Six on Saturday: Perennial Patience

This tough summer planting includes Coleus, Verbena, Lantana, Dichondra and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ It can take heat and sun and continue looking good through until fall.  These are all tender perennials and can overwinter in the garage, or some may make it through winter outdoors in this large pot.


You may know that many of the bright little plants sold at nurseries each spring as ‘annuals’ actually are perennials.  An annual grows from a seed, blooms, sets seed and dies all between last frost of winter and first frost of autumn.  Only the seeds will last from one season to the next.

Perennials will live from year to year given the right degree of protection from winter’s chill.  Hardy perennials can over winter in pot or in the ground out of doors, with minimal protection.  Tender perennials need to come inside to live, whether they overwinter in the living room, garage, basement or cold frame.  We are on the cusp of Zone 8, here in Williamsburg, and some winters prove a bit warmer or colder than the norm.  That means that some of those tender ‘annual’ perennials I’ve left outside in pots, baskets or borders may just delight me by returning the following spring.

It is a contest of patience.  Most don’t rush to show themselves.  And keeping faith that survivors will return is a good reason to procrastinate on re-working our pots and baskets until early June.

Here we are near the end of the first week of June and I am still in the midst of transplanting Caladiums and planting out the few new plants I bought in mid-May.  Our cooler than usual spring dictated that the Caladiums tough it out in the garage several weeks longer than usual.  They’ve grown lank and leggy, but still hold promise.


Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’ shares a pot with a Japanese painted fern. The Caladium just made its way to its summer pot this week.


I dig and dry our Caladium tubers each November and store them in bags over winter in a spare room, then start them again by late March.  By May, they are showing new leaves and are ready to move back outside once again.  Only this year, it was too cool until just a couple of weeks ago.

By waiting so late, I’ve allowed time for Pelargoniums and Verbena, Tradescantia, Dichondra, Lantana, ferns and mints to show themselves alive and growing.  In many cases last year’s arrangements are returning for another season of growth.

But not all return.  At some point, one must clear out the leggy Violas and cut back the fading Dianthus, and carefully remove any faded remains of last year’s plants to give this summer’s plants time to establish and fill in before the season heats up too much.

For me, it’s like working a grand and complicated puzzle.  It helps to not over-think it, too, or else end up frustrated and frozen into indecision.  After all, mixing things up year to year and trying new plants and new combinations keeps things fresh.

I have my favorites.  Caladiums and Begonias fall near the top of my list of all time favorite summer plants for long lasting color.  Give them what they require and they will live on season after season.  Begonias must overwinter in the house or garage, unless they are one of the hardy varieties.   They might look a little rough by late May, but by late June they are covering themselves with brilliant new leaves and by late July the Begonias will be full of blooms again.  It is very easy to root Begonia stems to create entirely new plants and spread them around.  Overwinter as potted plants or as cuttings.


Tradescantia returns reliably in our hanging baskets. It roots easily from a stem cutting and may be started in a new spot mid-season from a cutting.


Other favorites include Coleus, another tender perennial, which can overwinter in the garage and starts easily from cuttings.   One can also buy a single new plant and take as many cuttings as one wants for additional plants.  Root them in a glass of water, or simply stick them in a pot where you want them to grow and keep them well-watered while they root.

Both ‘annual’ Verbena and Lantana return for us.  These are both excellent choices to stand up to our hot, muggy summers, too.  They can tough it out in hanging baskets or pots when the soil gets dry, and will wait for me to remember to bring them some water, if it doesn’t rain.  They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and lots of other little pollinators for endless entertainment.

Tradescantia looks tropical, but once well established, it will return year after year.  It is related to our native spiderwort. You have to wait for it, however, as you might not see it until late May.  It has little pink flowers, but I grow it for its gorgeous purple leaves and strong constitution.  Full sun, dry soil and long summer days don’t bother it, and deer will leave it strictly alone.  I plant Tradescantia and Lantana in the large pot outside of the Botanical garden’s gate, knowing they are safe from hungry deer.


This tough Verbena is starting its third year in its basket. Pineapple mint, Lantana and a scented geranium have also returned here this spring.


Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ is grown as a perennial ground cover further south.  I love it in pots and baskets because it grows into long, shimmering ‘curtains’ of foliage that get better as summer wears on.  Frost knocks back the foliage, but if one is patient and waits, it will often return from its roots by late May.  Dichondra roots easily from stems and is simple to divide from the nursery pot into smaller clumps, or simply layer to spread it around the outer edge of a hanging basket.  It is a wonderful bonus when it returns for another year.

Another plant I wait for each year is scented Pelargonium.  It is always a bonus when one survives and returns with fresh leaves in May.  I wonder sometimes whether I give up waiting too soon, and dig out plants that might eventually sprout.  When in doubt, it is easy enough to pot up the roots and wait to see.

Drenching pots of overwintered perennials with organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest, when watering them helps them come into growth, especially if their survival is iffy during a difficult spring.

Tender Pelargoniums can be grown indoors over winter and cuttings root easily, if you have a special variety and don’t want to take a chance on leaving them out of doors all winter.

There are a few hardy perennials  I grow in pots year to year as well.  Heuchera, coral bells, will often keep color and leaves throughout our winter, but wakes up and produces new leaves and flower stalks by mid-spring.  These grow larger and better each year, and may live in a large pot indefinitely.

