Dazzle with begonias

If you really want to know how to make a splash with begonias, visit parks and gardens in summer and be inspired by dazzling displays of massed begonias along with other summer bedding annuals.

Last year, on a trip to Russia, I was bowled over by beautifully composed beds of begonias, alyssum, marigolds and silvery dusty millers in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace gardens, as well as in Saint Petersburg and around the many beautifully restored churches and cathedrals. Even though we don’t have that kind of space, try doubling up or even trebling the number of begonias you normally plant in a bed, as a border for roses, on the pavement or as a groundcover. The brilliant splash of colour will stop everyone in their tracks. And here is the next best thing: bedding begonias (Begonia semperflorens) are the most drought-tolerant of all begonias.

The waxy coating on the plant’s green or bronze leaves reduces the loss of water from the leaves, and the water stored in the fleshy stems allows plants to withstand periods of drought with just occasional watering. Begonias are killed by overwatering more than anything else, because the fibrous roots rot in soggy conditions. To perform at their best they should be planted in soil that drains well. Let the soil dry out moderately between watering. Begonias grow best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Those receiving more sun will need more water, but make sure there is good drainage.

Because of their drought-tolerant nature and easy adaptability to sun or shade, begonias are colourful companions for succulents, especially those for semishade like Cotyledon orbiculata and certain aeoniums, echeverias, agaves and sansevierias.

Quick Tips for begonias

  • Plant in well-drained soil
  • Don’t overwater
  • Plant in bright shade or morning sun
  • Water and feed containers and hanging baskets more often than plants in the ground

The trailing Begonia boliviensis varieties are lovely in hanging baskets, with their cascading or spreading growth. They produce many large flowers and perform best in partial to full shade in areas with low humidity but no frost.

They also work well as a border in front of roses. The plants remain compact and won’t grow into the roses. If the soil drains well they will cope with the extra watering. For containers or mid-height bedding colour opt for the taller, shrub-like begonias like the ‘Dragon Wings’ and ‘Baby Wing’ varieties, as well as larger versions of the bedding begonia (‘Big’ and ‘MegaWatt’) that grow up to 60cm. These can be used at the back of a flower bed, as a hedge, under trees where there is partial shade, or as a specimen plant.

The Gardener