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


  1. GREAT POST! I found the book boring, but you did a great job describing it. Of course, I come from the opposite point of view to the writer, so my thoughts are tainted.

  2. Denis Hague
    Is it possible to puchase tubers of your Lace varieties here in England? I promise to look after them-the two exhibits you have labelled as OMG from Jack's book were,in fact,mine at Southport Flower Show.

    1. Hello Denise,

      We in Australia usually grow our Tuberous Begonias with a couple of main stems, you have many. Do you multiplant your pots with a number of tubers? I am intertested in how you do it.

    2. Hi Anon,
      Sad to say, I have receintly heard that Denis Hague has passed away.

  3. Hello Mr. Hague,
    I just talked to our sales man and he is not aware, at this moment, of how you would purchase Lace begonias in England. I know we send seed to A.F. Kolken and Zonen in Holland and they sell into England, however I don't know what the entity is that handles their product. Ball-Colgrave buys our seed, but not lace.
    If you do buy our lace begonias retail, they will be from seed and so it will be the luck of the draw as to how good they are (great I hope).
    I would like to send you a couple tubers from our mother stock, I think you will have better chance with them. Send me an e-mail with address at
    absnow(insert "at" symbol here)
    and I'll get a couple off to you.
    Thanks for reading my blog.
    best regards -Andy

  4. I have commented on your blog before (having come over from Equestrian Ink), and continue to be absolutely amazed at these flowers. I must admit, they ALL look fabulous to me - I have no idea how anyone could judge them! Especially in that photo of the flower show... I guess it's like a horse show: I can instantly assess a good horse from a bad one whereas a "lay person" would be like, "Ooooh, they're all so pretty, but I like the brown one!" :-)

  5. Hi RiderWriter,
    Thanks for the comment. I am sure you are right about flower shows and horse shows. I have never had to judge either one. I was a judge, once at the Capitola Begonia Festival. Myself and a couple of others judged the floats that year. The floats are covered with begonias (form our fields) and floated down Soquel Creek. It as fun and I got a free lunch! The best part was that I had a reserved parking space at town hall right down in the village, it real prize during Begonia Festival. I made it a condition of my participation.

  6. Hi and greetings from Lancashire, England
    Very interested to read your comments about our begonias in the United Kingdom and to see a post from Denis Hague, who sadly died last week. I was searching for his details when I found you. If you Google National Begonia Society, you will find up to date information on our activities. If you refer to the register of varieties and list of growers, you will find that many of our finest varieties are the result of amateur propagation. They are, as you say, absolutely magnificent when grown to their maximum potential. Kind regards, Peter Mallon.

  7. Hello Mr. Mallon,
    I am so sorry to hear about the death of Mr. Hague. I sent him some tubers last year and was waiting to hear how they did for him. Thanks for writing to me on the blog, perhaps your interest will spur me to write some more.
    Best Regards -Andy Snow

  8. Hello Mr Snow
    Thank you for your condolences regarding Denis Hague. It's such a pity he was not able to carry on your new friendship. Rest assured there are many in the Society who would welcome your comments and observations. Our Society's magazine is always alert for copy on different subjects - growing begonias in the USA might fit the bill. You would need to correspond with the Editor, Derek Telford. I will copy him into this corresponcence. Happy growing, Peter.

    1. Thanks Peter,
      I would welcome any correspondence with begonia growers that you may know. I would also be happy to submit an article for your newsletter, if there is any interest.
      It’s a pity that import fees are so prohibitively high or it would be easier for us to sell, retail, into Great Brittan (and other countries).
      Thanks for the comment.
      Regard -Andy