The National Begonia Society


Tony Shepherdson

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

Episode 5 – mid March

I’m afraid that I have to begin this episode on a serious note with a very sobering report about an incident brought about by the recent spell of bad weather. My partner in crime, Colin Elsworth, only lives 5 miles away but crucially he is also 500 feet higher up near the top of a very exposed hill, so he has vastly differing weather conditions to those down here in Blaydon. The morning before the very worst of the weather arrived, he woke up to a good covering of six inches or so of snow that had fell overnight, but he still managed to beat a path down to the main road and then walk to the local shop in order to stock up on some last minute essentials before the ‘Beast from the East’ arrived in force.
Just as he left the shop, he remembered that he was out of beer so, breathing a huge sigh of relief he quickly hurried back inside where he was delighted to bag himself a bargain of a few bottles of one of his favourite brews that happened to be on offer. After a long trudge home in the snow, he put them straight into the fridge to keep cool, happy that he had ticked off everything on the list.
Later that night, while relaxing in front of a roaring log fire and content in the knowledge that the begonia tubers were almost as cozy as he was – tucked up inside their propagators with plenty of insulation, he decided that it was just about beer o’clock and time to reward himself for all of his endeavors with a cold bottle. As he was pouring it out, try to imagine his horror when he noticed that he had only gone and bought himself alcohol free beer!  Please note – and begonia growers really should know better than this – always read the label carefully before application! 

Tuber update 

My cutting tubers are continuing to grow although not as evenly as I first thought, but they are all just about ready for their first pots – see below left. The adult tubers are more uniform and as they were virtually all pipped, they started growing as soon as they went into the propagator – see below centre and right. They already look closer to each other now than when I put them in so it looks like the tubers are taking on water and growing. Hopefully the roots will be moving by now; I’ve given a few of them a tug and things look promising, however the 20 or so adult tubers that I started around the 7th January for early cuttings have been a bit more up and down – more detail in ‘Cuttings update’ below. 


I was checking over the few remaining adult tubers that hadn’t pipped and on closer inspection the reason for no growth on this Douglas Drummie became obvious – not for the first time and probably not for the last I had put one in upside down – see below left. It looked much better when I turned it the right way up! – see below right; I just need to grow some roots on it now!


Cuttings update

The early started tubers are growing into the compost in the 2 litre pots that I moved them into and the first batch of 40 cuttings from them were taken more or less as planned on the 3rd of March – see below left. As I said earlier, the development of the tubers was a bit up and down so it was no surprise that the cutting material was the same. Some of the cuttings are a bit bigger than I would normally use and some are a bit smaller. I’m thinking about how to try and correct this for next year and will put something in the next episode. I have managed to keep these tubers in the conservatory for a bit of extra heat to push them along, because as well as giving me an extra batch of cuttings, I also have a new plan for them. My latest idea is to grow on those that are more advanced and try to flower them in time for Gardening Scotland at Ingleston for the beginning of June. A few of the SBS members always put up a society stand at this show to promote the SBS and are always looking for extra plants, so although it really is a long shot as they should have been started much earlier and there are only eight of them, I think it is worth a go. To give them their best chance, I just left the biggest shoot on each plant – see below right and rooted the smaller ones. I’ve spoken to George Thompson, Robert Nelson and Bob Robertson and will keep in touch with them for advice as they have been growing for this show for a few years now. The Mother Earth they are in is part of my trial to find an alternative to M2 should I ever need one (see Soilless Composts in episode 4) but it should also promote more rapid growth at this time of year than my loam based compost will. The cuttings are also in Mother Earth, mixed 4 to 1 with Perlite.
It’s always good to have a plan and stick to it but every now and then you have to change it and this could be either a reaction to something that has occurred or simply because you have thought of something that warrants a change. 


