Winter Houseguests: The Begonias

 

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Our Begonias move inside sometime in late October.  And we entertain them for the wintery half of the year, until they can go back out to the fresh air and sunshine in late April.  We add a few new cultivars every year, and every year it seems the collection grows from cuttings, too.

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They show appreciation with fresh flowers and new growth, glowing in the rare winter sunshine.

Begonias reward their grower with gorgeous foliage whether in bloom, or not.  Their leaves may be plain or spotted, round, curlique, angel wing, shiny or dull.  Some are gargantuan; others remain quite small. You’ll find Begonias with any color leaves from apple green to purply black.

Like Heucheras, some cultivars’ leaves are even orange!

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Although most of our Begonias spend winter camping out in the garage, a few make the cut to live in the house with the cat and the gardeners.  They drop many of their summer leaves in our arid heated home,  but new ones will take their place by early summer.

Begonias prefer to dry out a little between waterings.  Even so, I try to check them and top them off several times a week.  I offer well-diluted Orchid food a few times a month to those in the house, to keep them growing and encourage them to bloom.

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This Begonia blooms almost continually. A tall Angel Wing type, its stems will grow to 6" or more if you don't prune them back.

This Begonia blooms almost continually in bright light. A tall Angel Wing type, its stems will grow to 6″ or more if you don’t prune them back.

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Late winter is a great time to find B. Rex, and other small Begonia cuttings growing in tiny pots.  I picked up two new cultivars last weekend at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond.  Neither was named, but one was sold as a ‘dwarf Begonia‘ and has the tiniest leaves I’ve found on a Begonia, yet.  I am looking forward to learning what this one does over time.

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The 'dwarf' Begonia I found at the Great Big Greenhouse last weekend. These are the tiniest Begonia leaves I've ever seen!

The ‘dwarf’ Begonia I found at the Great Big Greenhouse last weekend. These are the tiniest Begonia leaves I’ve ever seen!

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The other is an Angel Wing type, and likely will make a good hanging basket plant.  Small and inexpensive now, I can find a little place  for  these grow indoors over the next few months.  Each new Begonia will grow  large enough to look good in a pot or hanging basket basket by the time it is warm enough to move them out for the summer.

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Although a tiny rooted cutting now, this will likely grow into a standard sized Begonia by early summer.

Although a tiny rooted cutting now, this will likely grow into a standard sized Begonia by early summer.

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If your gardener’s fingers are itching to grow, but it is still too cold to work outside, please consider adopting a Begonia.

It will prove a rewarding companion so long as you can provide bright, indirect light and temperatures of 50F or above.  These beautiful plants want to live.  Even if you make a mistake or two along the way, most will recover and come back strong.

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When you need to prune them back, the cuttings will root well in water.   In just a few weeks, your rooted cutting will be ready for a pot of its own.   A few rooted cuttings planted in a basket in April will grow into a gorgeous  display by July.

 

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This is a second rooted cutting I picked up last weekend of the same Begonia cultivar. This two piece pot has a reservoir to keep the soil evenly moist. How cute!

This is a second rooted cutting I picked up last weekend of the same Begonia cultivar. This two piece pot has a reservoir to keep the soil evenly moist. How cute!

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 Long lived and companionable, Begonias make agreeable winter house guests, freshening the air and filling one’s home with beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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‘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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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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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

Begonias: The Ultimate House Plant

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Whether choosing a pet or a house plant, most of us have criteria.

We think about shedding and noise, ease of care, how much space we have, and the general appearance of our new companion.

Long hair or short?  Leggy or compact?  And how much will I need to feed it?

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Many of us treat our indoor plants a little like pets.  We offer fresh water and food.  We groom them, probably talk to them; and we clean up behind them.

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Having kept everything from ferns to Ficus trees over the years, I have developed some preferences and prejudices.

I like interesting foliage, first of all.  I want something eye-catching and unusual.  And I want to see growth and change.

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I grew up in the era when my mother kept ‘dish gardens’ in the living room.  These florist made concoctions were uniformly boring and rarely grew at all.

Nearly all included a ‘Mother in Law’s Tongue,’ otherwise known as ‘Snakeplant.’  They thrive on total neglect.

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For my money, rhizomatous Begonias remain the best ‘house plants’ of all.

Their leaves unfold like colorful mosaics or textured silk.  Even though they produce flowers from time to time, the flowers are almost an afterthought; and nearly always tiny.

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The leaves, streaked and mottled in shades of silver, green, black, red, pink, brown, white and purple, are more colorful and interesting than any flower, with the possible exception of orchids.

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You probably know rhizomatous Begonias as ‘Rex’ Begonias.  ‘Rex’ of course is Latin for ‘king.’  All Rex Begonias are rhizomatous, but all rhizomatous Begonias are not classed as ‘Rex.’

The original species of B. Rex was found in the forests of northern India.  Since, the species has been hybridized with other rhizomatous Begonias to create the many many cultivars available around the world today.

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Rhizomatous Begonias thrive in the warm, shady environment most homes can offer.  They remain relatively small and rarely shed so much as a petal or leaf.  While these Begonias hate soggy soil, they appreciate humid air.  In areas with low humidity the will perform better when grown on a tray of moist gravel, or near other plants where humidity remains fairly high.

