The range of begonias now available is amazing. There are rich reds like ‘Carnation Crimson’ and ‘Camellia Scarlet.’ Striking two- tones like ‘Calypso’ and ‘Petticoat.’ And novel hybrids like ‘Daffodil Salmon’ and ‘Picotee Rosebud.’
So why aren’t more B.C. gardeners growing them?
Every February, garden centers bring in shipments of begonias. They stack them dutifully in a prime location in the store and try to make the display as attractive as possible.
The pretty picture labels help, but begonia tubers aren’t very exciting. They resemble crusty, dried-up mushroom tops. For the uninitiated, it must be tedious to imagine anything beautiful evolving from something so ugly. Yet it happens.
From now to the end of May, B.C. garden centers will sell about 500,000 begonias — a mere drop in the bucket compared to the number of tulips, daffodils, and spring-flowering bulbs they sell in fall.
More gardeners would buy begonias by the bagful if they knew this simple fact: start them indoors now, and you’ll get a major jump on spring and end up with plants that will bloom from May to October.
A lot of gardeners wait until the last week of May to buy and plant their tubers. But by doing this, it means they will have to wait for another 12 to 16 weeks — almost to the middle of summer — before they see any flowers.
The wide variety of colours now available is another incentive to try your hand at growing this energetic group of non-stop bloomers.
You can get begonias in apricot, salmon, peach, and pastel shades, as well as clear yellows, frilly reds, crisp whites, and an assortment of eye-popping bicolours.
Most are produced by specialist growers in either Belgium or California. The rivalry between these two groups is intense.
The Belgians consider themselves the true experts since they were the first to spot the market potential of begonias (and other spring-planted, summer-flowering bulbs) long ago when the Dutch were totally preoccupied with tulip and daffodil production.
And as far as the Belgians are involved, size matters. They’re proud of the fact that their tubers are twice the size of the upstart Amerihybrids from California.
On the other hand, the Americans are rightly proud of the innovative breeding to produce a more exotic range of color and type of begonia.
You’ll find both American and European tubers at your garden center this spring. Both have their place.
Both perform impeccably. It all boils down to one’s preference in terms of color and size of flower and where the begonia is to grow — in a hanging basket or window box, planter box, or pot on the patio.
Some people like to clip and float large begonia flowers in a pond or water barrel. This can often fool people into mistaking the begonia for an exotic form of waterlily. The flower lasts a few days and then needs to be replaced.
While there is still plenty of demand for the plain red “granny’s begonia,” by far the most popular is the cascading begonia used to create sensational displays in hanging baskets.
The flowers of most tuberous begonias tend to droop because of the sheer weight of the blooms.
Still, some hybrids, such as the Cascade series, have been bred specifically for their pendulous habit, making them perfect for growing in hanging baskets or tumbling out of windowboxes or over the edge of pots and planters.
Other key types to look for include:
-Carnation: These have a densely petalled carnation-like flower and come in crimson, yellow, picotee red, and yellow. ‘Picotee Rosebud’ is a stunning white variety with red edges.
– Ruffled: The frilly, ruffled petals form an attractive flower. Available in red, rose, yellow, and apricot.
– Camellia: These come in white, pink, yellow, and scarlet and have flowers very similar in appearance to a camellia bloom.
– Picotee: ‘Calypso’ is cream petals with orange edges; ‘Flamenco’ is speckled red and white’; ‘Petticoat’ is white with pink edges, and ‘Sunburst’ is yellow with red edges.
– Connoisseur varieties: ‘Daffodil Salmon’ is a novel cultivar with a salmon-colored tube-shaped flower. Three other specialty begonias to look for include ‘Picotee lace Apricot,’ ‘Roseform Dark Leaf Red,’ and ‘Picotee Lace Pink.’
– Non-stops: These produce a profusion of smaller blooms “non-stop” all summer. They are available in apricot, pink, scarlet and yellow.
HERE’S HOW TO START BEGONIAS INDOORS IN TIME FOR PLANTING THEM OUTDOORS IN MAY:
– Pick the biggest tubers you can find from the box of your chosen color and variety. The bigger bulb is packed with more energy and gives you a better show of flowers.
Also, by buying them now in February, you are getting them at their freshest.
– Begonias need light and warmth to get growing.
If you don’t have a warm window with southern exposure, you can grow them under lights. The light source should be no more than 12 inches away from the surface of the soil.
– Don’t bury the tubers. Press them into the shallow tray of soil mix so that the top is still visible. Leave about two inches from the top of the tray so that as the shoots appear, you can add additional soil to cover the tubers.
– Put the pot or tray into an area where the tubers will get a little more warmth than average room temperature. They will start to grow at 65 F but do best at 70 F.
– First growth should appear in four to six weeks. The plants can be lifted and planted outside once the nighttime temperatures are above 50 F, about the end of May.
– Don’t try to hurry things along at the beginning with fertilizer. There is enough energy in the tuber for starters, but once the plants are outdoors, you can feed them with fertilizer with a higher phosphorus content, such as 10-15-1 or 15-30-15.
– Begonias grow best in the filtered shade in an eastern exposure where they will receive morning sun and afternoon shade.
– Combine your begonias with other summer flowering plants such as fuchsias and impatiens.
– The beauty of begonias is that once they get into their reproductive mode, they will continuing producing flowers all summer.
Experts can spot the difference between a male and female flower, and they would clip off the female flowers, which take energy from the plant by developing seeds.
But begonias will continue producing if you nip off faded blooms, although many of them will die away on their own.
– After the first frost, you can save the tubers overwinter in a frost-free environment.
Tubers will double in size during the growing season. They can be propagated by slicing them up so that each piece has an eye.