The National Begonia Society


Tony Shepherdson

National Begonia Society Champion 12 Cut Blooms 2017
British Begonia Champion 12 Cut Blooms 2017

Episode 3 mid February 

Writing this diary is helping my own growing in a way that is not entirely unexpected, because for almost a year now I have been putting together a cultivation talk at the request of SBS President Bert Nelson that he made at the end of the 2016 season and I genuinely feel that it has made me think more about my growing methods in ways that wouldnt have happened if I wasnt writing it down. I can recommend documenting your own method in detail as a worthwhile exercise if you have the time. 

Likewise, the diary is having a similar affect as it progresses. For example, something has niggled away at me regarding my ventures into flowering on a cutting and whilst re-reading through the early January episode to ensure continuity, I realised what it was and that I could be creating a potential problem. 

The thing is, if I eventually go 100% cuttings with any particular variety, the next season I may not have enough sufficiently mature tubers to start up in early January to provide enough cutting material, so having given it some thought, what I eventually plan to do is grow on some of the previous seasons tubers to maturity, but not in the greenhouse. They will flower outside in the garden, giving a bit of added colour to my growing collection of multiflora begonias. The resulting mature tubers will then be started the following January to give me my early cuttings. Ive already done this with a few varieties, not with the intention of producing cuttings but just for a bit of colour and I havent been disappointed. I just let them grow as they come and dont remove any growth and they keep on flowering right passed the end of September and the colour if anything is stronger than when grown in the greenhouse. They just get fed at the same time as the multiflora and obviously have the same pesticide and fungicide treatments to keep them healthy. That will work fine for the limited number of varieties that I currently grow on cuttings but I will need a different approach if I end up growing the majority of varieties this way. 

Now honestly, as much as I enjoy growing these pots for the garden, I cannot ever see myself growing pots for the show bench my nerves are frayed enough as it is watching other growers carrying their pots into the shows, so goodness only knows what I would be like with my own. I still have a laugh mind you, when I remember during staging in the wee small hours at the National at Shrewsbury last year when the most enormous pot of Charlotte you could imagine that had seemingly sprouted a pair of legs, walked into the marquee all on its own. As the pot staggered passed me, a voice that sounded remarkably like John Hamilton gasped, I wish I hadnt watered these yesterday!  

Ive made good progress with my plan to have all of the compost materials on site by mid February, not much more to go now see below. I arrived home around lunchtime on the 8th of February to find Colin Elsworth unloading the last bag of my Kettering loam from his car onto our drive timing is everything so the saying goes! Feeling more than a little guilty, I returned part of the favour that afternoon and went for our peat, as the garden centre had rang me the day before to tell me their new batch had arrived. We are lucky to have a fairly local supplier of Singletons and their Cumbrian peat, coarse grit and sharp sand are definitely my preferred brands. 


The early started tubers for my flowering cuttings are progressing, see below perhaps just a little bit behind where I would want them but they should start moving soon, its surprising how much growth they can make in a couple of weeks once they get to this stage and I do prefer to take a smaller cutting. If they are not quite ready then Ill just have to wait a few more days not the end of the world! 


Starting the adult tubers 

I am quite fanatical about checking my tubers throughout the winter. I aim to check them every week and certainly find that this regime pays dividends as I often find something that could spell trouble if left unattended. You could liken it to a trip to the dentist for a checkup its things like a tiny patch of rot or a scab that has been missed; also, sometimes when stems are really reluctant to come away, I cut them off cleanly as close to the tuber as I can to allow them to be stored. Eventually these small sections of stem will shrivel and harden enough for them to be removed together with the true scab underneath, sometime during the storage period see below, but if I were to put them away for the winter and forget about them this could easily turn to rot and mean the end of the tuber. What this extra work should mean is that when I eventually get to the point when its time to start them up there are no nasty surprises fingers crossed! Incidentally my favourite tool for this job is a small flat head screwdriver I know it sound a bit brutal but I find it does the job with no damage. 


The first job of the starting up regime is to give them all a final check over. Things that I am looking for are:

●   Any further signs of decay
●   Evidence of pests; specifically vine weevil grubs see below 
●   Faint writing on the labels
●   Slack or perished elastic bands it wouldnt be the first time that Ive taken the tubers out of the bleach solution to find 2 or 3 labels in the bottom of the sink!


So once the final inspection is done, its time for the bleach treatment. We have a decent sized Belfast type sink in the utility room so this is where I do them, being very careful to leave no trace of my being there I dont want to run the risk of being exiled to the garden at this time of year!

Now I have to admit to being a little bit skeptical about the benefits of this treatment.
There are I suppose three perceived benefits:

●   As an insecticide
●   As a fungicide
●   As a rehydration treatment

Against these benefits, the evidence of my own tubers is that some damage almost always seems to occur to any of the pips that have started to grow. After 2 or 3 days you can definitely see damage to the outer layers of the pips, in fact they can often go a bit soft as well. The outer layers do seem to protect the growing point but damage does occur.
I sort of get the fungicidal effect (but why not just use a fungicide?) additionally bleach is also an anti-bacterial treatment so do we also have the issue of it destroying potentially beneficial bacteria as well as harmful ones?
The rehydration element makes complete sense the response to a soak in warm water for 15 minutes for begonia tubers that have been stored in dry conditions for 2 to 3 months can be likened to the reaction of cacti in the desert to rain and the number of dormant eyes that pip surely improves although I have no way of proving that but what part does bleach play in this would plain water have the same effect? However Im not sure about the effect of bleach sodium hypochlorite on insects. All of the information that I have found states that bleach is considered a fungicide, a bactericide and an anti-microbial pesticide now microbial suggests something like germs to me which is exactly what is stated 99.9% in the T.V. commercials. Now we begonia growers are talking about mites or specifically their eggs at this time of year that are virtually invisible to the naked eye (especially given the average age of us begonia growers!) but are they to be considered a microbial pest and does it kill them off? 

While I am still on my high horse about using the bleach treatment, I remember when I first started growing begonias, reading and also being told that only Domestos incidentally invented in a shed in Byker, a suburb of Newcastle in 1929 should be used. Now I had assumed that the bleach being the active ingredient is just bleach, so why does it have to be the most expensive brand? Well, according to Wikipedia, Domestos contains 10% of the active ingredient available chlorine, whereas other brands may be as low as 5% so perhaps one of these other brands may not cause the damage that I seem to experience because of this lower dose? Until I know why, Ill carry on with Domestos but I would love to know the answers to the following: 

●   Why 10%
●   Does it kill actually mites and their eggs
●   Does it significantly harm the tuber
●   Do begonia tubers have good bacteria

Now I know Ive gone on and on for a bit too long but I am just thinking out loud. My jury is still out on this one but what I have done this year is reduce the concentration of the solution to 5%. There is no harm in questioning and challenging every aspect of culture, its the only way we can learn and improve. I may be way off target here and what works for one grower may not for another. If anyone has a different view on this or anything in my diary just let me know! 

Whats keeping me awake at night? 

Space no not the final frontier just my usual lack of it!
Im certain that I will need some additional propagator space, possibly for either my main batch of cuttings or the last batch of adult tubers. I just need to work out the best size to buy given my remaining available bench space, the trouble is, that will mean I will loose the area that I have for potting up so solving one problem creates another so I am also considering putting another propagator under one of the benches happy days!  

Next episode Scottish Begonia Society February meeting and start up progress report.


.Cultural Diaries