns, with a few Caladiums planted each spring.

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Experiments help us learn.  We observe more closely.  Perhaps we do a little reading to guide us.  We take chances we might otherwise avoid.  We learn from the results of our experiments without blaming ourselves if the results aren’t what we hoped.  After all, it was an experiment, not a commitment!

After a few experiments we’ll have a little more experience to guide us in our gardening decisions.  Eventually, after years of trial and error, we will shape our outdoor spaces into places which please us and bring us joy.  That is the point of gardening, isn’t it?

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Colocasia 'Coffee Cups' sparkles in the morning light. New leaves now grow to between 3' and 4' high, but will likely grow larger as summer progresses.

Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups’ sparkles in the morning light. New leaves now grow to between 3′ and 4′ high, but will likely grow larger as summer progresses.

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Our garden remains an ongoing experiment.  We experiment with various ways to keep deer out of the garden.  And nothing so far has proven 100% effective….   Thus, we also experiment with growing beautiful plants the deer won’t graze when they find a way inside.  Our list continues to grow….

We experiment with how to grow perennials on heavy clay soil, how to protect shrubs from the ever hungry voles tunneling through much of the garden, how to adjust to our changing climate and how to preserve tender plants through four or five months of freezing weather.  We continue to experiment with new ways to construct simple, inexpensive raised beds

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July 27, 2016 morning garden 006

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We also experiment with several new plants each year.  This year we’re growing Colocasia ‘Coffee Cups’ and Alocasia ‘Stingray’ for the first time.  We’ve been experimenting with various Colocasia since the summer of 2014, and have six different varieties growing this year.  We’ve discovered at least two which will survive our winters outdoors.  This year I’ve added four different Alocasia cultivars to the mix, and I’m very pleased with how they are performing.  These plants all love intense heat so long as they are hydrated.  Some will take full sun, while others need shade.

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I thought I might have ruined this 'Voodoo Lily' tuber when my spade hit it early this spring. Rather, it is better. Instead of one or two stems, it has sent up many, producing a much better plant.

I thought I might have ruined this Sauromatum venosum or ‘Voodoo Lily’ tuber when my spade hit it early this spring. Rather, it is better.  Instead of one or two stems, it has sent up many, producing a much better plant.

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Another experiment hasn’t gone so well.  I admire Begonia boliviensis, but have had little success with it in past years.  This year I began with seven huge, healthy tubers of Begonia boliviensis, ‘Bertini’, a cultivar said to do well in our hot, humid summers, which can take partial sun without burning, and that might overwinter.  I planted some in pots, another in a hanging basket, and set those containers in areas with various amounts of light.  None so far have pleased me.  Most, in fact, look abysmal, and there are zero photos to share.

When the soil is too wet, and the humidity to high, this plant collapses.  Native to the Andes Mountains, these plants naturally grow in a cooler climate on much thinner soil.  They cascade down the rocky slopes, roots tucked into a small crevice, thriving in thin, cool mountain air.  Our hot, humid Virginia summer stresses them out.  Even though they are blooming prolifically, the stems often rot and simply fall away.  I haven’t yet figured out the formula to keep them growing strong….

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Three different Begonia cultivars share this basket with a rabbits foot fern. The Begonia Boliviensis usually dies back by late summer, but returns from its tuber the following spring. This baskets spends the winter months in our garage.

Three different Begonia cultivars share this basket with a rabbits foot fern. The Begonia Boliviensis usually dies back by late summer, but returns from its tuber the following spring. This basket spends the winter months in our garage.

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We have several more ‘new to us’ plants just getting established in our garden this year.  Besides the C. ‘Desert Sunset’ we found last week, we are also enjoying Verbena ‘Lollipop;’  native Pycanthemum or Mountain Mint; some pretty Crocosmia given to us by a friend; a Cryptomeria ‘Black Dragon’ bought on impulse last fall;  several new Hydrangeas; and two little native Live Oak trees, Quercus virginiana, ordered from the Arbor Day Foundation.  It may take a few years for some of these to make an impact,  but I enjoy watching them sink their roots and begin to grow.

