Sunday, June 17, 2018
Home and Garden

Begonias by the Bay a natural attraction for gardeners

If Dale Sena had seen me buying either one of my two begonias, she would have taken them from me and put them back on the shelf.

She told me so!

Apparently, a begonia beginner like me has no business growing fussy rex begonias. You can tell just by looking at mine. Or, at least, Dale can.

"I never sell rex to beginners," she says. "I've been known to take them out of people's hands. I don't want your first begonia to be your last."

Thanks to Dale, a past president and charter member of the Begonia Society of Tampa Bay, I'm sure I'll make smarter choices during the big plant sale at the 2014 national begonia convention.

Begonias by the Bay, being held here in Tampa from March 19 to 23, includes tours, lectures, workshops and a March 22 banquet, at which yours truly is the featured speaker. (I titled my talk "Begonias and Beyond" — emphasis on beyond!)

The plant sale on March 22 to 23 is free and open to the public. You'll find cool and unusual begonias, gesneriads, bromeliads and orchids and, if any of these are new to you, knowledgeable growers like Dale will gently guide you to plants that will love you back. The sale runs concurrently with a judged begonia show, where we can see what our begonias are supposed to look like.

Putting together a national convention is a big deal for the 10-year-old Begonia Society. Dale and her fellow club members have been working furiously for more than a year to make sure it's memorable.

"We have people coming from Norway, the Netherlands, France and all over the country," Dale says. "I can't wait. Begonia people are so much fun!"

If you're not already a begonia person, proceed with caution. This genus can be seriously addictive.

"Penny, I'm telling you," Dale says, solemnly shaking her head, "it's a disease."

Red and green stained-glass begonia leaves frame the front door of her Riverside Heights home northwest of downtown Tampa. Begonia watercolors decorate her walls. The plants' distinctive foliage, immortalized in vintage pottery and dinnerware, fills her china cabinet.

"When the begonia people come to my house, I actually use this stuff," she says.

Dale has been growing begonias since 1975 when she, like me, fell for a gaudy rex.

"I probably picked it up at the grocery store. I didn't have any idea what it was," she says. "I just loved it. It was all flashy colors."

Eventually, she moved from Miami to California — without her mystery plant. Visiting a shopping mall one day, she noticed a flower show in progress.

"It was on the opposite end of the mall, but even from that distance, I spotted my plant."

She made a beeline to it, which began the journey that now leads into a back yard filled with begonias — ground covers and hanging baskets, rare greenhouse specimens, easy-to-grow landscape plants and one "cave dweller" hunkering in deep shade under a bench.

A gazillion varieties, but they share some likes and dislikes.

"The cardinal sins of begonia growing are too much sun, too much water and overpotting," Dale says. "Begonias like snug pots and to be watered when dry."

The biggest mistake gardeners make — besides starting out with an irresistible rex — is giving their begonias too much love.

"They put them in a big pot, sit them in the sun and water them every day," she says. "I have a friend who calls those be-gone-ias, because it's good-bye begonia."

While some like a bit of sunshine, none want it from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., she says.

The best place to learn more about begonias? A begonia club.

"Our club is always open to guests; every first-time guest gets to pick out a free begonia," Dale says. "We swap plants, share information — that's how you learn."

If you can't do that, at least stop by the convention at 10 a.m. Sunday and catch the free, tips-filled presentation, "Begonia Growing in Florida."

Dale promises you'll be hooked. And later, if she sees you with a rex, she just might let you buy it.

Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected] You can find more local gardening on her blog, digginfladirt; her Facebook page, Diggin Florida Dirt, or by following her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.