Monthly Archives: May 2016

Moving On: The Next Stage in the Life of Tuberous Begonias

By Cheryl Whalen, Head Gardener

Photos by Alison Rabinko

Cheryl's potting table in the greenhouse.
Cheryl’s potting table in the greenhouse.

So here we are more than halfway through May and my activities in the tuberous begonia display house are well underway. For the past six weeks, I’ve been busy repotting begonias into their final pots for the season. This is also the time to try to root a few stem cuttings which, with any luck, will yield tiny new tuber tots by fall.

Gently knock each plant out of its pot. If a network of fibrous roots covers the outer surface of the soil mass, the begonia is ready for repotting.
Gently knock each plant out of its pot. If a network of fibrous roots covers the outer surface of the soil mass, the begonia is ready for repotting.

Of course the begonias are not all ready to be potted up on the same day. Each plant roots into its starter pot according to its own whim. It’s a process. You will find me most Saturday mornings throughout spring quite content in my makeshift workshop in the begonia house tending to those begonias that are ready to make the move. Gently knocking each plant out of its pot, I look for a network of fibrous roots that pretty much covers the outer surface of the soil mass. If the root system is not developed enough, the plant goes back to the bench and I wait another week.

Add a bit of slow release fertilizer.
Add a bit of slow release fertilizer.

The upright display plants get transplanted into 10” clay pots. The potting process is simple. With plant and pot in front of me and my barrel of potting mix at my side, I get busy. After filling the pot to nearly halfway with soil, I set in the begonia being careful not to sink the top of the root ball too deeply. I sprinkle a half teaspoon of a slow release fertilizer like Osmocote in the soil around the plant. Then I follow up with more soil to fill the pot, pressing lightly on the soil surface to firm it in. I pop in the plant nametag so our guests can be properly introduced to each variety when they visit the nursery. Everyone gets a thorough watering to settle them into their new digs. With words of encouragement, back to the bench each begonia goes eager to get growing.

Some of the tuberous varieties tend to have lots of active eyes that grow up into a plant with many stems. It’s quite possible to cheat a few of these stems away from the tuber with no ill effects.

I have found that some of the tuberous varieties tend to have lots of active eyes that grow up into a plant with many stems. It’s quite possible to cheat a few of these stems away from the tuber with no ill effects. These stems can be rooted, and in time they will form new tubers and become the newest additions to my family.

When separating a stem from the tuber, Cheryl makes certain to cut below the tiny pinkish bud (visible just at the base of the stem). The bud ensures this cutting will eventually form a new tuber.

I take these cuttings right before the plants get moved up to their final pot. First, I select the stem I want to take. Then, with the root ball exposed, I peel back the soil until I can see where that stem attaches to the parent tuber. Looking closely at the very base of the stem, I spy a tiny pinkish bud. I need to make sure that when I make my cut that I am below that bud. Without that bud, the stem will make only roots but never a tuber. With the tip of my knife, I carefully cut and sort of pop the stem off of the tuber.

The young fibrous roots on the stem cutting.

Most times the stem cuttings already have some young fibrous roots attached. With the cutting in hand, I trim away some of the leaf surface area to prevent wilting until those tiny roots can take hold. Using my multitasking Sharpie, I dibble a hole in the soil of a small pot, and I plant the stem. One inch of the stem should be undercover in the soil. I water in the fresh cutting and place it with the others in the shady spot in the back of the greenhouse. For the first week or so, I spritz the cuttings with water a few times a day until the roots can catch up and provide adequate water to the top growth.

Using the multitasking Sharpie as a dibbler to make holes in the planting mix.
Using the multitasking Sharpie as a dibbler to make holes in the planting mix.

Our mail order tubers are still born and raised in England. I like to make my stem cuttings from the tuberous begonia varieties that are part of our collection but not currently found in the for-sale list. So sometimes I am able to offer our store visitors the chance to purchase a variety or two that they could not have purchased otherwise from our catalog. My selections for purchase in the begonia house do vary from year to year.

Gently firming the soil. Don't forget to label the cutting unless you like surprises!
Gently firming the soil. Don’t forget to label the cutting unless you like surprises!

Stem cuttings are not the only way to make more begonias, but it’s the one way I’ve tried so far. I would like to investigate other propagation possibilities just to satisfy my own curiosity. If only I had some more spare time . . . To be continued . . .

(To see previous chapters in the life cycle of Tuberous Begonias, scroll down.)

Road Trip: Visiting Longwood, Mt. Cuba & Chanticleer

One of the great pleasures of working in the plant business is the regular opportunity (read: the excuse) to visit gardens and gardeners. The team at White Flower Farm logs a lot of miles every year, including regular trips all over North America as well as England, Europe, and Asia. There’s no shortage of photo ops along the way, and more important, we always arrive home with a few new ideas to research and develop further.