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Alocasia 'Stingray' is a fun Alocasia whose leaf grows with a tip shaped like a stingray's tail. These prefer partial shade and will grow to several feet tall as the tuber matures. Here it is in a mixed planting with tuberous Begonias, Coleus, Oxalis and ivy.

Alocasia ‘Stingray’ is a fun Alocasia whose leaf grows with a tip shaped like a stingray’s tail. These prefer partial shade and will grow to several feet tall as the tuber matures. Here it is in a mixed planting with tuberous Begonias, Coleus, Oxalis and ivy.  The blue pot behind holds a Begonia Boliviensis tuber just gone bust…. I’ve transplanted some little Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii’ divisions, wilting in our heat, to fill it while I hope for the Begonia to recover.

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Like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, some of us view our garden as a work in progress, constantly thinking of ways to renovate and make it better.  I would soon lose interest in a garden where I couldn’t experiment and try out new ideas year to year; where I wasn’t always learning and discovering new details of nature.

A garden grows into a unique ecosystem, alive and ever evolving.  Gardeners earn their green thumb by taking an active hand in guiding the many changes taking place each season.  We plant and we prune.  We enrich the soil, irrigate, feed; but also pull the weeds and remove the plants we don’t like.  We attract pollinators while eliminating pests and disease through careful management.

None of us has all the answers to the many questions which present themselves over time; but good gardeners set out to find those answers through their own experience and experimentation.

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July 27, 2016 morning garden 050

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Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  It is wise to remain open to others’ experiences to save oneself a little frustration and pain.  A little research before welcoming a new plant can help avoid unfortunate and costly mistakes. 

Be careful of introducing invasive species just because they come cheap from a mail-order nursery.  Know whether a new plant will survive in your climate and what its needs are before making an investment.  Understand how quickly and how far that new perennial or shrub might spread.  Some ‘experiments’ we don’t need to repeat.  Others will tell us what we need to know if we’ll just do a little reading and research.

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Hardy Begonia grandis has naturalized in our garden. It spreads, but is never invasive.

Hardy Begonia grandis has naturalized in our garden. It spreads, but is never invasive.

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

Green Thumb Tip #5: Keep Planting!

Green Thumb Tip #6: Size Matters!

Green Thumb Tip #8:  Observe!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9: Plan Ahead

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #10: Understand the Rhythm

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

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Woodland Gnome 2016

Bountiful Begonias

Begonia boliviensis 'Bossa Nova White'

Begonia boliviensis ‘Bossa Nova White’

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My love affair with Begonias continues. 

Grown for foliage or for flowers, they remain one of my favorite plants for every season of the year.

A few years back, a new Begonia, Begonia boliviensis came to market.  These sturdy tender perennials continually cover themselves in bright flowers and can take full sun.  Large and sturdy, they make quite a show in a basket or large pot.

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June 5, 2015 flowers 006

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Like so many Begonias, they can not abide wet soil.  The top half inch or so of their soil must be allowed to dry between waterings, or the stems will rot at the soil line.  Understanding that, and making sure they have good drainage, these are easy plants to grow.

Water in the morning, feed them regularly, prevent them from ever drying out completely, and you will have a gorgeous floral display through the entire season. These Begonias will drop spent blooms, so deadheading isn’t needed.

The early B. boliviensis cultivars appeared in shades of red and reddish orange.

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Begonia boliviensis in a basket with Begonia richmondensis last summer

Begonia boliviensis in a basket with Begonia richmondensis last summer

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But last season, a new group, known as the B. boliviensis “Bossa Nova” came available.  I’ve been trying to track these down in a garden center or online for months.  And, miraculously, I happened upon them while visiting The Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond a few weeks ago.  I was thrilled, and picked up two B. “Bossa Nova White” on the spot.

