Growing Begonias

growing begonias

Growing begonias-why do so many of my clients feel that no matter how much they love the gorgeous blooms and foliage, prove unwilling to plant them?  Who knows where the idea came from that large flowered begonias like shade, and lots of water.  Herein lies the difficulty.  Popular direction can be anything but accurate. Begonias actually like some light.  A fairly decent amount of light.  And they like a watering regimen that runs on the dry side. 

yellow begonias

The needs of most plants are quite simple.  Plants that thrive in your zone, that is.  Unless you are trying to grow meconopsis, which only thrives in the Himalayans or England- in Michigan-  or if you are trying to grow rhododendrons in the impossibly clay and alkaline soil of the midwest, when what they want is an acidic and instantly draining forest floor type eastern US compost.  Plants happy to live in our midwestern yard to begin with have simple needs.  Are you hoping to make your gardening life more simple?  Learn what those appropriate plants that you so love need, and give.  Plants that do not like your conditions-let someone else grow them.   

apple blossom begonia

Plants not suited to the zone in which you garden will always struggle.  Be prepared to fight a battle you cannot win.  You may take the lead early on, but what plants want will win in the end.   Beginning gardeners place a plant where they want it.  It takes experience and acute observation to realize that plants have a specific environment they like.  Should they not get what makes them prosper, they will pout, then languish, and finally die. Beginning gardeners either understand this and grow, or they give up gardening.      


The journey which could best be described as my gardening education is littered with dead plants.  Dead yews, dead clematis, dead rhododendron, dead begonias-the list is long.  I would be embarrassed to have to own up to the plants I have killed.  It could be that I should be sent to that jail especially reserved for people who have committed horticultural transgressions.  There have been times when I deserved to have my license to plant, grow, and garden- revoked.  But I have made it my business to learn from those dead plants.   As for begonias, they have very large, juicy, and succulent stems.  This I observe – over water them today, those stems will rot off tomorrow.

The tropical plants we treat as annuals only need one season of thoughtful care.  No doubt begonias are not native to my zone.  That said and acknowledged, I so love begonias-all of them.  I like the leaves.  I more than like the flowers.  In late August, our nights can be cool.  Water evaporates more slowly when the temperatures cool off.  I am even more careful to keep my begonias on the dry side now.

My advice is simple.  Give them morning light.  If you need to grow them on the north side, as I do, grow them very dry.  Those thick juicy stems are loaded with water.  They have a water reserve they can draw on, should you be late getting to them with the hose.  Too much water can be deadly.

These silver leaved begonias-I have no idea of their name or origin.  I chose to grow them for their leaf color.  Like any other begonia I grow, I made it my business to check the water in the soil with my finger.  Too much water when it is very hot is an invitation for fungus to move in.

cultivating begonias

I am always putting my finger in the dirt  .  This means I put a finger to the rootball of a yew, a dogwood, a begonia – barely moist soil makes most plants happy.  Should your finger in the soil result in sticky soil-don’t water.  Wait.  If you put your finger down deep in the soil only to have that soil slide off your finger-water.  Hoping to grow great begonias? Learn what they like.  Pass by those plants that you will not be able to make happy under any circumstances.  Most of all, monitor the water. 


One Man’s Garden

galvanized wire bracket

We had dinner over the weekend a the home of a good friend.  Barry Harrison is a design principal with Art-Harrison, a interior design studio well known in my area.  In addition to their interior design practice, they manufacture a line of fine furniture.  Each piece is meticulously hand crafted and carved from fine hardwoods.  Interested to read more?    Barry is a highly skilled designer, cabinetmaker and wood carver, as evidenced in his own garden.  Years ago Barry spent some time at Ford Motor Company-he could draw an entire headlight assembly for a owner’s manual-free hand.  Think this part through-a freehand drawing of a headlight assembly?  His talents are extraordinary.  As much a designer as he is an artist, one part of Barry’s garden began with this simple part-a galvanized steel hook that would hold clay pots.

Barry lives in an urban neighborhood on a very small piece of property.  Every gesture he makes has to work-there is no room really for unresolved design.  This corner of his driveway is just a few feet from the garage doors, meaning he visits this spot every day, both going and coming.  The distance from the edge of his drive to the lot line at this back corner is 12 inches at best.  There was no option for screening plants in such a small space, but there was an option for a screen. 

cedar fence posts

This ingenious green screen began with four cedar posts, the tops of which he carved into a pair of guinea hens, and a pair of ravens.  There was enough space to sink the posts deep into the ground.  He engineered a series of galvanized metal plates and rods, which would hold the galvanized hooks shown the the previous picture.  