Even at home in NW Connecticut we’re within driving distance of some of the country’s most celebrated gardens. Whether it’s the grandeur of New York Botanic, the relative intimacy of Berkshire Botanical Garden just across the Massachusetts line, or the many spectacular private gardens in the region, an eye-opening garden is nearly always at hand. That said, for pure density of garden richness, it’s hard to beat the Philadelphia metro area, home of Longwood Gardens, Mt. Cuba Center, Winterthur, Chanticleer, and many other extraordinary destinations.

A few weeks back we made one of our regular pilgrimages to Longwood, and also stopped in for visits at Mt. Cuba and Chanticleer. It was a lovely time to be in the area – lots of spring ephemerals, Daffs and Tulips peaking, and Dogwoods in full flower at every turn. It was a preview of a spring that hadn’t quite arrived in Connecticut. Here are a few snapshots from our wanderings with notes attached.

(A portion of) the tulip display at Longwood Gardens

Longwood doesn’t do “small” – the property is more than 1,000 acres, 4 of which are under glass in the grand Conservatory that dates to the 1920s. Here’s one stretch of their stunning tulip display. It was interesting (and a bit gratifying) to see so many young children enjoying the colors and shapes.

Tulipa & Narcissus playing nicely at Longwood.
Spray Rose ‘Lovely Lydia’ is one of dozens of varieties being cultivated in the conservatory at Longwood.
Spray Rose ‘Lovely Lydia’ is one of dozens of varieties being cultivated in the conservatory at Longwood.
The delicate (and deer-fenced) “understory” at Mt. Cuba Center.

Mt. Cuba Center is a different beast entirely. Like Longwood and Winterthur, it is a du Pont family property, and under the leadership of Mrs. Lamott du Pont Copeland the estate was developed into a full-fledged research institution in the 1980s. The focus at Mt. Cuba has always been native plants, with a particular emphasis on the ecology of the Appalachian Piedmont, and in 2012 a trial garden was opened to formally evaluate the ornamental and ecological value of various native plants and their related cultivars. Only in the past few years has the property been open to the general public on a regular basis – judging from our visit, Mt. Cuba will shortly develop a reputation to rival those of its more famous neighbors.

Trillium stamineum at Mt. Cuba - one of more than 20 Trillium varieties on display.
Trillium stamineum at Mt. Cuba – one of more than 20 Trillium varieties on display.
A scene fit for Monet at Mt. Cuba.
A scene fit for Monet at Mt. Cuba.
Looking towards the "ruins" at Chanticleer
Looking towards the “ruins” at Chanticleer

Chanticleer is widely considered the most romantic public garden in America, and you’ll hear no dissent from us. Though the gardens span 35 acres, there’s a delicacy here that’s easy to savor but hard to capture with a camera. Chanticleer calls itself a “pleasure garden” – maybe it’s best to leave it at that.

There is a remarkable variety of spring color at Chanticleer.
Tulips and Narcissus blooming together at Chanticleer.
Tulips and Narcissus blooming together at Chanticleer.
One of the quiet scenes that Chanticleer’s gardeners so excel at creating.

We’re fortunate to have much more garden wandering on the calendar this summer, and we look forward to sharing photos and musings here. Stay tuned!

Our Springtime Visit to Holland

Every April, our Director of Horticulture, Rob Storm, heads to Holland. His trip this spring occurred during a spell of unusually chilly weather (similar to ours), with rain, sleet and snow sometimes falling on the growing fields. The flowers took it all in stride, as you’ll see in Rob’s spectacular photos.

The annual trip is timed to coincide with peak bloom in the Netherlands, and Rob’s days are a decathlon of coffees (a tradition of Dutch hospitality), and visits to grower’s fields, hybridizer’s fields, trial gardens, and display gardens including the internationally renowned Keukenhof. He begins each day around 7 a.m. (or earlier to catch the best light) and doesn’t stop until after dinner, with no concessions for jet lag.

The whirlwind tour begins in northwest Holland, where chilly winds blow in off the North Sea, keeping that area cooler than the south. The landscape is dotted with windmills of the old-fashioned kind, and with an expanding number of today’s propeller-shaped wind energy turbines.

T. Golden Emperor DSC_9672

The first stop is a visit with White Flower Farm’s longtime bulb vendor, Fluwel. Rob is usually met by one of Fluwel’s founders and owners, the renowned Daffodil expert Carlos van der Veek. “We catch up on how each other’s families are growing,” Rob says, “and talk bulbs.” Each year, the owners of Fluwel (an acronym that stands for “Flowers love u, we enjoy life”), grow samples of everything they send out, a quality control measure designed to ensure that the bulbs they’ve received from other growers are top quality and true to name.

