Thursday, August 30, 2012

Begonias in the Wild Garden?

This week we have another guest post from my wife Laura Crum who was not impressed with the style of begonias shown in my previous post.  That post was a review of a book about tuberous begonias and how to grow them for competition.   My wife thought the begonias looked too… contrived, or too tame.  She likes things (including gardens) on the wild side.  She leaves those around her both shaken and stirred!

She mentions in her post the On Top® Begonias that have come up a couple of time before.  Originally bred to be able to withstand shipping (which they can do, sort of) they have turned out to be stellar garden performers.


   Begonias in the Wild

            I have to start out by admitting that the title of this post is sort of a joke. I’m not talking about species begonias here, or wild begonias of any sort. I’m talking about growing tuberous begonias such that they blend into the “wild garden.” I think many other gardeners will relate to the term wild garden, but if not, my wild garden is a motley collection of plants, some truly wild natives, and other introduced exotics, that have naturalized here in my coastal California garden, such that they need very little care. The overall effect of the wild garden is very “ungardeny”. It looks, and is meant to look, as if the plants just happened to grow here. It’s not tidy. It’s not (mostly) flashy. It looks wild. Most people would not call it a garden. I like it like this.

            Tuberous begonias are not a likely candidate for such a garden. With their big, hybridized blooms, and their not-at-all drought tolerant ways, they really don’t seem to fit in. Nevertheless I have had some success growing tuberous begonias in some of my mixed plantings, and I really like the effect. This effect is, perhaps, the opposite of what a “show grower” (like the author of the book that Andy reviewed in his previous post) would aim for. I don’t want a few huge dominant flowers dwarfing a spindley plant. I want a long series of flowers that blend in both with the begonia plant and the surrounding plants. And there are some tuberous begonias that can do this quite nicely. And they are surprisingly tough and will come back year after year. Though no, they are sadly not at all drought tolerant. But still, quite worth growing in a mixed planting such as I describe.

            My favorite begonias for growing in a mixed planting are the On-Top begonias—a strain called “Sunset Shades.” These are all picotee begonias in a range of warm colors. The plants are smaller than the usual large-flowered tuberous begonia, and the blooms are smaller, too. Thus the plant stays upright without staking. They are still plenty showy and make a real statement in the garden. They bloom reliably from August through November for me. The photo below shows an On-Top Sunset Shades plant in November (in my garden).

            These begonias can be planted in the ground in our climate (zone 9), and they will come back for a few years at least—if gophers don’t eat them. But my preferred way to grow them is in pots, mixed in with pots of other plants. The effect can be very pretty and wild. See below.

            Note the variation in the colors of the begonias, which are all “Sunset Shades”, a seed line. I think this variation is a joy, though I am supposing some folks might call it a fault. The other flowers you see are a magenta geranium, “Ann Folkard”, blue lobelia, and white jasmine. There are leaves of Japanese anemone “September Charm,” which blooms in a soft silver pink. And there is grass and general odds and ends, as befits a wild garden. All the plants are in pots. All of them have been here for several years.

            This planting looks interesting all year round, though there are less flowers in the winter. But there are some evergreen plants in the group (a few iris and some cymbidium orchids, a couple of native California wildflowers), and there is always something to look at for an interested gardener. And, of course, if a plant outright dies, I can just jerk its pot out and replace it with something else. Great fun.

            So there you have my theory on begonias in the wild—pretty much the opposite of big, flashy begonias bred for shows. Of course, if you want real bling, there is nothing like visiting the begonia growing fields. We took a horseback tour the other day. Very colorful.

            Thanks to my husband. Andy Snow, for allowing me to air my thoughts on begonias (and plants in general) on his blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tuberous Begonias by Jack Larter, a book review

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Book Review Tuberous Begonias an essential guide  by Jack Larter 

My buddy (and award winning begonia grower) Paul Carlisle sent me this book and it was a real eye opener for me.

I wrote in a previous post about tuberous begonias being the ideal pot plant that “A little fussing will give you a lot of rewards.  A lot of fussing will get you a prize winner”.  Well, this is that book about the lot of fussing getting a prize winner.  Mr. Larter is a prize wining begonia grower in the competitive arena of the British Flower Show.  I don’t know if we have anything quite as extreme as the lofty rarefied air of the British Flower Show in this country.  

I know realize that I am only half a begonia grower.  I know how to produce seed and tubers, I know how to breed true lines that give a high percentage of good double flowers on sturdy plants.  But how to take those subsequent tubers and get the most flower performance from them has been outside my ken.

