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Home > Begonian > Volume 72 (March/April 2005)

In the Mailbox
by Greg Sytch

In a year that has seen much uncertainty, destruction and disaster around the globe and here in my home state of Florida, begonias have been one haven of relief for me. They have proven resilient.

In September, the eye of two hurricanes came within 15 miles of my home. "Frances" lumbered across Florida in late summer, bringing hurricane-force winds for 24 hours and a foot of rain. It took down my prized Tabebuia tree. "Jeanne" followed three weeks later, much quicker but stronger with a peak gust of 94 mph here in New Port Richey. It took the remaining four shade trees from my back yard. Jeanne also deposited my huge live oak into my house, making it uninhabitable and leaving me with a sun-baked back yard full of begonias. It wasn't pretty.

After two weeks in a motel, I finally was able to scramble and get 70% shade cloth over my two greenhouses left standing. I lost the other two. Begonias had burned, become ripped, some were reduced to tattered messes unrecognizable to even my trained eye. Labels were gone. I started hacking back all the plants, repotting lightly where I could, and placing them under shade. I also gave away countless carloads after each storm to reduce the number I had to care for.

I was one of the lucky ones. An apartment opened up on my street, and I seized it to live in while my house is repaired. This gave me accessibility to my yard and my plants.

Now it is 2005, and I must say I am surprised how the begonias recovered. I had trays of rhizomatous leaves rooted when both hurricanes hit, and I quickly stepped those up into 4" pots to give them space to roam and grow. Canes either hacked back or judiciously pruned by Jeanne or Frances were bursting with new growth. Larger rhizomatous have started to fill out their pots again. Cuttings rooted. It has been a long road to getting the collection back, but through it all it kept my mind off my "broken" house, as my middle school students refer to my home. The mild fall weather helped, too.

While I will not be able to move back into my home until spring, I have access to my large Florida Room, computer and phone as that area of the house was left untouched. I now have to wear sunscreen to work in my previously shaded yard. Life as I know it has changed, but my plants have been a haven to me through this most difficult time.

Begonias, and plants in general, have been my therapy. My collection is greatly reduced in variety, and my growing areas reduced in halt, but taking solace in this tiny piece of heaven is a chance for a new start to re-design my home and make it better than it was before - including my begonia collection.

Q: Cuttings that I take rarely root, or root weakly and take forever to grow. I use a combination of a standard potting soil and perlite, and keep them covered and warm until rooting begins. What can I do to be more successful with cuttings of stems and leaves?

A: Use a better propagating mix! Begonias need an airy, very light mix to root in. Do not use soil. Instead, try a combination similar to this one:

1 part peat moss
2 parts perlite
1 part vermiculite

Moisten the mix well, but do not make it wet. This should allow better air circulation for new roots forming, and the mix is light enough for roots to spread. Keep the air humid, as you have done, but allow some venting. Light should be bright but never in sunlight. As the weather warms, you can use this formula to start cuttings outside under shade. Use only a container barely large enough to accommodate the cuttings. When I take rhizomatous leaves, I almost always use a 3" pot, square. This is small enough to prevent a moisture buildup. Cane or shrub cuttings go into 4" azalea pots unless they are tall l canes, when they go into 4" deeper pots.

HINT: Rhizomatous leaves do not root well as they enter their blooming season. In northern climates, try not to take leaf cuttings from October through February. In southern climates it would be October through March or April. The plant wants to bloom and not propagate itself. However, if conditions are favorable, leaves will root but sit until conditions and daylight are right for pupping.

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