Our Dutch partner, Carlos van der Veek, surrounded his home with bulb plantings. The idea is to inspire visitors and also show what the flowers look like in a home landscape as well as in the adjacent growing fields.

This year’s Fluwel visit included a stop at Carlos’ home, a 150-year-old thatch-roof farmhouse that could play a starring role in a fairytale. Carlos has planted the gardens around it with all sorts of bulbs, partly as a way to inspire visitors and also to provide a source for images showing bulbs in home landscapes rather than in Fluwel’s growing fields.

From Fluwel, Rob and Carlos head out to visit various growers. All are selected by Carlos who knows these suppliers personally and trusts them to consistently deliver top quality, true-to-name bulbs. More coffee is served, more bulb talk ensues, and Rob walks the fields with his camera and his notebook.

T Pink Impression DSC_9872
Tulip ‘Pink Impression’ in the fields at Poldertuin.

In the Dutch language, “tuin” means “garden,” and “polder” defines a bit of land reclaimed from the sea. Stops on this trip include Poldertuin, a garden in the northern region of Anna Paulowna. This garden is used to showcase the bulbs produced by the growers of the region, like this stunning planting of Tulip ‘Pink Impression’.

The day Rob was to travel south happened to fall on what the Dutch call “King’s Day,” a nationwide celebration that generally corresponds to the birthday of its royal head of state, in this case, the April 27th birthday of King Willem-Alexander. Rob and his traveling companions woke extra early to get started before traffic would clog the roadways. “Don’t try to get a sandwich anywhere,” Rob jokes. About the only people working on King’s Day in Holland are the bulb growers whose seasonal business demands it.

KAVB test garden DSC_0424
At the KAVB Test Garden, it’s possible to see first-hand how a plant changes and evolves.

At the display gardens run by KAVB (the Royal General Bulb Grower’s Association), “you get to compare the bloodlines,” Rob says. If the original version of a Tulip is, say, ‘Christmas Marvel,’ the KAVB gardens plant the original followed sequentially by all of its sports: Tulips ‘Christmas Carol,’ ‘Christmas Dream,’ ‘Christmas Cloud,’ and so on. Visitors are not generally granted access to this official location, but when accompanied by the right people for the right reasons, no one objects. The gardens are an incredible resource where it’s possible to see the variations between varieties. They’re also a terrific source for generating ideas for bulb mixes and combinations. Each sport blossoms at relatively the same time and grows to the same height as its parent, so combining a selection of ‘Christmas’ varieties, for example, will result in a beautiful and successful combo.

In Lisse and around the region, Rob next visits a series of test gardens where it’s possible to do close comparisons of certain varieties. They are a great place to go “if, for example, I want to look at Tulip ‘Candy Prince’ and Tulip ‘Purple Prince’ to see how they differ,” Rob says. The small beds, planted in a pretty patchwork in close proximity, are planted for just that purpose.

One of the displays at the “always spectacular” Keukenhof gardens.

Each trip ends with a visit to the legendary Keukenhof. Gardeners and garden designers spend all year planning and planting the dazzling display, which runs for eight weeks only each spring. Last year, Keukenhof attracted 1.2 million visitors during the eight-week season. Bulb growers supply all of the bulbs, and the Keukenhof designer and his or her team set to work creating a captivating, colorful show. For Rob, a visit is “always spectacular,” and he makes notes and takes photos to record successful bulb combinations and design ideas. Some of the bulb combos are trialed back in Connecticut, an important step in ensuring they’ll succeed for customers. Bulbs that blossom simultaneously in Holland may not repeat the same magic in the United States, so trialing is the key. “You need to understand what the combination does here,” Rob says.

Because Rob’s traveling companions include members of the Keukenhof board of directors, he’s given special access to the gardens before they open to the public. In the early hours of the morning, when the light is just right, he’s able to take photographs without throngs of tourists in each shot. We don’t envy him the early wake-up call, but the images and the quiet moments in this amazing garden are the stuff of dreams.

Muscari Waves DSC_1080
One of the design ideas on view at this spring’s Keukenhof display was the planting of Muscari in “waves.” Soil was piled in mounds, and white-flowering varieties were planted high with blue-flowering varieties below, creating the impression of cresting waves.

Seeing so many flowers in just a few days is dizzying, and the photographic record becomes an enormous help once Rob returns home. “After five or six days, you have a hard time seeing it all straight, but reviewing the images and notes allows you to boil down what should be tested and trialed back home, and it becomes very clear what we’d like to share with our customers.”

Just after dawn at Keukenhof, there are no tourists, and the light is just right for photographs.