The National Begonia Society


Tony Shepherdson

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

Episode 6 – late March

SBS meeting report
Not much more than a week before the date of the meeting, vehicles on the M74 motorway up to Glasgow were being used as impromptu and very undesirable overnight shelters and if the bad weather had continued we wouldn’t have risked the trip north, but thankfully the temperature started to rise a little and we were able to make it without difficulty.

After our usual stop over at Robert Nelsons, it was on to the meeting and I was really looking forward to this one – Michael Richardson on his ventures into hybridisation. It’s strange that in these days of falling membership and flower shows closing, we have such a growing interest in breeding new varieties. All new tuberous double varieties come from the ‘amateur’ grower these days, but the word amateur surely only refers to the fact that they do not earn a living from the process, because in all other aspects their approach and attention to detail is nothing but professional and when this is accompanied by the infectious enthusiasm of someone like Michael, it’s no wonder that the interest is growing. In a short space of time, he has made a good number of crosses with a range of varieties, many of which are to try and achieve his dream of a strong yellow with a wavy edge to the petal. I hope he does this but some of the other crosses he has made should give some very interesting developments in the years to come.

As part of the talk, we were also treated to some images of recently released new varieties, all bred by society members that are now starting to appear on the show benches  – Joyce Champion, Ken Gallagher, Dena, Derek Telford and one that I didn’t catch the name of that I’m not too sure about. It didn’t have a very symmetrical outline, the centre was a funny shape and it certainly looked a bit ‘short of petal’. Intrigued – sorry but you had to be there to understand! On the subject of new varieties, could this be the year that I get to see an example of Lo La - I wonder.....

First set-back of the season
A couple of days after the March SBS meeting, I had a check of my first batch of cuttings to see how they were doing. I often pull the odd one out of the compost to examine the business end of the cuttings but this time I was immediately concerned as a few of them were showing the first signs of rot. So, what did I do? I had a spare Stewart propagator so I got it ready but instead of filling it with Mother Earth and Perlite 5 to 1, I filled it with peat and coarse sand 5 to 1. Why – because I know other growers root very successfully in just peat because they think that fertilizer in rooting compost may not be necessary and could actually be the cause of rot. The sand was just because I have been thinking about trying it instead of Perlite, which I don’t like because it looks horrible! I also trimmed the ends back a touch and dipped them in a weak solution of Rovral to counter any remaining rot, then put them into the new rooting medium. All seemed well and week later I took another 50 or so cuttings – again in peat and sand and they also looked well until the morning of the 26th March when I checked them out and found some more rot. This wasn’t a routine check, I examined them because to my horror, I noticed that the thermometers in both propagators was reading an incredible 35
° C plus! That was the moment that I remembered that last year I had some concerns about my small propagators, especially two of them running quite hot – concerns that I had completely forgotten about until then! I suspect that I had literally cooked the tips of my cuttings – probably nothing to do with fertilizer strength but I still think that this is a very valid concern that needs to be resolved. The two propagators in question were the ones that I had used for the suspect batches of cuttings and were also the newest, having been bought last year. On closer inspection I noticed they were slightly different from my other three and were labelled ‘Essentials’. A quick search of the Internet gave me the information I needed. I had always thought that there were two versions of this propagator, the Premium with a variable thermostat and the Thermostatic designed to cut out around 24° C. I thought I had picked up a bargain when I bought these two for well under £50 for them both but didn’t realise that the Essentials version are on permanently, hence the high temperatures. Needless to say I am keeping a close watch on the temperature and regulate it by switching on and off during the day. Nights don’t seem to be an issue, especially as I moved them from the conservatory into the greenhouse as soon as I noticed the problem. At the time of writing, I may only salvage 50% of my original 90 cuttings, which will impact on my plans, as it is nice to be able to pick the best of the best when flowering cuttings. I am also lucky that I had another batch of cuttings just about ready to take so in terms of cutting tubers I should be alright, however I still can’t understand why I went all of that time without checking the thermometers – my fault, lesson learnt, move on! 

Early cutting material – uneven growth
The tubers that I started in early January for cuttings were a bit uneven in starting which isn’t really a huge problem for tubers that will be flowered – you have time to take bud number 3, 4 or five usually without ill effect but when cuttings are needed at a specific time, it becomes more of an issue. Two of the varieties that I set away were Daisy Trinder and Symestar, both of which are normally fast starters for me while Gipsy and Ann Crawford always take a good couple of weeks longer, yet I put them into the propagator together and still expected to have cuttings available from them all at the same time.