Although this book does cover all aspects of growing tuberous begonias and would therefore be a benefit to beginners, it’s main purpose is how to plan for, grow and ultimately show tuberous begonias in a flower show.  The author specializes in showing cut blooms, just flowers without plant.  See below a photo from the book of this kind of show. 

Begonia "Cut Flower" show
 The author describes how he grows these huge blooms he also discusses growing pots and hanging baskets for show, as well as garden planting.  Below are the table of contents and a sample page.

Table of contents

Page 48, Tuberous Begonias by Jack Larter

I have had occasion to show our begonias.  Golden State Bulb Growers participates in the “California Pack Trials” every year.  This is an event where horticulture companies up and down California show their products to potential customers.  By co-operating on the timing of this event, visitors from all over the world can come and see the hort products of the Golden State at one time.  Anyway, we always show begonias although frankly it’s more about callas. Callas suit the professional grower model better than begonias, I wrote about that in the previous post about container plants.  We always show begonias from seed at about 17 weeks.  For tubers, we just plant them 10 or 12 weeks before the show, hanging basket pots, a bit earlier.  I am definitely going to try some of Mr. Larter’s techniques to improve our show.

 For show pots Mr. Larter shows his pots, at 5 or 6 months after planting, all blooms that develop before the show blooms are removed, all blooms that are too late for the show are removed, after the buds are selected the plant is “stopped” by pinching the growing points..  Counting the days back from the show date and measuring the buds allows him to chose which blooms are likely to be ready on time.  He hedges his bet by having several plants of the same type on slightly different schedules.  All effort is to produce a glorious plant for one particular date.  For his specialty, the cut flower competition, Mr. Larter grows only one flower per plant!

OMG tuberous begonia from Mr. Larter's book. Plant grown by Denis Hague

OMG #2 Tuberous begonia from Larter's book. Plant grown by Denis Hague

After the plant has produced it’s glory on the date, the plant is done (hence my quote at the top of this article about the candle burning at both ends)  This is not, of course, what I believe the 98% of begonia growers do, we want the bloom all through the summer ‘till fall.

I now understand why Blackmore and Langdon begonias are so prized by the elite begonia grower.  The reason is that they have a history of winning prizes at this level.  Frankly, I have always been jealous of B & L’s reputation.  I know that I can walk though our fields and find lots of begonias that, I think, look as good.  However, seeing a horse that looks as good as a race winner is different from being a race winner, isn’t it? 

I also wonder how difficult it would be to get a new, never seen before begonia to be accepted by judges that are used to seeing certain begonias over and over from competitor to competitor.  I am thinking about the exalted British Flower show now, I am sure you can win at the local county or state fair with our begonias.  Please try, and send me a photo.

Competition is a funny thing, especially judged competition.  Judges are drawn from the ranks of former competitors, they know all the players.  It must be hard for them to separate the competitor from the display.  I have had some experiences with competition, (though not in flower shows).   Competition can bring out your best on the day, but it’s real value is the day to day preparation for competition.  I think the author of this book enjoys the day to day effort engendered by the shows very much.  I judge this because he has named the two greenhouses, where all this fussing occurs as “Heaven” and “Paradise”!

Mr. Larter’s source list is hopelessly out of date despite the copyright date of 2011.  He still lists the Carmel Valley Begonia Gardens as a source and that business hasn’t been in existence for at least 10 years, maybe more like 15.  Antonelli begonias, also listed as a source for begonias in the U.S and by 2011 it was owned by Golden State Bulb Growers.   We, on the other hand, don’t get a mention, despite the fact that we have been growing begonias for four generations and were, at one time, the largest grower of tuberous begonias in the world .  We have also have an active and successful breeding program that has produced unique products.  Do I sound disappointed?  I guess this is the fate of a company that has been devoted to wholesale and not retail.  To be honest, this is one of the reasons I started this blog, I want to stop laboring in obscurity.

Another thing that bothered me about the book in a minor way, is the use of brand names for his fertilizer recommendations, such as “use Chempak No 2 at half the recommended strength”  I would have preferred “use 25:15:15 at 150ppm N”. or whatever, I guess that’s what I’m used to.  But it’s a small point the strength of the book is the scheduling and the ability of the author to make the reader feel that they too could grow these award winning plants.

All in all an informative book.