B. “Bossa Nova” are available in white, pink, red and orange.  Here is what Greenhouse Product News has to say about them:

“Bossa Nova, a Begonia boliviensis introduced this spring from Floranova, is a fantastic new option for use in dramatic hanging baskets, colorful combination planters and a variety of other applications where continuous color-power is needed all season long. Bossa Nova exhibits excellent branching on a tidy, yet abundant habit, which makes it an easy, clean and profitable alternative to vegetative varieties.

Naturally branching, with short internodes, Bossa Nova easily fills out smaller pots in the early stages of growth, allowing for ease of transport, quicker finishing times and fewer plugs per pot. As it matures, Bossa Nova trails into an impressive, cascading plant, covered entirely with 2-inch, bell-shaped flowers, which provide continuous color. It thrives in a variety of climates, including high heat, and enjoys full sun to partial shade.

Bossa Nova has performed with great success in university and grower trials for the past two years and has proven to have fantastic, lasting garden performance. Success can be achieved almost nationwide…

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June 2, 2015 pots 007~

The plants I bought in May have already doubled in size, and have remained in bloom continuously.  Both receive several hours of direct sun each day, and have stood up to our heat without so much as a droop or wilt.

On a side note, the Begonia boliviensis I planted in a hanging basket a few years ago returned this year, even though it died down in the autumn.

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This basket of mixed Begonias and fern hangs in a Dogwood in partial shade. These Begonias are fairly sun tolerant, but we've still had some burned leaves during these last few very hot weeks. This basket needs daily watering when there is no rain.

This basket is filled with Begonia richmondensis, and the Begonia boliviensis grows out of  the left side.  See the flowers which look quite different in red?

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I have a Begonia richmondensis in the basket, which overwintered in the garage.  Several weeks after moving the basket back outside, new sprouts appeared from the B. boliviensis.  It is an orangey red, not my favorite color in a Begonia, but it grows well in our climate with attractive foliage.

If your idea of Begonias begins and ends with the little B. semperflorens offered in six packs at every grocery and hardware store each spring, you have no idea the range and beauty of this genus.  I will show some of my favorite Begonia plants, and discuss their culture, over the next few weeks.  These are not easy to find.  It is always a challenge to find the best varieties; but a it is worthwhile to seek them out and to grow them well.

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July 4, 2014 After Arthur 143

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

Begonias, Begonias

A cane Begonia.

An Angel Wing cane Begonia.

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I love Begonias.  That may sound like a strange obsession for a “forest gardener”, but it is my strange obsession.

I remember buying a hanging basket of blooming Angel Wing Begonias with tiny dark burgundy and green  leaves at the  farmer’s market when I was living in a third floor walk up.  It made my small screened in porch more beautiful, and made me happy.  Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for adding beautiful Begonia plants to my collection.

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The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia. The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright. When the branch gets too heavy with flowers, it breaks off.

The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia. The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright.

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There are thousands of cultivars in the genus Begonia.  Whether grown for their outrageous leaves or their abundant bright flowers, Begonias can be found from tiny to tremendous.

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Begonia bolivienses in partial sun.  When the soil is too wet the stems will rot off at soil level.  Weeks of rain will do that….

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Begonias work in a forest garden because they appreciate shade.  Although some, like the new Dragon Wing cultivars and Begonia bolivienses can take hours of sun each day, most are quite happy growing in permanent shade.  They also require very little care.

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Three different Begonia cultivars share this basket with a rabbits foot fern. The Begonia boliviensis usually dies back by late summer, but returns from its tuber the following spring. This baskets spends the winter months in our garage.

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Most like to dry out a little between waterings.  They stand up to the heat and humidity of my Virginia forest garden partly because they originate in the mountainous tropical forests of Central and South America and Southern Asia.

