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Diarmuid Gavin: Beautiful begonias

These popular tropical plants are a joy to grow - and make a perfect gift for Mother's Day

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Tropical: Begonias

Tropical: Begonias

Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno'

Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno'

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Tropical: Begonias

We Irish like our begonias. In fact, we love them. They tumble from hanging baskets and stand tall in borders. If Mary O'Rourke is a gardening type, I bet they're her favourite flower. Across the water, when Hyacinth Bucket wasn't tending to her hyacinths, it was the begonias she was encouraging, wishing to adorn her home with a floriferous display.

And why not? Every year I am amazed at the blooming power of this colourful species. If you wish to compete with Hyacinth and produce some burgeoning begonias for judgment at your local flower show... well, now is the right time to get growing them. So let's take a closer look.

To grow an exotic plant well (and despite our familiarity with the species, they are in fact wonderfully exotic), it's often a good idea to consider their origins (where they were born) so that it's easier to understand the conditions they like to grow under.

Begonias generally come from tropical regions, so they like the temperature to be warm. This is why they can find our winters a little alien, so we lift the tubers over winter and never plant out until the danger of frost is past.

And though they're among the brightest of flowers at home, they're often found in the understorey of tropical rainforests so are happy in partial shade and moist soil. Their ability to flourish in the shade makes them a valuable bedding and container plant.

Busy Lizzies (Impatiens) used to be a top bedding choice amongst gardeners for shady spots but have been blighted in recent years by mildew problems. Begonias also have the advantage of tough, waxy leaves that slugs and snails don't like as much.

Begonias are hugely rewarding and very easy to grow. We use a few different types in our gardens and either buy tubers - small fibrous rooted plants - or start them from seed.

Begonia tubers can be bought now or you might have some you brought indoors from last year. To get them started, place them sitting on moist compost.

They usually have a concave hollow - this side should face upwards. Once green shoots emerge, you can pot them up individually. As they grow, you will gradually start to harden them off - this means popping them outside for a couple of hours initially, so they can slowly acclimatise to the weather. Once fear of frost is past, they can take up their summer position outside.

It's also the right time to be sowing begonia seeds. These are very tiny so can be tricky to handle, as you want to sow them as finely as possible. You can mix the seeds with some silver sand to help spread them more evenly.

Don't cover with compost or vermiculite, as they need the light to germinate, and keep them warm - around 21°C.

Once they show their true leaf, you will need to pot them on - try to handle them by their leaves, as touching the stem at this stage will damage the seedling. Alternatively, you can order garden-ready plug plants from catalogues now or buy in garden centres in April, and these will be the right size to plant straight into hanging baskets or any other containers.

'Million Kisses' is one of the best-known and most vigorous trailing begonias and is ideal for hanging baskets. An added bonus is that you don't need to deadhead - it just keeps on flowering. Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno': its bright-red flowers are sure to dazzle. If scent is important, try 'Aromantics'.

And if you're still wondering what to buy mum for Mother's Day tomorrow, I'd suggest Begonia odorata - 'Mother's Day' - a fragrant variety with double white flowers that have a touch of pink blush.

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Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno'

Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno'

Brighten up your patio with 'Inferno'

 

Top Tip

To maintain optimum flowering, it's a good idea to feed your begonias every week with a high-potash or tomato feed - this will help you achieve the most beautiful display.

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