Begonia Season Begins and Winter Ends!!!

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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!!!

Seed Sowing and Pandemic Gardening

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This weekend I’ll be sowing seeds like a wild woman here at home. As has been typical over the last few years, I’m behind. So behind! I have two days to make a serious dent in this pile, and I know that I will. Then it’s back to work to do the same thing all next week.

Right now it’s GO time.

So many seeds need to be sown on time, or else plants just won’t grow into the best they can be during the season. Some seeds are old, so I need to sow them ASAP to get anything I can out of the batch. Then I will plant those babies and pray that I will have fresh crops of seeds at the end of the season.

I planted several packets a few years ago that were 20 years old and I still had an ok germination rate. You just never know! Fun, right? Experimenting is the best!

One of many seed hoards I’ve known AND sown over the years. I can’t wait to dig into this bag this weekend.

This year is different than others because I want to redo the seed garden I used to have where I was able to collect seed crops. My shop on ETSY is nearly closed now. I’m still debating if I want to ever sell seeds again, but I want to have that option. Oh to have more land!

It was a decade well spent, but I honestly, I lost a lot of money doing it. The amount of labor that went into sowing, growing, collecting, cleaning, and packaging was A LOT. My time is worth more now, and I plan to sell small batches of plants wholesale. We shall see though. I’m not rushing into that yet since I’m working nearly full-time as it is. To make it in horticulture though, you’ve got to stay on your toes and be open to getting creative.

Felix with the seed hoard from last year.

Some of the seeds will be sown in flats outdoors, on racks or on the ground. I lack space around here so I do what I can and I don’t mind that it’s not picture perfect. The good news is that I work at two nurseries and some of these babies wind up at either, or, I sell a few here, and there, or I trade with friends.

With more Open Garden dates this year I need to speed this up so that I can clean it all up in time for folks to walk through.

I’ll be starting seeds indoors as well. I can’t start as many as I used to due to the number of houseplants I currently own, but I’ll be doing what I can. It never stops. There is a reason I’m well-known for my seeds and seed work. I just love this process and work hard to learn more as I go. Each batch is a new recipe to me.

Begonia listada grown from seed.

So much of this reminds me of cooking and many of my kitchen skills are used. It’s especially obvious when I have to prep, clean and sort seeds and it can be mind numbing. Sometimes seed cleaning feels like peeling potatoes all day. Even sowing them can feel like slamming your head against the wall over and over. Reminds me of cooking 5-course meals with painful swollen legs. Gotta push through the monotony of it.

I love to make a large serving of plants though, a potted up tray of beautiful plants, and to see people smile as they walk through tables of flats. Potted up cuttings, plugs, and seedlings grown on, all ready to go home to be planted.

Delicious on the eyes, isn’t it? Just the thought of this image gets us excited. We’re fans of the garden performance and we want to orchestrate our own.

These are the art supplies of garden artists that I “whip up” for them. Dabblers, dreamers, and makers crafting up living spaces, property, and the ground around them, making previously dull space come to life. Magical green daily dances on spring afternoons grow into something more solemn and bold on hot summer evenings. The show folds in autumn of course. Stems lose their leaves, and yet they still stand. Nearby their friends fold over, tumbling in cold winds, taking their finally bows. The curtain of winter falls and the show is over.

When the rush of this performance is over, and you’ve come down from your high, if you find yourself craving to do it all over again, then you know you’ve fallen hard for gardening. You’re addicted.

Columnea sanguinea berries bursting with seeds.

I miss collecting seeds at home. I miss observing native plants around the region. I miss a lot of things because of the pandemic and working so much.

I’ve learned a lot though during the last few years. While many consumers are willing to pay more for plants, their reasons are changing. Consumers are brutal though. They judge the overall appeal of your entire look and setup. Social media and the internet have made the industry so much more public too, especially thanks to indoor gardening. It’s important for me to escape from all of this, and so I have my jungle home, my laboratory, and my other interests. It’s not all sunshine and flowers out there in the real world.

Times are changing and there is a generational shift occurring right now. It’s interesting (and a bit scary) to watch as it happens but change is good and I see it as growth. I’ll keep posting about this throughout the year. It’s too complicated to cover in one flippant paragraph. If you’ve noticed it too, feel free to comment.

Cleaning Pittosporum seeds at Cistus.
Iris douglasiana seedlings we potted up at Cistus a few weeks ago. Look forward to this Southern Oregon, NorCal coastal native soon.
This was my seedling bench last year. For some reason I can’t find the more recent photo I just took.
Seedlings of the pandemic celebrity “Monte the Agave” here in Portland. Owned by Lance Wright, the bloom drew people from all over town to his front garden.
You just never know what kind of special seeds will arrive at Cistus Nursery as fun gifts for us to sow.

I am at Cistus now 3 days a week and am working shorter days to make it all possible with my health issues. After 5 years there, I have a lot of crops that have grown up. I hope to share more of them this year here on the blog too as they’ve aged a bit and grown up.

So many of my babies have gone home with customers who’ve planted them and loved them. It thrills me to have been been able to help others garden. My goal is to provide these products to consumers, making the plants my employers need to sell, but in the coming months I hope to educate more readers and folks who land on my site about the importance of what I do, and why small batches of diverse plants matter in terms of creating a marketplace that is fun for consumers to access and enjoy.

I fear that we’ll have less and less plant diversity on the market unless we have more small nurseries opening. That’s my nightmare, and I fight it daily, sort-of in a not-so-quiet way, behind the scenes. Expect me to keep talking about this a lot around here.

If you know where your food comes from, and how it’s produced, I think it’s time we better educate consumers and one another about where our plants come from, and why they matter too.