In reality, each variety performed true to type so how can I change this for next year? One thing that I have noticed this year is that my adult tubers were virtually all pipped when I put them in the propagator and I think this is because of the fact that due to my garage being colder these days I brought the tubers into the house at the beginning of January – around a month earlier than normal. I think that the extra warmth and light were responsible for this and a recent chat with Ronnie Welsh just makes me think I am on the right lines, because he told me that because his tubers are kept relatively cool in his greenhouse in the propagators which are set for frost free throughout the winter and never brought into the warmth of the house, they never show any sign of growth when he starts them up, even towards the end of February. So armed with this knowledge, how can I use it to my advantage? For next year, I will select tubers of the varieties that I think take longer to pip and bring them into the warmth around mid December to see if that evens things up a bit – but this will just be for the tubers that I am going to use for the early cuttings. This isn’t a new technique, just an old one being applied in a different way, after all, for years now growers have been starting the likes of Tom Brownlee, Tequila Sunrise and Roy Hartley a couple of weeks earlier than other varieties because they take longer to reach maturity so why not apply the idea to cutting production? 

Tuber progress report
All of the cutting tubers are now potted up; the majority went into my normal loam compost with only a few needing the half and half mix. Most of them went into one litre pots – see below top, with a few that had big enough root systems for a two litre and some of the smaller ones went into ½ litre pots. With regard to M2 issues, I think that I have had some variation in quality even though the bags all came off the same pallet. The first bag I used didn’t look that great and after use seemed like it had lost an awful lot of structure but I was happy enough with the roots on the majority of the cutting tubers and the earliest of the adult tubers to be potted on into 2 litre pots, Tom Brownlee and Tequila Sunrise looked fine – see below bottom. As a general rule, the bigger the tuber the less they seem to be affected – for example, I have around 30 small tubers from last years’ seedlings that were just grown in cells so are only around 1 cm in size. They really struggled to get going in M2 but as soon as they were moved into 3 inch pots of Mother Earth they romped away. 



All of the potted up plants were moved into one of the 16 x 8’s but not before I did my annual ‘greenhouse fleece jigsaw puzzle’ – 55 separate pieces – very satisfying once it’s done – see below. The fleece I use seems to last fine for a couple of years but at the start of the third year looks like it is showing it’s age. It must be affected by U.V. light as it eventually starts to break up, so by alternating, I will only have to do one of the big greenhouses each year. 


Ingleston plants
Things seem to be progressing well, I am about to move them into 4 litre finals and the compost will be half and half with Mother Earth for the soilless portion. They have grown well in this for their first potting – see below left, and the first buds have appeared – see below right, so over the next couple of weeks I need to think carefully about timing. My thoughts are that they will be smaller flowers with less petal so will open quicker so I am not expecting 42 day blooms. If I aim for 35 day blooms, this will mean that I now have around 4 weeks before securing but I will consult the Ingleston experts before I do anything. 


Bleach treatment – the final chapter!
I had a really interesting chat with Phil Champion at the February SBS meeting on a variety of begonia related topics, one of which was the merits or otherwise of the use of bleach. Phil made the point, regarding bacteria that every living thing, including us is surrounded by bacteria that are required for survival, so why would we kill them off unnecessarily? I’ve thought about this for a few days now and although I’m not exactly sure how relevant or scientific my thoughts are but I keep thinking that if begonias have an immune system, could we be affecting it by killing off the good bacteria, if that makes sense? Additionally, along with most growers, I never treat my cutting tubers, yet have never had any issues because of this so I have decided next year to not use bleach on any of my tubers. They will still get a warm water soak and I will think about the use of fungicides and insecticides, but the bleach treatment will stop.

What’s keeping me awake at night?
Obviously my cutting saga is a big concern but it’s not the only one! I knew that it was inevitable, but finally the eviction notice was served on all of the begonias that had claimed squatters’ rights in the conservatory. They had to be out before Easter and this was non-negotiable, so the move into one of my 16 x 8 greenhouses started around the 27th March. The trouble is that any plants in here will not have any bottom heat facilities as both of my 16 x 8’s have tiered staging, so when the outside temperature falls I have to rely on heating the air. I have to be very careful in selecting which plants get moved, any that need bottom heat I’ll try to keep in my 10 x 8 but space is very limited because as soon as the large tubers vacate the big propagator I will be using it for my main batch of cuttings. To sum it up, I am aiming to flower 200 plants but only have the propagating facilities for 100 plants in terms of bottom heat for young or struggling plants and rooted cuttings. I’m busy thinking up a plan to make a temporary platform to put onto the middle tier of the staging that will be level with the top tier. This will give me a width of around two feet, which will then mean I can then put some form of bottom heat into the big greenhouses. I’ll make my mind up later on in the year but already my earlier idea of putting a propagator under the staging is being challenged! 

Next episode – completing first potting and taking the main batch of cuttings


.Cultural Diaries