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Gardening | IN THE GARDEN

Begonias Thrive in Coastal Climate

June 29, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In summer, my grandfather Louis' garden was brimming with tuberous begonias. Incredibly fat, almost succulent flowers dripped from hanging baskets in his greenhouse and hung under fruit trees. Rows of the upright kinds grew in the ground underneath and filled nearly every pot.

His best friend, Frank Reinelt, grew the tubers commercially in nearby Capitola, near Santa Cruz. Their goal was to grow flowers in almost every color of the rainbow to as large a size as they could. This was the era of serious flower shows, when size counted. Blooms of 7 or so inches across were common on plants barely over a foot tall.

As I grew up and came to have my own garden, begonias were the last thing on my mind. I'd been there, seen that and was much more interested in trying to grow less common things.

But begonias have been creeping back into my life. I'm not yet quite reborn, but begonias now occupy key inches in my garden. There are several pots filled with luscious tuberous begonias that come back year after year and do so in the shade, where there is never enough bloom.

I stumbled across a big plant of 'Irene Nuss,' a cane-type begonia that grows a little like bamboo with jointed stems, on sale at a nursery and couldn't pass it by. And this was during one of those rare weeks of restraint when I was determined not to buy any more plants that I had to grow in pots.

My wife came home with a trio of fancy-leaved Rex begonias for the shaded front porch, and even bedding begonias found their way into the garden. They turned out to be the only thing I could grow in a big partly shaded concrete trough near the front door, after some nicotianas started to mildew and lean precariously toward the sunlight.

That's four kinds; four years ago there wasn't a begonia within a block.

Analyzing this outburst, I've decided that begonias are just too easy and too spectacular not to grow in my somewhat coastal garden. They are one of summer's best bets.

I may envy the nearly perfect roses in Pasadena and other Eastside communities; they seem unattainable on the Westside. Folks on the Eastside may grow better tomatoes, but I can grow better begonias. Begonias, hating heat and dryness, love it near the coast.

Begonias Are Back

John Bauman at the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm is also bringing back begonias. For years, they've sold just about everything else, but begonias were their beginning, and they're celebrating their return July 2-16 with a Begonia Festival. "Just because it's summer, doesn't mean we can't have fun planting the garden" was his reasoning.

The local branch of the Begonia Society will have an exhibit (the actual show is in September, at the South Coast Botanic Garden) and there will be a talk on July 12 at 10 a.m. Bauman says the Begonia Farm will again be selling at least 50 distinctly different kinds of begonias.

Begonias certainly run the gamut. There are tall, almost bushy kinds, sometimes called angel-wing begonias, like my 'Irene Nuss' that dangles grape-like clusters of coral pink flowers.

There are those better known for their amazing marked foliage, like the short, spreading Rex cultivars.

There are kinds that are so indestructible they are the second most popular bedding plant in the state, right behind impatiens. These bedding types, or fibrous begonias, are evergreen, grow from ordinary systems of roots (begonias typically grow from flattened, potato-like tubers or fleshy, creeping rhizomes) and come in a great variety of flower colors.

A useful bonus: They also have foliage that can be bronze, reddish or downright red. It's the bronze foliage I wanted by the front door.

Then there are the tuberous begonias. Flower factories all, they also have handsome foliage, with bristly stems often colored red. The flowers come in many hues, but I'm infatuated with the brazen pinks and the soft apricots.

I got into these through the 'Non-stop' kinds. These of course do stop, quite abruptly in the fall, but all I do, after the flowers and foliage fade or fall off, is tip the pots on their sides so the tubers don't get too wet in winter, when they are dormant. None of this digging up, drying out and cool-storage stuff for me. I just put them out of sight.

Mine grow in smallish, tapered pots--now covered with green moss--about 6 inches across and 8 inches tall. As Bauman points out, the 'Non-stop' kinds are about a foot tall and tend not to become top-heavy like the true tuberous types, though the flowers are smaller.

Tuberous and other types may need to be staked, as my grandfather did religiously.

Both kinds completely fill the pot with foliage, and flowers come by the dozen all summer and well into fall. Right now, there are 16 clusters on one plant, a real spectacle.

Sitting in the open shade under a patio tree--right next to a big round table and chairs where we spend much of summer--they save the season, adding color when much of the garden is looking a little peaked.

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