The terra cotta pots were planted with succulents, and hung on the galvanized steel rods.  The watering takes some time and attention, but the plants seem to be doing just fine.  He’ll store the pots in his garage, or bury them in leaves for the winter.  I admire this inventive and low tech screening that is also so great looking.  The plants seem to be perfectly happy-spilling out of the downside of each pot.   

His succulent wall is beautifully engineered-and beautiful to look at.  Once he waters the top row, the drain water serves to water the row below, and perhaps the row below that.  Given that the screen is only 6 feet tall, it can easily be handwatered.  The succulents are not asking for much.  


The rear yard is dominated by a gravel terrace, completely surrounded by water.  Though the width of the water is slight, the pool is 24 inches deep on 3 sides, and 36 inches deep at the far end.  This water depth, and the ability to swim in long runs, around and around, keep his koi happy.  Youy would never know that a city park was just the other side of the bamboo screening.  The structure at the far end of the pool serves a dual purpose.  From this side, the wood and copper fountain with copper jets does a great job of aerating the water for the fish.  This large, architecturally striking feature organizes every other element of the landscape.

garden sculpture

A single stone sculpture on the gravel terrace keeps a small space from looking cluttered. Easy maintenance perennials such as baltic ivy, petasites, angelina, creeping jenny and ferns makes the garden easy to look after.  The koi?  Barry has a 220 acre farm in Kentucky-the koi he raises there are cared for by his parents, and shipped to dealers and koi afficianados all over the country.

garden fountains

The fountain recirculates the water in the pool.  The placement of this feature on an angle to the corner of the property creates a small niche garden which features a series of pots, and some of Barry’s geode collection.  But the star of the show, at the end of a stone path-a cast iron cow. 

Even the smallest space in a garden can make a big impact.  An inveterate collector of vintage and antique objects, I am sure he spoke for this sculpture without hesitation.  This vignette is almost all of the way to another space-the garden shed.


Barry’s  fountain doubles as a garden shed, which holds most of his tools, pots and soil, in addition to the filtration system and fountain assembly.  This very utilitarian space is completely hidden from every vantage point in the rear yard landscape.   

screening an air conditioner

At the opposite end of the garden-the air conditioner.  The air conditioner is under this painted wood obelisk, yes.  One panel is hinged, and folds down, making service a snap. In the top of the obelisk-long handled gardening tools. 

The view out of the back yard-another view of that succulent wall.

evergreens in containers

The house and garage meet at an angle in the back, near a pair of doors.  A giant painted oak box with a steel tuteur is the only nod to the garden in a fairly large paved space.  Only Barry would think to faux shrink wrap an arborvitae in plastic, and place the steel tower over it.  Not one branch got broken when the pot was planted.  At some point, the plant will grow through the steel, and be trimmed flat.  Clearly he is fond of making a few big gestures on his small property, rather than lots of little ones.   

There are as many great ideas for a beautiful garden here as I have seen on on properties many times this size.  Unlike a property which is defined by its boundaries, it’s hard to tell where unlimited creativity and imagination of this caliber might decide to go next.     


Too Much Water

My garden is beginning to get that weary look.  Late August, there are usually subtle signs of the garden winding down.  Evergreens in my zone routinely slow down and eventually quit growing in August.  They take a long time, preparing for the dormant winter season.  This year, the extreme heat and drought have taken a special toll.  The landscape has taken on a yellow cast. 

Lindens lacking water-yellow interior leaves are a sure sign.  Many trees will shed leaves in an effort to reduce the individual leaf demand for water when water is at a premium.  But lots of the late summer yellow am seeing now is from overwater.  No amount of water mitigates the effects of heat.  The plants that thrive in my zone would not necessarily be so happy in Georgia-but Georgia summer weather is what we have had.  My dogwoods resent the heat.  The curled and droopy leaves say so.  My plants can tolerate a lot, but extended and high heat exhausts them.  More water does not help.  Too much water can make for too much trouble.

People cool off under the hose, in the fountain, or in the pool.  Not so the plants.  Yesterday I saw a landscape that was so overwatered during our heat that I fear for the lives of the plants.  The roots of the trees and shrubs are gasping for air.  Too much water rots roots.  Once roots rot, a plant cannot take up the nutrients and water it needs.  The road is washed out. The trees in this landscape-I could shake them; they rocked back and forth.  The trunk of a tree that is firmly rooted will not move, if you shake it.  If the trunk of a tree moves when you push on it, the roots may be compromised.