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Dragon's Blood Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

Dragon Wing Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

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Although some cultivars of hardy Begonia are available, which survive the winter here in zone 7B and return each spring; most Begonias are tender perennials and must spend the winter inside where the temperatures don’t drop below the mid 40s.  They are happy growing in the house, where they get some daylight from windows, and bloom happily throughout the winter.

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Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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Many of my Begonias overwinter in a sunny garage.  They may lose a few leaves when moved out into the garden in the spring, but bounce back quickly with new leaves once they adjust to the brighter light.

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 A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

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Garden centers are full of bedding Begonias, Begonia Semperflorens, and Dragon Wing Begonias in the spring.   Begonia Semperflorens, also known as Wax Begonias or Whiskey Begonias, are popular because these small, neat plants produce an abundance of small red, pink, or white flowers during the entire growing season.  They may have light or dark green leaves, variegated leaves or even dark purple leaves. Flowers may be single or double, but all are fairly small.

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New hybrids are available that maintain the flower form and leaf shape on much larger plants that may grow to 24″ in a single season.

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Gryphon Begonia

Begonia ‘Gryphon’, grown in a protected shady corner, began the season in a 4″pot, and and grew this large by September

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Many commercial landscapers fill huge beds with these plants, but often plant them in too much sun.  When they get too much sun and dry out the foliage browns and looks ratty.  Growth is stunted, and the plants lose their beauty.  These plants are easy to start from stem cuttings.  There are some varieties with variegated foliage which trail more than they grow upright.  I love these in hanging baskets growing in partial sun.

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Begonia Semper growing with Plectranthus.

A rare, variegated Begonia Semperflorens  growing with Plectranthus.

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Dragon Wing Begonias have also become common spring plants in big box stores and are easy to grow.  They can take sun or shade and are covered in red or pink flowers all season.  They also root easily from a stem cutting in moist soil or in water.  This means you can break off a stem, push it into moist potting soil, keep it shaded and moist for several weeks, and expect it to grow into a new plant.  Dipping the stem cutting in powdered rooting hormone before planting speeds the process.

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June 23 2012 dusk 010

Begonia “Gryphon” is new to the market. Widely available for only the past three years, it is grown for its huge foliage. My first Gryphon grew to 4 feet tall from a 4″ pot in a single season. Putting all of its energy into leaves, I’ve never seen it flower. This is from a cutting taken from my original plant.

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Angel Wing, or cane  Begonias, are a little harder to find.  Specialty and mail order nurseries are the most reliable sources.  These Begonias are grown more for their huge, bright leaves than for their flowers.

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June 23 2012 dusk 008

Cane type Begonias bloom generously throughout the season with many tiny flowers in each cluster.

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Marked with silver, burgundy, and various greens, these wing shaped leaves often grow on red stems and have dark red undersides.  Angel Wing Begonias produce clusters of flowers in white, pink, red, or orange.  Sometimes there are 50 or more tiny flowers in a single cluster.  Angel Wing cane Begonias can grow into small shrubs and can top out over 6’ tall after several years of growth.

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Rex Begonia

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Rex Begonias are also grown for their leaves, but stay much smaller than cane Begonias.  Many of the leaves are textured, intricately marked with color, and some even grow into spirals with a snail shell appearance.  Rex Begonias flower, but are insignificant on most cultivars.

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Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

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Tiny Rex Begonia plants can often be found in the houseplant section of big box hardware stores.  Sold in 2.5”- 6” pots, often with just a few leaves, these tiny starts will grow into impressive plants indoors or out.  Pot them up so the soil will drain, feed them, give them bright but filtered light, and they take off and become beautiful plants.