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Most of our Begonias spend the summer out of doors in the shade.  They love our high coastal humidity.    Once outside, the leaves become more vibrantly colored as they respond to increased levels of light.

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This is the Begonia pictured above, as it looked near the end of February.  We had purchased it from Lowes in a 2" pot about three weeks earlier.  Notice how the leaf color has changed since it has been living outside on our shady deck?

This is the same Begonia pictured 2 photos above, as it looked near the end of February. We had purchased it from Lowes in a 2″ pot about three weeks earlier. Notice how the leaf color has changed since it has been living outside on our shady deck?

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Rhizomatous Begonias send up individual leaves, on long petioles, from a special stem called a rhizome, which creeps along the surface of the soil.  This means that as these plants grow larger, they can be divided by cutting the rhizome into pieces.  Each piece should have some roots and some leaves attached so it can grow on in its new pot.

I top dress the soil with fine gravel, often aquarium gravel, to make the pot look nicer and to protect the plants’ fragile leaves.

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A division taken when we re-potted a new Begonia purchased in February.

A division taken when we re-potted a new Begonia.

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Believe it or not, many rhizomatous Begonias are sold along with other ‘tropical’ plants in big box stores like Lowes and Walmart.

I scan their tropical plant displays for the distinctively beautiful leaves of Begonias.  They often come in tiny pots, 3″ or less, for just a few dollars.

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I just purchased this little Begonia at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, an excellent source for Begonias. A little pot like this costs between $2 and $3.

I just purchased this little Begonia at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond, an excellent source for Begonias. A little pot like this costs between $2 and $3.

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Once cleaned up, potted up, and fed; these little guys respond quickly.  Like a stray adopted from the pound, they respond to love and care to grow into beautiful companion plants!

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Our new B. Rex in February, after about a month of care.

Our new B. Rex in February, after about a month of care.

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But unlike a stray Lab or Tom cat, these beauties will not grow out of bounds.  They are extremely well behaved and tolerant of the ways of humans.  They will never reach for the ceiling like a cane Begonia, or drop vivid petals everywhere  as the tuberous Begonias will.

These are the most refined and polite Begonias of the genus.

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This is the same plant shown above, as it looks today, nearly four months later.  Have you noticed how its leaves are of different sizes and colors?

This is the same plant shown above, as it looks today, nearly four months later. Have you noticed how its leaves are of different sizes and colors?

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If you’ve not yet lived with one of these lovely Begonias, you might consider adopting one soon.

They will become your faithful companions for year after year if you will simply give them light, warmth, humidity, a drink when they need it (soil dry to the touch) and a light meal from time to time.

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The difficult part of the relationship is choosing a favorite from so many tempting cultivars.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

Mystery Begonia

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Do you know her name?

I would love to know, although she is wonderful whether named or not.

I found this lovely Begonia in a farmer’s market plant stall nearly 10 years ago, and bought her on sight… as a gift for my dad.

He loved her, and kept her over winter in his solarium.  He gave me cuttings, and he and I have both grown those cuttings on and taken more ever since.

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We both grow this lovely Begonia now,  and I’ve passed on cuttings to many Begonia loving friends over the years.

This cane Begonia can grow fairly tall; to at least 3′.    Both stems and leaves are sumptuous red, and the generous bracts of  flowers rose pink.  She blooms year round, taking short breaks between outbreaks of loveliness.

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I keep this cane Begonia watered but not wet, and feed with dilute fertilizer monthly.  Cane Begonias have harder, waxier stems than the tuberous Begonias, and so don’t rot easily at the soil line when the soil is too wet.  These are sturdy, forgiving plants.

I  also sprinkle Osmocote on the soil two or three times each year, and trim back long canes from time to time when they get too lanky.   I always plop those pruned canes into a jar of water to allow them to root.

Cane Begonias prefer partial shade, but appreciate time out of doors in the summer.  When we first move them out, they often lose leaves for a few weeks.  These are quickly replaced with sturdier, brighter leaves ready to process the stronger light available in summer.

They don’t like cold or drafts and so come back inside before the weather turns cold.

Deer normally leave cane Begonias alone.  However, they will nibble leaves from time to time when especially hungry.  We’ve had deer somehow sneaking into our garden too frequently in recent weeks.  And they have grazed some of our cane Begonias.  Such a waste….

The remedy is to throw a few whole cloves of garlic into each pot.  Deer hate the aroma of garlic.  Although unsightly, the garlic will protect the plants from grazing.

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This is one of my favorite Begonias from cuttings.  I bought one plant a decade ago, and continue to start new ones from it.  I've given cuttings from this special Begonia to many friends.

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My father asked me to re-pot his red Begonia last weekend.  I think it might be the original plant…

We moved her up to a 14″ coir lined basket, gave her some fresh soil and a sprinkle of Osmocote; and hung her back in her shady summer spot.

Oh, the joy of a basket of cane Begonias in the summer.

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She will cover herself in flowers through all of the warm months to come.

Do you know her name?  After many attempts to find this plant online, I’m finally asking for help.  Surely someone else has grown her, too, and can add a bit of information to aid my quest.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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