I will say again that water does not change the fact of very high heat.  I do understand what it is to agonize over a situation, and be determined to intervene.  Some intervention works.  Other intervention compounds the misery.  The fact of the matter is that plants are highly adaptable.  They have built in mechanisms to deal with terrible conditions.  Sometimes the best thing to do is sit on the sidelines, and wring your hands.  There are those times when doing nothing is the best thing you could do.

I have seen some gardens that had too little water when they needed it, and now too much water.  Belated compensation only adds insult to injury.  We pulled out a pair of crispy leaved shrubs yesterday whose roots had rotted and completely decomposed from an onslaught of over water, after the damage from the drought had already been done.  The smell of these rooted roots-strong.  The impulse to be better late than never applies to birthdays, wedding gifts, vacations, thank you notes, revelations, mammograms, contributions and electric bills, but not so much to water.  This planting has been overwatered, but we caught it in time. 

 The ability to water properly is a skill.    Those gardeners who have irrigation systems should know that a mechanical system is nothing more than that-a system.  The irrigation box is a mechanism fueled by electricity.  A gardener is a person who knows when and how much to water.  A gardener who handwaters as needed-a great gardener.  A gardener flips the switch when the switch needs to be flipped-an equally great gardener who has figured out how to reduce their maintenance.  This landscape-right next door to the shop-has not, to my knowledge, been watered for the past 3 or 4 years.  What it would cost to turn on the irrigation system is but a fraction of what it will cost to replace the entire landscape. 

Proper watering.  It can help you cover a lot of ground.

Good Grooming

annual planting design

Successful container planting depends as much on the maintenance as it does on the design.  Though I do have clients that never touch their containers once they are planted, I find that gardeners who look after their containers enjoy them more, and enjoy them longer.  If you have kept up with the need for water, this extraordinarily hot summer has been a dream come true for annual plants.  Many of them are native to hot, tropical climates.  They luxuriate in the heat.  Every plant is on top of, and competing for a dominant position with its neighbor.   

container planting design

Plants compete with other plants.  Given that there is only so much light, and so much water, any garden in its simplest definition is the story of that competition.  In these urns of my own, every day the potato vine threatens to engulf the silver dichondra.  It is up to me to level the playing field.  I remove those leaves that shade or otherwise interfere with the well being of the dichondra.  I signed up for this job, as I planted two vines whose habit and vigor are very different. 

white caladiums

This window box that I planted for a client requires little in the way of intervention.  The caladiums produce lots of leaves, but the impatiens have found a way to work theimselves to the forefront.  They coexist-peaceably.

container planting design

This container features plants that harmonize without much intervention.  The nicotiana are tall-and above the fray.  The petunias are very good eggs that tolerate the pestering from the stems of the lime licorice.  The Diamond Frost euphorbia is just now making a break for it.

annual companion planting

The pots in front of the shop this year-the relationships are complicated.  The mandevillea is a big growing vine with big paddle shaped leaves that produce shade.  The petunias just grow, and expect the best from their neighbors.  The euphorbia is delicate, but persistent.  The plectranthus-a big leaved thug that would smother anything in its path. 

annual plants

I planted mandevillea, as it vines luxuriantly, and grows very tall.  A month ago, I started removing the leaves at the ground level-they were shading the plants on the ground plane.  The petunias are willing and able to perform, providing they get great light, and food.  They are heavy feeders. Should you want great performance from your petunias, feed them regularly.  Grow them on the dry side.  Trim the straggly ends-routinely. 

Diamond Frost euphorbia is pitiful in early spring.  That anyone buys and plants it amazes me.  I plant it, as I believe in what it can do in the home stretch.  It needs an extended period of heat to come on.  Once those slender stems and airy flowers get going, they add add an unequalled wispy volume to a container planting.     

variegated plectranthus

Plectranthus is a thug.  It features long thick stems, and large leaves.  It would smother anything in its path-given the chance.  Why plant it?  Few plants are better at creating and sustaining great volume and mass.  The tall pots in the front of the shop have a very small planting area.  They ask for something that grows wide.  Plectranthus will grow every which way, including wide.  How do I manage it? Like the mandevillea, I remove those leaves that threaten to smother all of the other plants.  Some of my plectranthus are bare stems, until they go over the edge of the pot.      

It is my job to make room for the euphorbia.  Though the stems and blooms are ever so slight, they have a big will to live.  I just do what I can to help their natural  process along.  This work means my late September containers will have something good to say.  Container plantings?  With care, they will prosper late into the fall.

 euphorbia diamond frost

Every plant you plant-no matter if it is shrub or a tree or a perennial or an annual-they have habits.  Every living thing has habits.  A collection of plants that you intend to represent a garden rely upon you to sort out the real relationships.  Be in charge.  A garden with a thoughtful gardener in charge?  I respect this.