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growing begonias, with tovah martin

begonias by Kindra ClineffI’M ALWAYS LOOKING for ways to make my many houseplants, especially the fancy-leaf begonias, feel more at home year-round–especially through the hot, dry wintertime indoors. I asked author Tovah Martin, a begonia expert, for advice on these sturdy beauties (like ‘Kit Kat’ and ‘Palomar Prince’, above, left to right).

Tovah is the author of more than a dozen garden books including “Tasha Tudor’s Garden” and “The New Terrarium” and the “The Unexpected Houseplant,” and her newest, “The Indestructible Houseplant” (Amazon affiliate links).

9781604695014lBesides our love of begonias, Tovah (find her at her Plantswise Facebook page) and I share a commitment to organic garden practices, indoors and out,. And we are near-neighbors in the corner of the world where Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York’s borders come together.

Tovah says she emerged from 25 years working in Connecticut at the famed Logee’s Greenhouses with “a serious houseplant addiction.” She joined me on the radio and podcast (the transcript follows) to confess some of the sordid details of that affliction–and share some of her best insights into success. (That’s Tovah, watering, below.)

tovah martin by kindra clineff

q&a: begonias and more with tovah martin

Q. Are you and your babies tucked safely inside, Tovah?

A. There’s one jasmine left outside—getting the chilling process he needs.

Q. A little tough love for that one first, huh? Is there any room indoors left for you?

A. No, I just get wedged in a corner. But isn’t it wonderful that you brush by these things all winter—and that‘s part of the therapy of it. I don’t know where I’d be without these plants I walk past in the morning. It’s like a garden indoors.

Q. I’ve had some that I have owned for decades—they’re like family.

A. And every year it changes a little bit—every autumn when I bring them in, it’s like a new little landscape. New ones come; old ones we wave goodbye to.

Q. I know you have a new book coming next year, called “The Indestructible Houseplant,” and I assume begonias are in it, yes? And did they feature in the current book, “The Unexpected Houseplant,” too?

A. Begonias are everywhere in my life.  Even though they have always been thought of as houseplants, you can grow them in unique and beautiful ways that’s a little bit off the beaten track.

Q. Hence the “unexpected” word in the title of the latest book.

Can we have a quick history of your affair with begonias? Did it begin in the years you worked at Logee’s?

A. Prior to Logee’s, I had no idea how many different types there were. I really only knew the ordinary wax begonias, the semperflorens group that is grown in the garden all the time.

At Logee’s I curated the begonia collection for 25 years, and that solidified the romance between begonias and me. Can you think of another plant that is as diverse?

Q. Yes, we should explain that there are various groups of begonias. It’s a genus with all kinds of forms.

A. And sometimes you think, “That’s a begonia?” But when you see it bloom, all is revealed.

There are several different types—the wax or semperfloren types, but historically other types have also become popular. Many people know the tuberous types that grow in the summer, with those great, huge fluffy flowers. They go dormant in the winter. I think those are the kings of the flowers for begonias.

And then there is a semi-tuberous group, which come from a caudex, and look a little like a bonsai.

Q. I love those oddball types.

A. There are also more upright or cane types, which just as the name says they jut straight up. The trick is to prune them to make them branch out. The leaves are like a wing—bat wings, feathery angel wings, that sort of thing.  Within that group are some that cascade down—scandent types. And then there are the rhizomatous types, like one of your favorites, ‘Marmaduke…’ [in photo below, at right]

begonia and bromeliad indoorsQ. …which is kind of chartreuse with reddish spots and pucker and lusty growing…

A. …and kind of has felted, furry leaves.

The rhizome is a rootlike sort of a thing that creeps along the top of the soil, and send up the leaves. There can be upright versions, but most sort of creep along the ground. They have a great diversity of leaf shapes and sizes: ones just the size of a penny, and then one like ‘Marmaduke’ could be 10 inches across and some get even bigger than that.

Some have palmate leaves, others rounded, some curly.

Q. And the colors—they’re like a stained-glass window.

A. And the flowers usually happen later winter and early spring, and come up in a little scape. Not huge, and usually pinks and creams. The flowers aren’t the big things for those.

And then there are the Rex types.

Q. I’m here in the studio now with two thumbs pointing down. I see them at the garden center, and they’re so beautiful, but…forget about it. Do you grow Rex types?