-Andy Snow

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Begonia Breeding at Golden State Bulb Growers

Warning, this post contains a lengthy description of our begonia breeding program, I am afraid it will be terribly boring for the general reader (and maybe everyone else too).

When I became the begonia breeder for Golden State Bulb Growers (at that time the Brown Bulb Ranch) the Begonia x Tuberhybrida was already a well established product with a world wide market.  Tuberous begonias were among the first begonia species to be hybridized. 

I am happy to give a history of tuberous begonia breeding, but I am sure that information is available elsewhere.

Although I have messed around with species begonias, my real work has always been within the established hybrids. 

Growing tuberous begonias from seed for tubers is our business, and it has an inherent problem that the vegetative producer does not face.  Our goal is perfectly formed, large male flower (It is the male flower that is so showy).  The ideal flower is, however, sterile.  So, we must keep some imperfect flowering plants around to provide pollen.  Pollen is our most precious commodity, not seed.  Give me good pollen, I will produce enough good seed.  Good pollen comes late, or some years, not at all.  A plant that will contribute it’s pollen but not its characteristic for imperfect flowers in rare.  The resulting crosses are therefore not entirely uniformly perfect.  I strive, as a breeder to keep the percentages of good double flowers high, in some types it approaches 100%, other types; not so much.

In a previous post, I showed an old photo of myself and Todd Brown grading crosses in Marina. 

We used these crosses to evaluate our mother stock.  We would take the pollen from one pollen plant (called a “sire”) and put it on a specific seed parent (called a “dam”) we would hang a little paper tag on the pod that received the pollen with both parent’s numbers.  In this way we could grade the mother stock by looking at the crosses.  We would, for example, look at a series of plantings where the only difference was the sire, same dam.  We could then deduce that any variation in the population was due to the sire.  Also, if all the crosses were bad, we could deduce that the sire was not so good.  Same was done where the sire was the same, different dams, same deductive procedure.  We graded for both flowers and plant form because we are always looking for crosses that present the bloom well. We also brought in unique individuals we found for future mother stock.   

In this way we rated our mother stock plants from A to C with plus and minus, making 10 grades.  We wrote out a score card for each plant that stayed with the tuber.  This score card would record how it performed in crosses, how reliable the pollen production is (if a sire) and other characteristics .  Every year we rewrote the score card adding that years information.  With over 6,000 mother stock writing the cards was a big job.  Every year we discarded the mother stock that got the worse grades and added pots from our previous years selections.

 Below you see a picture of me making crosses in the 80s, the score cards are clearly visible in the photo.  The thing around my neck is a metal holder that contains a rectangular piece of glass that has been painted black on the back side, this was used for collecting pollen that was applied to the female flower (begonias being monoecious) using a small brush.

We would arrange the mother stock pots on the bench by type, then by the grade of the individual.  For example, the first pot on the bench would be the highest graded sire, the next one the second graded sire etc. After the sires came the dams, highest rated first.  We would also cut our highest rated parents.  This arranging was done so that the pollinator would take all the available pollen from the highest rated sire and only after that was exhausted, go to the second highest rated.  Conversely, if only a small amount of pollen was available, it would go on the highest rated dam.  All female flowers had to be pollinated or picked so that no dud pods would be processed.  When we pollinate a flower, we nick a petal with our fingernails to show the work is done and not waste additional pollen on that flower again.

After a few years, it became obvious that a better solution was to find the one best cross, whatever the parents, and make that cross over and over again until a better one could be found.  This was achieved by actively cutting the best parents until we had enough pollen and seed parents to supply all the seed we needed.  Recently, we have been able to do this with tissue culture. This is easier said than done, some individual begonias just do not take well from cuttings, unless you take a bit of tuber with the cutting, I don’t know why.  The same ones that don’t cut well, don’t tissue culture well. (If anyone reading this has a good cutting protocol, can you please share it in the comments.)

The only danger in this improvement in our seed production, is that it is tempting to discard mother stock plants that are not, anymore, being used for production.  There is an economic incentive to keep the mother stock as lean as possible.  We therefore risk losing genetic diversity.  We keep old seed and seed from past crosses as well as a good selection of non-productive plants for this reason.

Plant breeders sometimes use inbreeding as a technique and Worth Brown mentions using this tool with begonias, in his book “Tuberous Begonias” published in 1948.  We also use inbreeding to get new types and make improvements in existing types.  Begonias do not take well to being inbred and the breeder soon loses germination and vigor.  However, it is much easier to get that one characteristic your looking for. You can inbreed either by putting the plants pollen on it’s own female flowers called a “self” on the another individual with the exact same parents called a “sib” (short for sibling). 