Loam based potting compost 

I’ve just made a batch of my loam compost for the first potting of the cutting tubers. Only those that look like they have a root system vigorous enough to cope will go into it, the others will either go into a half and half mix made with M2 or into straight M2 until they get established. By the second potting they all should have caught up and be able to handle the loam compost. Note; the M2 for the half and half mix and the straight M2 are still mixed 5 to 1 with Vermiculite.
My loam compost is based on an old formulation that I used previously for my late flowering chrysanthemums – the only differences being that I didn’t use the Vermiculite for the chrysanthemums – I added that for the begonias, purely to avoid them drying out during the flowering period when I was still working, with no guarantee of getting home at a reasonable hour and it has just stuck. It would have been two parts coarse grit that I used for the chrysanthemums, also, in those days I didn’t use Nutrimate, it would have been calcified seaweed back then. Additionally, in terms of fertilizer strength, for the chrysanthemums I used to go from number 1 for the first pots, to 2 for the second pots and 3 for the finals whereas I use the number 2 strength throughout for my begonias. Finally the late chrysanthemum compost had a five inch pot per bushel of coarsely ground charcoal to help keep the compost sweet – bear in mind these flowers are not shown until November!
So, this is my mix – for my first couple of years of begonia growing I used John Innes Base, not Vitax Q4 as I always did with the chrysanthemums because JIB seemed to be favoured by most growers, but I found that the plants showed signs of running low on nutrients before the buds were taken so supplementary feeds were needed. I switched to Q4 because I thought it would last longer being slower release and that proved to be the case. 

●   5 parts Kettering loam
●   5 parts peat – Singletons Cumbrian garden peat
●   1½ parts Singletons coarse grit
●   8 ounces Vitax Q4 per bushel
●   6 ounces Nutrimate per bushel
●   1½ ounces garden lime per bushel

My compost mixing ritual 

The Kettering loam that I use, although it has a high clay content, is quite fine and I also use a medium grade peat so I am very careful not to make the finished compost any finer by over-mixing. To achieve this and still ensure that the fertilizer is well distributed I follow this ritual – I just mix with a garden spade and I mix outside so this must be done with no rain in the forecast!

●   All ingredients are used dry
●   I mix either 3 or 1½ bushel at a time – just because the maths is easier!
●   Measure out the peat, grit, Vermiculite and all but 1 gallon of the loam
●   Mix reasonably well before adding the fertilizers
●   All fertilizers – Q4, Nutrimate and lime are then pre-mixed with the remaining gallon of the loam
●   Scatter this evenly over the compost then mix in – still dry
●   Spread out then water evenly – I usually use around about 1½ gallons for the 3 bushel mix but I have to be cautious with this – if I overdo it the high probability will be that the physical properties of the compost will be ruined!
●   Leave for 2 hours to settle, turn again, check the moisture content and then bag up

As far as the actual potting procedure goes, I am careful never to pot them too firmly – this compost will firm up on it’s own once watered, besides, I am paranoid about damaging roots and this is particularly applicable to plants that haven’t been growing in individual pots or cells.
Now you will have heard this all before but the critical thing that you have to adapt to when using a new compost formulation is how and when to water. What I find is that it is risky to assume that, because the surface is dry it will be dry underneath so for the first couple of waterings I very carefully water the old root ball only and then just give the surface a light spray to retard further drying through evaporation. This gives the roots a chance to grow into the new compost as they look for moisture and nutrients. I can also judge the need for water by lifting the pots and gauging the weight.

What’s keeping me awake at night? 

For at least a couple of years now, I have promised myself to make some decent covers for my big propagators and now that Siberia has been over here for a visit I am regretting not making them. The milder winters we have had recently meant that for most of the time, I only needed to cover the propagators at night with bubble wrap but that all changed this year and I am concerned that I haven’t given them the light that they need because they have been covered too many times during the day, using a combination of bubble wrap, fleece and polystyrene sheeting. It’s far too early to be concerned about bud production being affected, but I hope that they don’t get too lanky as a result, now that the pips are growing into shoots. I suppose I should have had the heater on more during the day but what’s done is done. I must do something during the summer to fix this – I have decided what to do regarding my propagator shortage – for next year, I am going to buy another 8 foot by 2 and move my 5 foot by 2 to under the bench on the south side of the greenhouse. I’ll just have to manage with what I’ve got for the rest of this season! At least I know now what is required from me to ensure that they all have tops for next year. 

Next episode – the second SBS meeting report


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