A. They are tough to grow. I get powdery mildew, do you?

Q. I feel like the leaves start to sort of “melt” and decay, yes.

A. Unless they have fans going and so on, in the average home that you have to close up during the winter, people struggle with the Rex types. They’re very colorful with bands of reds and greens and metallic silver—but for me it’s mission impossible.

Q. I should say, I think the rhizomatous types make great holiday and hostess gifts, and I sometimes order ahead of when it’s too cold to ship, caring for them for a couple or few weeks before bringing them to someone. (Or I just give a gift certificate, for redemption later.)

So let’s go through the 101 on growing the rhizomatous types—shall we begin with their basic needs?

A. Rhizomatous begonias like indirect sun, so an east or west window is ideal. If growing them outside, it would be under a loose shade tree.

Across the board with begonias: They don’t like huge pots. They like to have their roots cramped a bit into smaller containers. I find that most begonia roots don’t go down, they go horizontally.

A shallow container is better than a deep one—like what we’d call an azalea pot.

Q. Slightly wider than it is tall?

A. That’s best for them, which goes into their next need: That they don’t like to be overwatered. They like to dry out slightly between waterings, so when you grow them in the shallow pot you are less likely to have soil lower down, beneath the root area, that’s damp. In the shallower pot you have roots throughout the soil that are drinking up the moisture.

Q. So you don’t want them standing in  saucer of water, either, right?

A. Growing inside, everyone has their way of staging plants, and everything has a saucer, or zinc trays or something like that. Try to avoid standing water—which is what you’re alluding to.

begonias outsideQ. Outside in the summer [above, some of my plants near the kitchen door], I take the saucers away, so in a rainy time they don’t stand in water, either.

A. I’m with you on that.

Q. Potting soil?

A. Back in the day we made potting soil for specific plants—a fern mix, a begonia mix, and so on. Now I use the same soil for everything—an organic potting soil. It’s not so hard to find organic potting soils nowadays. I use one that has compost added, so that it has nutrition in it. I don’t use a soilless mix, but believe in one with some soil in it.

So you’re giving it oomph under foot, you’re putting it in a pots that’s shallow so they’re not swimming in soil with no roots.

And in with this we should mention that our container needs good drainage. I do a lot of drilling [of holes in pots] but you couldn’t really drill a drainage hole big enough for begonias. They need really good drainage.

Q. And then we bring them into the house at season’s end…and they get a little angry at us. [Laughter.] Some of the bigger, older leaves will start to pale and drop. I confess I sometimes give haircuts to the ones that are in the worst throes–but what’s the optimal overwintering plan?

little-brother-montgomery-begoniaA. Some of the upright rhizomatous hybrid types, like ‘Little Brother Montgomery,’ [above] drop some leaves in the fall when you bring it in. And this is important: Bring them in early in the fall; they don’t like it at 40 degrees. Begonias would be one of the first plants you’d march inside in fall.

Try to give them a fair amount of humidity—don’t situate them near a heating vent.

Q. Many of the rhizomatous types will climb out of the pot and over the rim, with the rhizome looking like a giant caterpillar gone overboard. Oops, I guess I should have repotted already! Tell us how to read the plant’s signals and when and how to repot.

A. I repot begonias only in the spring—since winter is not when they are growing actively, and light levels are also low. To determine when to repot, check the root system. If the roots have filled the container with nice whitish, creamy-colored healthy, live roots—that’s when you would repot.

Q. Do I pinch off those “man overboard” rhizomes? [Laughter.]

A. Pinch is the magic word. If you don’t want them to get all unsightly and naked and gnarly, clip the little tips off those rhizomes, and they’ll start to make new growth by themselves, and you won’t have to go through the unsightly stage. You’ll nip that in the bud.

Those are easy to root with hairpins.

Q. Pin them down on the soil surface?

A. Yes, and they’ll make new plants.

A. With your new “The Indestructible Houseplant” book well under way, and due out next June, I wonder what other toughies besides begonias made the list?

A. As I was testing plants, I found more and more and more—and it went a little crazy. You’d be surprised at what many plants can really endure. I really put these plants through their paces.

Q. Tough love! Which made the cut?

A. Ivies, aspidistra, Aglaonema, agave, philodendron, euphorbia, sansevieria, old-fashioned geraniums…plants your grandmother grew.

