Autumn from My Corner of the World of Horticulture

Mahonia gracilipes in the garden at Cistus Nursery.

This weekend I finally crashed after 5 weeks of nearly non-stop activity. Even now—after a day of rest—I’m still struggling to post something. I’ve been negligent these last two weeks (at least when it comes to writing) due to having had the honor to have been asked to give two public presentations by different groups.

I’m not complaining!!! I had a blast doing both, but it’s a lot of work. Doing it weekly is rough.

I LOVE to give talks, it’s just that I’ve not had a lot of time to rest. Preparing talks, and getting plants ready to sell at one of the talks, meant spending time AFTER work getting things done. Those things can make for very long days, but it is worth it!!!

A white-berried Sorbus prattii in Medford (Oregon) at Italio Garden, the home of nurseryman and great friend Baldassare Mineo. It’s likely that this is Sorbus cashmeriana but I’m not certain.

Don’t hesitate to ask me if your organization is longing for some of my creative and unconventional views. I felt badly when I had to turn down a statewide Master Gardener Conference recently because it happened during my trip. It would have been an interesting and different experience than I’m accustomed to and I would have enjoyed the challenge.

But, begonias… (I do not regret going to the convention in Atlanta a bit!)

If I ever have the pleasure of designing a new garden for myself, I will definitely include at least one x Gordlinia grandiflora along with my other favorite tree, Oxydendron arboreum.

So if you need someone to give a presentation, keep in mind that there is usually a fee. As someone who helps with a plant society, I better understand why it’s important to raise money, and to help professionals connect to and share their knowledge. Getting away from work to mix it up a bit oddly helps me a lot—even if it just feels good emotionally and tickles my brain a bit. I can’t say that we all react so positively, but I have enjoyed speaking more as the years go by and it’s likely due to the fact I always thought I would teach.

I was an instructor of ESL, I taught French Surrealist Lit at PSU for several terms, and there were gallery management classes as well. All of that was fun, but when you have a swelling disease that effects your body, and in my case my lungs, it can make speaking, well, unpredictable. Gasping for air causes confusion, panic sets in, and the anxiety (all combined) can have you speaking in a strange pattern. Embarrassment comes on last and you wonder if others can tell you’re not well.

When you go to school, funny how you don’t think about things like this. The new medication is helping me though. I only struggled with chest tightness on the longest day this week. I didn’t end up feeling very self-conscious about it, but I did feel tired.

Chrysanthemum ‘Matchsticks’ putting on its show at Secret Garden Growers last week. It’s one of the best autumn perennials.

Last week it was a talk in Medford to a garden club, and this week I was the keynote speaker for an event supporting women in horticulture at Chemeketa Community College. At both I connected with members of the audience, and after the trip I just took, I felt even more confident and prepared.

After having seen the Sorbus prattii tree down in Medford, I remembered to look for our Sorbus cashmeriana in the hedgerow at work this week out in Canby. Ta da! Don’t you just love those clusters of white berries?

Now you’re likely wondering when I’ll stop blathering on about myself, and get to the point.

What is autumn like in my corner of the world of horticulture?

Believe it or not but I have an answer to that question!!!

A display of radicchio varieties at the Sagra del Radicchio held this week in Portland. Since I’ve already been enjoying this “rad” food for decades, the highlight of the entire evening event was finding a few foods I could eat, as well as two local chefs who discussed my allergies and are willing to feed me sometime. (FYI I am allergic to black pepper so eating out is not often possible.)

Fall (to me) partially feels a bit like spring, but that’s only because we muck out and freshen up the greenhouses. I tend to think of this as being similar to spring cleaning, but it’s probably closer to a nesting bear about ready to hibernate. The problem with that though is that I’m not at all inclined to empathize with the home gardeners who chomp at the bit to “get back out there” during the ensuing cold and dark months ahead. I AM back out there. I am not indoors and warm looking at seed catalogs. I get to do that after work, but by now I already know what I am after, and that’s another difference with my life.

Fall is really when I begin to think about the year ahead, and when we folks at work are planning out crop plans for the next season.

There is no way we can bring a few things in to protect them over the winter either without making sure the houses are cleaner after all of the new growth has occurred during the summer months. With more watering, this leads to slippery weed cloth—and I’m talking about what “reality” greenhouses are like since I don’t work in fancy ones.

While some folks in horticulture get to work in decently climate controlled and heated greenhouses during this time of the year, well, my situations are both more like heated garages. If for any medical reason I simply CANNOT deal with the cold, then I can stay home, but if you do that too often, you’re just not cut out for the job. Lots of folks will say I’m crazy to do this for the pay, but I do love what I do, and oddly, I’m not so bad at it. Let’s just add to that too that I care very much about having a wide range of plants available in cultivation that larger growers ignore.

Growing more difficult to cultivate crops is important. If you’re a designer or curator and you use these plants, it’s important to understand how they’re made, and how they’re grown. I see this issue, and these products, becoming more important to the industry in the years to come. And why is that? It’s because there are fewer small specialty nurseries like the ones where I work keeping these plants available on the market. I cannot stress enough, consumers can better understand our products alongside those of other growers. I’m not generalizing that they are better or worse, but rather, we depend upon and NEED one another as well as an informed and fair marketplace.

The Slow Food Movement entered my life back when a chapter became active here in Portland in the early 1990s. I never attended any of their events, but I DID signup for announcements by email. In exchange I took home this awesome sticker.

This week all things converged when it comes to this beloved drum I beat upon. Thinking back to my recent trip during my work hours, sharing in food discussions with friends and strangers thanks to the Sagra del Radicchio, and even because of questions asked during my talks, it turns out that I still very much enjoy growing crops of plants from seed, and keeping small batches of plant crops going. I even enjoy introducing plants into cultivation although that’s not something I’ve done often.

And so the cycle of life goes on, as we enter into the seasonal holiday period at the end of October where we say goodbye to the harvest, and begin out journey into the season of darkness and cold. I still have a lot of plants to bring in at home—the annual migration—but now that I’m home for many weeks, I’ll do what I can while dreaming up more blog posts to write.

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!!!