Begonia Season Begins and Winter Ends!!!


From now until November plants will be changing from week to week at both of my jobs. This is what I live for!! The rush of our spring “openers” (aka sales) is always like getting ready for a big opening night. We must make sure that our cast of characters are ready, even if this means it’s just their first year in the chorus. Serious shopping and plant hounding has already started. Hardcore collectors I know have somehow acquired many plants through the mail, and by visiting local nurseries—and yet it’s still winter! Folks are arranging for visits out in Canby before we’re officially open. I’m not sure yet what the hot plants of the year will be, but give it a few more weeks, and we’ll be able to tell what’s going on. To be honest, I’m not the gambling type, but this anticipation is exciting.

From what I’ve been seeing for the last few years, I think that the houseplant trend has edged us back to a love of tropicalismo, and a heightened concern about climate change and the future of native pollinators and wildlife has many still wanting regionally appropriate native plant options, as well as more xeric options. But what do I know? I just work at two nurseries and think about plants, and read about plants, all of the time.

Many of the hardy begonias we have at Secret Garden Growers.

While we industry folks do our part to inform the public about what we actually have, I tend to let the plants, the nursery owners, and more influential gardeners among us entice shoppers to purchase and own the many plants we’ve produced. Creating mediocre plant-related content is where I originally stepped into all of this (as a blogger), and it’s funny that I’ve not been great when it comes to posting about all of the plants now that I work with—and handle—them daily, To my credit, I know a hell of a lot more about them today, and yet… This is my own time, and I’m exhausted and yet… Here we go!!!

Just keep in mind as I say this, and before you read more, that media literacy should tell you that I’m not about to sell you on anything, other than a crazy AF lifestyle.

This is Begonia aff. sizemorea DJHV 13160. It’s a plant I loved, lost, loved again, lost again, and now I will try to keep it happy yet ONE MORE time. It’s not hardy at all. I just love it.

Begonias are a passion of mine although it’s often forgotten by many friends and peers since I’m so busy helping to run our local Gesneriad Society chapter. (I’m also a member of the PNW branch of the ABS.)

At my jobs, both businesses require that I know my begonias—and I do. At Cistus Nursery I’m a Begonia Boss, and with the help of several mentors, I began reacquiring plants for our extensive hardy to borderline-hardy begonia collection a few years ago. Articles written by Derick Pitman McDaniel and John Boggan have been helpful with this effort too.

Since I’m of an artistic and comical temperament, my breeding efforts have been slow and confused, but I AM a virgo after all, and I’ve now acquired almost all of the plants they’ve both suggested that I play with in terms of hardiness, as well as potential (possibly successful) breeding candidates, so the game is afoot.

Part of me wishes I could work solely with begonias full-time, but that’s not how the life of this horticulturist works. I need to know a lot about many plants, and so I work in spurts, am distracted, and move on to the next crop that needs to be readied to either be grown on longer, or else prepared for retail. It’s a wonder I can keep track of all that I do, but I like spreadsheets and lists, and it’s important to be able to take and keep organized and detailed notes.

Begonia ‘Ginny’ is a hybrid that’s likely borderline for us here in Portland, but I have my doubts. I guess it’s time to try it out and see what I think once and for all! If you live in a colder climate, this makes a great houseplant and it’s one that we have at Cistus on mail-order right now!

This weekend I will be planting out some of the begonia plants I’ve started over the last few years in my own garden. Since I couldn’t afford to purchase and lose my own stock plants for my own experiments here at home, I had to propagate them, and will need to keep additional backups after this summer.

Luckily, what this means for you dear reader is that you’ll be able to benefit from my need to make more of them at work too. Why is this ok? Well, it’d be great to have more folks playing along during the Great Begonia Hardiness Breeding Game! I’m not saying you need to purchase the plants that I’m working with from my employers (but you can). Rather, I’d like to find more folks out there who are doing this too! Which species or cultivar has worked for you?

If you’re already riding this same wavelength, maybe we should swap some plants for trialing? Yes, you folks who can grow them all year round are lucky ducks. If you want to share plants with those friends of yours (like myself) who live in cooler climates, let’s do it! Aren’t you wondering too about the hardiness of your plants? (Hahahahhahaahahaha. Yeah, I know. That’s a stretch.)

This is Begonia x erythrophylla or a beefsteak begonia. I’ve had this houseplant since I took this photo back in 2010. While Cistus Nursery is not known for selling houseplants, we sell patio or planter plants that often need winter protection.

A volunteer at Cistus decided to propagate A LOT of her Begonia x erythrophylla with us. This is not what volunteers usually do there, but many of our staff are currently in love with begonias so we just let her go for it. While not a hardy begonia, it’s one that we’ll have for sale this year, and I’m thrilled about it since it is stunning in a hanging container. Lots of folks will find it really satisfying and fun to watch grow. There’s nothing quite like those huge pancake-like UFO leaves floating above you.