In order to pull this program off, you have to have two lines going with the characteristic you want.  The two lines are not related.  When both lines come true, no mater how weak they seem, you can re-combine the two lines and get back the hybrid vigor that you lost during inbreeding.  Sometime times further work is needed past the F1 stage to make a fully marketable plant.

Using this technique, we were able to develop the On Top® line within a relatively short time.

On Top Sunset, GSBG Photo

Because we have been breeding with our own material so much, I am always on the look-out for new material.  In the past I have traded seed with Australian begonia breeders.   Recently, Antonelli Brothers, a long time begonia breeder with which we have had a long relationship, went out of business and we were able to acquire their mother stock; a beautiful collection of plants that gives us lots of opportunity to combine the two lines and make something better than either one on it’s own.

All plant breeders must make compromises. The plant breeder must make decisions about what one or two characteristics he values most and must make his selections based on those criteria.  As it often happens, those traits he, or his superiors, don’t value are the traits that sometimes haunt him later. 

I was taught to always breed with the plant in mind, not to make decisions on which hybrid is better based on it’s ability to produce large tubers. This is true despite the fact that we are a bulb company and charge according to tuber size. Big tubers make us money.  Some of our crosses, like the Dark Leaf Red are horrible tuber sizers, I would be doing my company a favor if I could improve it’s ability to make larger tubers.

Dark Leaf Red Tuberous Begonia

Other companies do select for bulb size. It’s kind of a running joke in Belgium that the breeder goes thorough the bulb trays, in the storage shed after harvest, and picks the largest tubers for his breeding/production program.  Maybe it’s just a joke but I’ve heard it from several places.

Below you see a me grading crosses at the Manresa ranch in La Selva Beach a couple years ago.  I am making notes on a little Palm thing.  The stick under my arm is to enable me to reach across the bed and tip a flower so I can see it.

Below you see me, yesterday (8/14/12), looking at this year's crosses.  Same Palm thing, I gotta get a new hat.

Below is a shot of cross #12012200. A pink roseform. Notice the high percent of fully double flowers and how they are presented on top of the plant.  This looks like it may be a good cross!


Using these techniques, Golden State Bulb Growers has been able to produce products unique on the world market.  Our lace begonia series, a reverse picotee, is not available from other begonia breeders.  As a result, we sell seed of this series to large begonia tuber producers in Europe.  In fact, European begonia producers produce more tubers of this series than we do here in the States, all from seed we sold to them.

Red  Lace on our porch

Appricot Lace, GSBG  Photo

Our Daffodil Begonia is an old type first noted as a mutant variety in 1896, we have kept this type in breeding and in production and have made improvements.  It is considered very rare.  J. Haegeman in his book Tuberous Begonias notes them as being variously named “B. Tubereauz a fleur de narcisse”, “Daffodil-flowered begonia”, “B. narcissiflora” and several other names.  He finishes the chapter on this begonia by writing “As this group is no longer found in commerce, any discussion of its name has only a theoretical value.”  Well, it is still in commerce and we are the only ones to have it.  It is, in my opinion, a product for a collector not for the person who likes an easy to grow large flowered begonia.

Salmon Daffodil GSBG Photo

Breeding programs are expensive and their pay back is very long.  Sales of the product have to support the program.  When sales are slow, the breeding is the first thing to be limited.

-Andy Snow

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Names for Fog

I’ve heard that Eskimos have 12 words for snow.  They live with it, they know it.   Here in central California we live with fog, we know saturated air like Eskimos know snow.  I sat down today and came up with 14 kinds of fog.

The official weather guessers of the National Weather Service have Patchy Fog. This is there term for “we don’t know when and we don’t know where, but there will be fog somewhere."   Below you see a weather forecast for a week.  Dosn’t really matter which week because we have had that same forecast for 3 months.

Patchy Fog clears from our view, the promise of another good day.  Photo by Laura

Low clouds is another term the weather service uses.  Well, yes I guess that is what fog is.  Thank you for that. 

a Low Cloud hits the coast. Photographer unknown

If it’s high above the ridges it’s High Fog.  This looks to people who don’t live here as an overcast sky.  It’s not that, it’s high fog.

