Beloved Begonias

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Beloved Begonias,
Bejeweled, bold;
Bewildering in their variety,
Exotic,  erotic, esoteric, ephemeral
Exuberant-
Phenomenally fantastic;
Tropical travelers,
Insidiously intrepid.
Comforting companions,
Hairy, huge and hard to find;
Beautiful Begonias!
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Woodland Gnome 2016
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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

Hardy Begonias- “A Pass Along Plant”

Hardy Begonia growing among Creeping Jenny, ferns, and ivy.

Hardy Begonia growing among Creeping Jenny, ferns, and ivy.

Many years ago I heard about a hardy Begonia- a perennial Begonia which would spread to form  a large mound of beautiful foliage and delicate pink flowers every single year.  I looked for such a plant at nurseries for several years before finally finding a small pot one day at the McDonald Garden Center in Virginia Beach.  I was so excited to finally have one to try in my own garden.August 31 2013 Dad's b'day 007

Hardy Begonia was one of those legendary plants to me in those days- wonderful plants you hear about, but can rarely find for sale.  You had to “know someone” who would give you a start of this quintessential “pass along plant”.  This of course was before the days when we lived through the internet.  I was on the mailing list for more than a half dozen nursery catalogs, but didn’t see hardy Begonia offered from any of them.

Finally, I planted my start, among some ferns, in a moist and shady bed beside the screened back porch of my home in suburban Virginia Beach.  What a treat to find it poking up underneath the winter litter of leaves each spring.  This plant not only spread each year underground, it also produces a small “bulb” at each leaf joint towards the end of summer.  Each of these tiny “bulbs” can sprout into a new plant.  These tend to get scattered about, and so hardy Begonia, after a season or two, begins to pop up in unexpected spots near the original patch.

August 28 2013 garden 015These plants generally grow to about 2′ tall when growing in a moist, shaded area where they aren’t competing with many other plants.   They show up fairly late in the spring, but once up, grow quickly.  I would often find new plants popping up in  nearby beds and between the cracks of a brick walkway.  These shallow rooted plants can be easily moved to a spot where they can be allowed to grow.

Hardy Begonia, Begonia grandis, has a delicate, medium green leaf, often with red veins.  Though more delicate than most cane Begonia leaves, the Begonia grandis has a fairly large, elongated heart shaped leaf.  This tuberous begonia still grows tall canes just like a cane Begonia. Its flowers range from various shades of pink to white, and are usually found growing in a large graceful  panicle of flowers, much like cane Begonia flowers. The entire plant dies back to the ground with a heavy frost, but will grow again the following spring, usually larger than the previous year.

I dug and potted several pieces of my beautiful hardy Begonia before selling the Virginia Beach house and garden, and transplanted them that autumn into the Williamsburg forest garden.  Of course, I hadn’t realized yet how difficult the soil and conditions are here.  I was also unsure whether or not the Begonia would come back well here, since we’re a zone cooler.  Most hardy Begonias, it turns out, are hardy north to Zone 7b, though there are one or two varieties hardy to Zone 5.  What a wonderful day when I found the first leaves of the Begonia the following spring.

I had grown accustomed to the very large, healthy patch of Begonia which had taken hold over the years.  It was reliably 2′ tall and nearly filled the bed by the time I moved.  It bloomed from late June through frost, a dependable and hardy perennial, fed only with a topdressing of compost in early spring.

This little bit I moved has struggled  in its new spot on a hillside.  There were no “beds” in the shade when we moved into this garden in the midst of a drought in early August.  The little starts lingered in pots for weeks, and then I put them into the most protected shade area I could, where I planned to later develop a shade garden.  They spread a little more each year.  They haven’t yet achieved their lush 2′ potential, but they are blooming this year.

August 28 2013 garden 032Finally, this spring, I found hardy Begonia online at Plant Delights Nursery near Durham, NC.  They carry six different varieties of hardy Begonia, including the new Begonia heracleifolia ‘Nigricans’ , or “Hogweed-leaf Begonia.  Only four of the varieties bloom.  I finally settled on “Heron’s Pirouette”, a Begonia grandis with especially large, deep pink flowers.  It arrived last week in beautiful condition.August 28 2013 garden 033  My plan is to prepare a good, raised bed for this, divisions of the Begonia I moved, and also a Begonia good friends gave me this week.

It seems they had some hardy Begonia growing in a pot on their deck last summer.  It overwintered in the pot and came back strong this year.  Suddenly, they realized that it was cropping up in an adjoining pot as well.  As I was admiring it, they offered a cutting, which I couldn’t resist.  That cutting became three pieces, dipped into rooting hormone, and set in a generous pot in the shade to take hold.August 28 2013 garden 003

I’ve already promised one of these cuttings to a friend who has none, and I’ll give her a division from my original hardy Begonia as well.  This is such a wonderful “pass along plant’, passed between friends, moved between homes, linking one generation of gardeners to the next.

Begonia, Begonia on Forest Garden

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