Q. I was just listening and thinking, “My grandmother’s plants.”

A. But you can do it with so much more finesse. You can give them a punch, modern look that’s you.

Q. And compared to in Grandma’s time there are showier forms—variegated, for instance—and not just the one plain old green one.

A. Absolutely—with everything. There are many more agaves than years ago; I had no idea that there were so many varieties of Aglaonema when I started collecting them a few years ago.

some favorite begonias, from tovah martin

AFTER OUR radio chat, I asked Tovah to name some favorite begonias. “You’re asking for trouble if I get going on favorites,” she said. “It could go into infinity. But right now I’m growing these:”

  • ‘Black Fancy’
  • ‘Erythrophylla’
  • ‘Bunchii’
  • ‘Cowardly Lion’
  • ‘Bethlehem Star’
  • ‘Texas Star’
  • ‘Fuscomaculata’
  • ‘Beatrice Haddrell’
  • ‘Stonewall’
  • ‘Palomar Prince’
  • ‘Zip’
  • sizemoreae
  • bowerae nigramarga

get the podcast version of future shows

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

enter to win ‘the unexpected houseplant’

Martin_CoverI’VE BOUGHT TWO copies of Tovah Martin’s “The Unexpected Houseplant” to share with lucky readers. Update: the giveaway is complete. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way down at the bottom of the page, after the very last comment:

What houseplant have you had the longest, and is your most reliable? (If none are very old, than what’s your favorite?)

My oldest are the Clivias that I’ve had for way more than 20 years–can it be 30? They’re divisions from a big plant that sat in my mother’s TV room many decades ago.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in” or something like that, and I will, but an answer is better.

I’ll draw two random winners after entries close at midnight on Monday, November 24. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.

(Photos copyight Kindra Clineff, used with permission, except ‘Marmaduke,’ ‘Little Brother Montgomery’  and outdoor plants with water troughs, by Margaret Roach.)

  1. Heide says:

    A jade plant my husband brought home from college in 1980 and Christmas cactus my mother started for me shortly after college.

  2. E says:

    Oh my, about to through a major negative with all the indoor plant love. My husband is on the transplant list [hope by the new year we get called, since he’s been on the list for over 4 years]. I CAN’T have any plants in the house. Bacteria grows in the soil and that’s not a safe thing for him. Am nursing 4-yr old geraniums in a room were he doesn’t go. Don’t know what I’ll do with them when the “call” comes. Are a variety that I fell in love with, and can no longer find.
    Margaret, I really enjoy reading your blog, especially since we are relatively close – just a bit west of you in NY.

  3. Margaret Z says:

    My oldest houseplants would be the would be my Plumerias. However, my sister has my grandmothers violets. My grandmother passed away in 1996 at the age of 101 and she had those on the windowsill of the front porch for as long as I can remember. My sister and I are in our 50’s and we have no idea how old the violets are. Maybe at least 30 years? Anyway, they are a great reminder of our sweet grandmother. Have a great Thanksgiving!

  4. Elizabeth Marshall says:

    I grew up with Tasha Tudors earliest books, in Massachusetts. My mother venerated her. Tova’s books about her are displayed in my house. Over the years I learned to recognize Tova’s “voice” in her magazine articles. I’ve been following you for awhile Margaret and enjoy your work. So lots of connections here for me! (And no I’m not brown nosing!) My house in Montana is never over 60 degrees so houseplants don’t thrive here. But I’ve kept an orchid blooming for a couple months and am eating tomatillas off a plant in my bay window.

  5. Michelle says:

    My oldest houseplant is a zz plant which was recommended to my husband and I by a nursery as suitable for our first home together … a basement apartment. It thrived despite the dim dwelling and is now just as happy in a brighter home 10 years later.

  6. cheri says:

    I moved from one house to another. The first was damp, dark and drafty. When we moved to the new house it was warm, dry and not drafty. I lost most of my begonias probably Rex, my African violets and most of my orchids. I do have a Begonia Name lost long ago, that was a pass along plant, my BFF got it from her mother in law took a cutting and gave it to me.

  7. Margit Van Schaick says:

    I’ve had a jade plant for a long time, and it’s come with me on several moves, growing from a small plant in a 4″ pot, to a majestic survivor. Every once in awhile, it goes through a period of yellowing leaves, which drop off. With change of seasons, mywatering practice does not meet its needs, apparently. I get somewhat panicky, bur so far it has pulled through magnificently. That’s why I think of it as being a grand survivor! I LOVE this plant

  8. Christina says:

    My trusty philodendron has been with me for probably 20 years. I repot it every couple of years and have shared cuttings with friends!