There is the Creeping Fog that slides up the valleys or the Drifting Fog that just brushes the tops of the trees as it makes it’s way inland.  These are the prettiest fogs.  The way they move is like a woman walking slowly barefoot on the beach, you know where they're looking for shells or something, fun to watch in an unfocused, distracted kind of way. 

Sometimes when the fog drifts in, I have to get my pipes out and play Mist Covered Mountains. I won’t subject you to my playing of this lovely old tune, but listen to the Rankin Family’s vocal rendition here

Fog Creeps over the coastal hills of San Mateo County.  Photographer unknown

There is the Blowing Fog. That’s a name for a dismal condition where your sunny warm day just went to 50 degrees with a wet wind.  See the photo below for blowing fog in the begonia fields.  The children are not daunted.

Children, Blowing Fog and Begonias. Photo by Eric Lamascus

The Drippy Fog usually comes in the morning.  You wake to everything wet. You have to run your windshield wipers on the way to work.  Enough of this and you need to watch for Botrytis on your begonias.

In the distance the Fog Bank is a great thing. Glorious to look at with the sun shinning on it over the bay. The cool breeze from the fog bank keeps the temperature between 60 and 65. 

Fog Bank at Butano State Park. 
Photographer unknown

There is the Marine Layer. Technically most our fog is some kind of “marine layer” but by this I mean that invisible or barely visible fog that you mostly just feel.

Zak and Wally feel the Marine Layer at the beach while my wife takes a photo from Sunny the horse.

Zak in Begonia Fields of Marina with Marine Layer softening the light. (my favorite begonia picture) by Mike DeBoer

Thank whatever controls the Drifting Airs that we haven’t had any Non Stop Fog this summer. This is the fog we don’t like. The fog that doesn’t go away for days and days. It’s a type of High Fog.  Drifting and Creeping fogs don’t treat us this badly.  Sometimes all of July disappears under the funk of non-stop-fog.  Since we live in an off-grid house, the solar panels don’t charge and everything runs down.  There are no shadows and you can’t tell what time it is when you’re outside.  The whole day goes by as though it’s a long morning without coffee.  The next day is the same…and the next.  Mark Twain wrote "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."  Poor guy, he was here during the Non Stop Fog.

If you live here on the coast you don’t need to worry about Tule Fog. It’s the fog of the valley.  It forms in the winter after a storm clears.  It can last for days.  Up and down the valley its 35 degrees under a grey sky and stays like that for weeks.  Or the Tule Fog rises up out of the rice fields and lays thick on the ground.  Driving is difficult, you can’t see the car in front.  Sometimes you can’t see the front of your own car!  One time as I drove from Los Banos to Chowchilla, the fog was thick but only about 2 feet above the ground.  From my truck cab I looked over a huge sunlit sea of fog, the roadway perfectly and completely obscured.

Then there is our Thick Fog.  You run into this fog when you hit one of those Fog Banks that wandered ashore.  Little grey cars on the freeway disappear and become invisible.  (Don’t buy a little grey car if you plan to live here.) 

An invisibility cloak for grey cars.
  Photographer unknown

Thick fog is the brother to The Mist That Obscures. The dense inside of a grey beast.  Everything is unclear.  You can’t bring your focus on what’s around you at all. It makes you anxious but you don't know why.  There is this complete lack of clarity.  You wander unsure. You could wander off or be hit by something unseen (a little grey car for example).

Fog Obscures the Ridge we see from our porch. Photo by Laura

And that brings us around to The Mist that Reveals.  Against a still background things do focus better.  The mist that reveals removes the noise of confusion to show only what the light, humidity and the air wants us to see.  Like how a struck bell makes the following silence more profound, so the items in the mist are seen more clearly than by bright daylight. It forms strange lights that lure you to a moment of reverie.

Fog Reveals the Old Landmark Tree on the ridge. Photo by Laura 

a Revealing Fog Photo by Patrick Flynn
-Andy Snow

A note on the photos.

My dear wife is our family photographer.  She does a great job of chronicling our life.  She puts up some photos on her blog, and her facebook page.

Eric Lamascus is our friend and amateur photographer.  By profession he is a contractor.  We have used him and his crew on two projects and remain friends!   His web site here (on his web site see the "Island Style House" for our little house project)

Mike DeBoer is a friend and professional photographer. He has taken family photos for us a couple of times. His web page here.

The other photos I found on the internet by searching for the terms I used in the article like "fog bank" or "creeping fog" .  I found it amusing that others have the same terms for the same kinds of fog (but I am easily amused)  They were all taken here in Central California.