Begonia ‘Smooch’ is a new plant for me. It is allegedly quite hardy and I look forward to trialing it more.

We have the super hardy species plants floating around at both nurseries along with some of their hybrids. Begonia grandis is the most commonly planted hardy begonia and it can become a greenhouse weed of some renown. Begonia ‘Smooch’ is hybrid of it and probably Begonia chitoensis, so I predict it will be a tough beast, but we won’t know until we see more of it planted in this region. I can’t wait to try it out. (The batch above it nearly ready for retail or the catalog at Cistus Nursery right now.)

Cuttings of Begonia ‘Taconite’.

Somehow, I forgot to take some photos of Begonia ‘Little Brother Montgomery’. It’s been a trooper in my garden for years now and I made two crops of it at Cistus Nursery as well. So instead, we have Begonia ‘Taconite’, a very popular houseplant, that’s also quite a toughie. Allegedly, it too can withstand life in the ground here, but I won’t believe that until I see it. Seems like a legitimate reason to trial it in the garden to see how it goes over the next year.

New growth on Begonia ‘Taconite’

So, if you’ve made it this far and are wondering yet if I’m crazy, let me tell you that the answer to that is, “Duh!”

Yes, I’m a crazy plant lady and I’m in this to have some fun!

How in the world though can I be so nuts as to suggest that non-hardy plants can be hardy? Well, that’s because this is all part of a hardiness game, one where you live in a borderline USDA zone, and you push the plants as hard as you can to survive. How you ask? There are only two very serious rules for begonia survival in the PNW USDA zone 8-ish (to 9) climates.

Summer wet. Winter dry.

Plant these plants under eaves, under evergreen trees, under limbed up shrubs, and water them during the warmer growing months. During the winter, the ground must be dry. If it is too wet, the plants will rot and die.

It’s a fun little gardening game to play, and it’s a great parlor trick to share with your gardening friends and plant allies.

Here’s to experimentation and gardening for one very good reason—curiosity! Have fun out there folks and hip hip hooray to spring being just around the corner!!!

Experiments in Potted Plant Hardiness—Winter Fun in the PNW

Asplenium bulbiferum, mother fern. USDA zones 9-11. This plant was only taken indoors during two cold spells.

If you’re a hardcore gardener, you’ve likely learned a few lessons over the years about what will and will NOT survive in your garden. For most of us, that begins with learning about your USDA hardiness zone.

While we used to sit at USDA zone 8b, where I live in Portland, Oregon is now leaning more towards a USDA zone 9a. I’m conservative though, and chunky. So while I may wear a size 10 pant in ladies, I still tend to wear a size 12 just so I don’t feel too fat in tight pants. I like to feel comfortable, and to be honest, so do my plants.

But I DO like to go out on the edge. I very much like some risk. More than anything, I like to experiment. (I’ve been sporting a modern pandemic mullet so go figure.)

So, here’s what I’ve learned recently while living on the gardening edge!

Epiphyllum, epicactus hybrid. To USDA zone 10. This plant has not been taken inside for protection for 2 years.

Lots of plants are not quite hardy, but with some special attention, you can keep them outside longer. Some can even become hardier if planted correctly, but I’m really only talking about potted plants in this post.

If you want to experiment at your home, first I recommend that you get to know your microclimates. A thermometer system with multiple sensors can help with that. This will help you to better understand which corners of your garden are the coldest and the warmest.

A variety of plants. These plants spent the winter on the front porch. Rhipsalis was my greatest surprise over the last few years. So many are so tough!

Dry covered areas are the next best-kept secret. Like a greenhouse during the winter, this leaves you in charge of how much moisture plants receive. If plants are kept nearly dry, they don’t rot in the cold. Some of mine are now kept bone dry and they’re looking great!

The plants need some light, but I’ve been surprised at the dark corners where I’ve been able to stuff them. Leaving some of the hardier plants outdoors has allowed me some space indoors to work too.

Aporocactus sp., rattail cactus. USDA zones 9-11. This plant has not been taken indoors for two years.

Not all of them look fantastic, but I don’t either in my size 12 pants, so I’m not going to shame them. This is an experiment so that’s all that matters. It’s for science! Just like me!!

What matters is that they’re alive! I have more experiments like these too, but I’m just showing you a few, and I’m going to encourage you to experiment too.

Tradescantia fluminensis ‘Gold Wing’. To USDA zone 10. It’s been outside for nearly a year now.

My favorite surprise has been this Hoya carnosa. I actually have 4 of them outside now since I have kicked them out to make room for other plants indoors. We have very few freezing days around here, so as long as I can bring them in when we dip under 30F for too long, they’re JUST fine.

Hoya carnosa, wax plant. USDA zones 9-11. I leave these all outdoors now for most of the year.

Let me know in the comments if you have any oddballs out there living their best lives! Who’s alive that shouldn’t be thanks to your love and care?