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Tuberous Begonia

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Tuberous, or double, Begonias are grown for their large, bright flowers.  These are extremely popular in Europe.  Tubers are offered through catalogs all winter and show up in big box stores in late winter alongside other summer bulbs and tubers.  By early May the plants begin to appear, blooming, in better garden centers.  The Homestead Garden Center in James City Co. always offers a beautiful assortment of Dragon Wing and Tuberous begonias at very affordable prices.  http://www.homesteadgardencenter.com

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Tuberous Begonia foliage

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The tubers are started in shallow trays of soil, like Caladium tubers, and then repotted into baskets or pots once they sprout.  The concave side of the tuber should be up, and covered with a shallow layer of soil of not more than a half- inch.  Top with vermiculite or grit in a shallow layer to control mold.  Water in lightly, and place in a bright spot to watch for new stems to appear.

Upright or cascading, these hybrids are bred for outrageously beautiful flowers in every shade of red, pink, white, yellow, and orange, and their beautiful leaves.  Double, triple, picotee, and fringed, these flowers can mimic roses, water lilies, and anemones.  When kept watered and fed, they bloom for months.

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Sadly, this is the hardest Begonia for me to grow, because they absolutely must have the proper moisture.  If they get too dry, they droop.  Too wet, they rot.  Sometimes too many rainy days makes the stems begin to rot at the soil line, and they are very susceptible to mold and fungus.   I’ve killed more than my share of these beautiful plants, and am cautious in buying them.

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A dark leaved Tuberous Begonia shares a pot with Oxalis.

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Hardy Begonias are beautiful in a shady border.  These are technically “tuberous” Begonias, as they have an enlarged area at the bottom of each stem underground which survives the winter, but these plants are very easy to grow.  These make their re-appearance each year in the late spring and can grow to 18”-24” by late summer. Several new cultivars of hardy Begonias have come to market in recent years.

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Begonia grandis, perennial Begonias finally bloom by late summer.

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They bloom, like an Angel Wing Begonia, with clusters of white or pink flowers and increase each year.  Interestingly, they self sow and new plants often crop up in other parts of the garden. These are beautiful grown in beds with fern and Hosta and are a good plant to grow on top of spring bulbs.  Watch for the tiny red bulbils that form where leaf meets stem by late summer.  Each of these bulbils can grow into a new plant.

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Hardy Begonia grandis has naturalized in our garden. It spreads, but is never invasive.

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Begonias grow quickly and make beautiful displays either alone, or in potted arrangements with other shade loving plants.  Although heavily hybridized over the last century, most cultivars retain the tough constitution of the forest plants originally collected from the mountains of South America and Asia by determined collectors who loved Begonias enough to search them out in the wild and bring them home to Europe and North America.

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Begonia Rex growing with a lady fern.

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Some specialty growers, like Logees Growers, offer specialized information about growing Begonias.  Although Begonias are in some ways a ‘cult’ plant like daffodils and Iris, there isn’t a great body of literature about them that is easily accessible.  The Queensland Begonia Society, in Queensland Australia, offers a very thorough resource for Begonia lovers.  They also share photos from their Begonia shows.  Please visit their site for excellent articles on Begonia care and propagation, and for their stunning photos of the Begonias in their care.

Networking is important for acquiring new plants and learning the fine points of growing Begonias.  I remain grateful to my Begonia loving friends for sharing cuttings and wanting to help over-winter these tender perennials.

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Dragonwing Begonias grow well in this shady spot at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I commonly turn to several Begonia varieties for summer interest in pots I tend at the Williamsburg Botanical Gardens.  Rooted cuttings are easy to establish in mid-spring in shaded pots alongside ferns, Caladiums, and other shade-loving plants.  Friends often help out by adopting the plants in November before frost touches them.

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Begonia ‘Flamingo’

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Begonias remain some of the most beautiful, versatile and easy to grow plants for gardeners to use in pots, beds and borders.  New ones come to the market each year, ensuring that there are always new and interesting varieties available for those who like to try new plants.  With so many old favorites, the greatest challenge is to find space to grow them all.

Woodland Gnome

updated January 2021

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Begonia, “Sophie”

 

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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