How to grow and care for begonias

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Begonia and osteospermum hanging basket

How to grow and care for begonias

Begonias are flamboyant, mostly tender perennials that are used in bedding, pot and hanging basket displays. They have a reputation for being a little old fashioned, but the bold new varieties are very different to the dainty plants that were traditionally used in bedding schemes. Some have masses of long-lasting, showy flowers in neon shades that are great for pots and hanging baskets, while others are grown for their spectacular, eye-catching foliage. All begonias do best out of direct sun, so are a welcome addition to a shady patio or border.

Begonias can be categorised as follows:

  • Tuberous begonias are grown from round, fleshy tubers. They have big, showy flowers in bright shades of pink, yellow, orange, red and white, throughout summer and into autumn. They make excellent pot and hanging basket plants, as some of them trail. As they won’t survive in cold weather, the tubers are often planted as annuals each year, or dug up and stored indoors for the winter.
  • Fibrous-rooted begonias, as their name suggests, have a typical root ball of thin, fibrous roots. They include the dwarf bedding types, known as wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) and tend to have smaller leaves and flowers. They can be grown in containers and window boxes or as bedding at the front of a shady border. They are usually treated as annuals and discarded at the end of the season.
  • Hardy begonias can be left in the ground in winter in sheltered, warm locations. The most common type found in the UK is Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana.
  • Foliage begonias are grown for their spectacular leaves, which come in a range of shapes, colours and patterns. They include the cane types (with upright stems that have different segments, like a bamboo cane, also known as angel wing begonias thanks to their beautiful leaves). They are popular as house plants but are increasingly grown outside in summer, where they will bring a jungly, exotic look to a patio or shady border. The Rex begonia (Begonia rex) has the showiest leaves of all, while Begonia luxurians, the palm-leaf begonia, looks like a palm tree and can reach 3m tall.

How to grow begonias

Grow begonias in peat-free, multi-purpose compost in dappled sunshine to partial shade. Plant tubers of tuberous begonias in spring. Only plant begonias outside in May, when no more frosts are forecast. Water regularly and feed weekly with a high potash fertiliser like tomato feed. In autumn, dig up tuberous begonias and store the tubers in a cool, frost-free spot for winter. Bring fibrous-rooted types indoors over winter, or treat as annuals and throw on the compost heap. Foliage begonias are grown as house plants but can enjoy time outdoors in summer.

Where to plant begonias

Begonia ‘Illumination Scarlet’

Begonias grow well in dappled or partial shade – avoid south-facing spots as the foliage can burn in direct sunlight. If you’re growing begonias in a greenhouse, shading may be required.

Tuberous begonias are ideal for growing in pots and hanging baskets. They have fairly brittle stems and heavy flowers, so grow them in a sheltered spot. Flowers will go over very quickly if they’re too hot. Fibrous rooted begonias can be packed quite tightly into mixed summer displays of other bedding plants.

Foliage begonias are best grown as house plants, in dappled shade. They will enjoy a holiday in the garden in summer, in dappled shade.

How to plant begonia tubers

Planting begonia tubers

Plant begonia tubers in March pr April into individual pots or into a seed tray, hollow side up. Plant them 2.5cm deep and keep in a warm spot that is at least 18°C. Once the leaves begin to show, pot on into larger pots filled with John Innes No. 2 compost or peat-free, multi-purpose compost.

Harden off the plants before planting them out in the garden in May, when no further frosts are forecast. You can also buy tuberous begonias as fully grown plants, although this is a more expensive option.

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