  9. Sue Hessel says:

    My mother grew Begonias and I inherited many of hers along with many of my own, my license plate also inherited is B-GONIA. My oldest plants, well over 30 years old are a Bear’s foot fern, cymbidium orchid and Cleopatra and bowerae begonias.

  10. Mary Veldman says:

    I love begonias! After listening to your podcast I realize I need to have more begonias in my life. I’m so thrilled to know that I can winter them in the house! I have tried some varieties but realize now after listening to your show that they were the tuberous type. I presently have a waxed wing type with trailing pink flowers. The plant is still in full bloom and it’s almost December!
    I have had the same geranium plants growing in the house for over 10 years. Every spring they are trimmed down, providing baby plants for outside planting.

  11. Marge says:

    Our oldest houseplant is our Norfolk Island pine which we got as a wedding gift 27 years ago. I also have some Rex and vining begonias that I love and my little store of Coleus babies growing happily under lights until spring rolls around. I’d love to win the book!

  12. Mary Sue says:

    I too have a Clivia that came from the plant my mom has from her mom. Now my son has one from me. We all get loads of huge flowers which comes from all the family love I’m sure.

  13. lynn novick says:

    I have African Violets that keep going and going. Also AloeVera and Birdnest Sansevieria. I’ve run out of window sills or I’d have more.

  14. judith says:

    I had the pleasure of partaking in a Begonia class that Tovah offered- what a great person she is and what a fantastic class. After seeing all of her slides of begonias it was so hard not to go out to the nursery and purchase more to add to my own collection. My favorite houseplants are definitely begonias but really there aren’t many plants I don’t love. I have a clivia that I have had for a long time which blooms so profusely every year just when the winter begins to wear me down and brings so much joy to everyone that sees it. It is also a great gifting plant as it can be divided frequently.

  15. Debbie Griecci says:

    I have a ponytail plant that was given to me in 1973. It was a birthday present and originally sat on my windowsill. Needless to say today it is taller than I am and a dolly is needed to move it around from outside to inside year after year. It is not my favorite plant, actually I don’t have one favorite but several. Just got interested in begonias when a friend of mine gave me a leaf from one of her plants grown from her grandmother’s day. It now has 12 leaves. Now after reading your article I know it’s name, Kit Kat!

  16. tropaeolum says:

    The most reliable is probably the begonia my friend Susan gave me in 2005. It is a real trooper. It can handle forgetting to water it all winter long and neglect on the deck during the outside growing season. I don’t know the cultivar name, but they grow it at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, so you know it’s tough.

  17. Keisha says:

    An aloe vera. I am not for sure how old it is but it started out at my mom’s house and now has lived with me for the past four years.

  18. Lois Dudley says:

    Margaret, I found your blog last winter after I retired and needed something fulfilling to get me through the snow and cold. Instead of therapy, your candid, organic writing and landscapes were the perfect fit for a searching soul!
    Plants, birds and butterflies have been my passion since I was a child. I have a Christmas cactus that my grandmother kept in her sunny porch. My dear “Hazel” died in 1972!

  19. Tory says:

    Of all the begonia’s to publish, there, in living color, is the plant my nephew’s wife gave us nearly six years ago – the Marmaduke! She called it her “family” begonia and we’ve been none the wiser until a moment ago.

  20. Phyllis Weiss says:

    I love heirloom begonias and geraniums. It is difficult to keep them going in the winter in the Midwest where I live. Count me in for the drawing.

  21. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    Ah, that would be Medusa – an out of control Aloe. I have even drawn her in a pastel entitled “Rootbound.” I hope she will survive the winter in my cellar – along with my 30 some other house plants, while I selfishly bask in sun. I would love to pair down my houseplants to about 5, 5 really special ones – maybe one of those awesome begonias.

  22. Fran Rogers says:

    I see by the date that this is an inclusion from an older column, but decided to mention my oldest houseplant anyway. It is nephthytis. In 1969 when our son was born, we were given a pot of nephthytis. In 1977 when we moved out of the country for awhile, I gave the plant to a neighbor. When we returned in 1979, I asked for a start of it, rooted it, and still have it after all these years and several moves.

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