I prefer to grow Hostas in pots, too.  They will grow larger when planted out in a bed, but then their roots are vulnerable to voles.  Hostas can be knocked out of a pot and divided easily in spring, spread around, and will add color and texture wherever you need them in part to deep shade.


Heuchera will easily fill a pot. It may be divided in early spring to spread a favorite variety around.  This is a fairly new variety called ‘Midnight Rose.’


Deciduous ferns will also live on in pots year after year.  Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns, Athyriums, are my favorites for this treatment.  Pair them with Violas over winter to fill the pot, and then drop in a Caladium or two in spring to add interest through the summer. Watching for the first fiddleheads to appear is a sure sign of spring.

All of these plants have proven good investments in this climate.  They give many months of beauty, and generally return year after year.  They thrive in our conditions and most stand up to the wildlife.  (A spritz of deer repellent on the Hostas and Heucheras is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises, however.)

Our garden centers are filled with enough choices to make one dizzy.  It is tempting to load one’s cart with one or two of everything and hope for the best.  While it is always interesting to try new plants, I am contented to plant what works.  I have had one too many lush baskets bake by late July, pathetic little petunia stems desiccated and dying.  Now, I reach for these hardy companions that will go the distance through a Virginia summer.

And given a little patience, I can extend their lives year to year.


Pelargonium, a rose scented geranium that made it through winter and returned in April, is now larger than the new ones I picked up at the nursery in May.


Woodland Gnome 2020



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Begonias, Begonias

A cane Begonia.

An angel wing cane Begonia.

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.

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.

Cane begonias growing together in a hanging basket in July.

Cane angel wing begonias growing together in a hanging basket in July.

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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….

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.

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

Dragon’s Wing Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

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.  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.


Rex Begonias grown with Fuschia Marinka and ferns in partial sun.

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.   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.

 A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

Gryphon Begonia

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

Garden centers are full of bedding Begonias (Begonia Semperflorens) and Dragon Wing Begonias in the spring.   Begonia Semperflorens, also known as wax Begonias, or popular because these small, neat plants produce an abundance of small red, pink, or white flowers during the entire growing season.  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.

Begonia Semper growing with Plectranthus.

A rare, variegated Begonia Semperflorens  growing with Plectranthus.

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.

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.

Begonias and Euphorbia grow well in the shade of a Dogwood tree.  The top dressing of pea gravel discourages digging squirrels, and keeps the plants clean when it rains.

Begonia Bolivienses and Tuberous Begonia  with Euphorbia grow well in the shade of a Dogwood tree. The top dressing of pea gravel discourages digging squirrels and keeps the plants clean when it rains.

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This cane Begonia is still adjusting to life outside after its sixth winter in the garage. Soon it will cover itself in huge clusters of peachy flowers.

June 23 2012 dusk 008

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

Angel wing, or cane  Begonias are a little harder to find.  Specialty and mail order nurseries are the most reliable sources.  MacDonald’s Garden Center stocks a nice variety in spring and early summer, but their satellite stores don’t stock them.  These Begonias are grown more for their huge, bright leaves than for their flowers.  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.July 30 2013  Foliage 004

Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

July 29, 2012 garden photos 017

Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

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.  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.

begonia 001

Tuberous begonia planted with Japanese Painted Fern and an Angel Wing Begonia with dark red foliage.


A tuberous begonia shares a pot with a lace cap Hydrangea

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.

June 26 2013 garden 001

Tuberous Begonia

Begonia, "Flamingo" grows very tall canes and blooms in pink.  This one is in its third summer hanging in this peach tree.

Begonia, “Flamingo” grows very tall canes and blooms in pink. This one is in its third summer hanging in this peach tree.

The tubers are started in shallow trays of soil, like caladium tubers, and then repotted into baskets or pots once they sprout.  Upright or cascading, these hybrids are bred for outrageously beautiful flowers in every shade of red, pink, white, yellow, and orange.  Double, triple, picotee, and fringed, these flowers can mimic roses, water lilies, and anemones.  When kept watered and fed, they bloom for months.  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.  I’ve killed more than my share of these beautiful plants, and am cautious in buying them.

Hardy begonia, blooming in early September with ferns, ivy, and Creeping Jenny.

Hardy begonia, blooming in early September with ferns, ivy, and Creeping Jenny.

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.  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.

June 21 Lanai 007

Begonia Rex growing with a lady fern.

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.

Cane Begonia, "Torch" in a hanging basket.

Cane Begonia, “Torch” in a hanging basket.

Here some sources for ordering Begonia plants:

Garden Harvest Supply is an excellent company I frequently use as a source for plants I can’t buy locally, or to buy plants earlier in the season than local nurseries carry them.  They have excellent plants and give excellent service: 25, 2013 lanai 014

sept. 25, 2013 lanai 021I enjoy the Taylor’s Greenhouse site, but so far haven’t placed an order.  They have a much wider selection of otherwise hard to find Begonias.  Their page also has further links of interest to anyone interested in Begonias:

And finally, I’ve just learned about the Queensland Begonia Society, in Queensland Australia.  Please visit their site for excellent articles on Begonia care and propagation, and for their stunning photos of the Begonias in their care.

Here overwintered cuttings of an angel wing begonia and a Dragon wing begonia grow with a Rex Begonia and a calla Lily.

Here overwintered cuttings of an Angel wing begonia and a Dragon wing begonia grow happily with a Rex Begonia and a calla Lily.

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