Saturday, February 14, 2015
Hope springs eternal - or - another good winter for testing hardiness
I came back from Behnke Nurseries, a great local garden center just outside DC, with a few new plants in the back seat today. How could I pass up these beautiful rex begonias from Foliera? Especially at 20% off! Call me an optimist, because I'm pretty sure I'll have room to put these new begonias somewhere in my garden this spring.
Spring is an exciting time in the garden for me because that's when plants begin to make themselves known... or not. While my fellow east coast gardeners moan and groan about our second cold winter in a row, and worry about their plants dying, I'm actually feeling a bit smug. That's because I don't care if a plant dies. Okay, I do care (especially if I spent good money for it) but I also get a perverse satisfaction out of seeing what comes back, and what doesn't. The plants that do come back have proven themselves, and the ones that don't come back just make room to try some new ones. When a plant dies, or fails to return, or even if it survives but is weak, pest-prone or I just don't like it, out it goes. We're not talking about puppies and kittens here, and if we weren't heartless with plants... well, you've seen those TV shows about hoarders, haven't you?
Beautiful survivor, but a weak grower
As a plant breeder, it's even more important to identify the good plants and get rid of the bad ones because (a) we grow literally thousands of plants and (b) we want to pass on only good genes to the next generation. I'm breeding for winter hardiness in begonias, and out of the thousands of seedlings that germinate, I have room to grow only a handful to maturity. Even fewer are selected to keep and plant in the garden. While the plant are still small, the first rounds of selection are for leaf colors, patterns, and shapes that I like, as well as for general growth habit and vigor. After this, I depend on winter to weed out even more. This sometimes means losing beautiful plants (see The begonia that broke my heart) but each survivor is a triumph for me.
Begonia hybrid, hardy through 2 winters so far
And that brings me back to winter: this has been a cold one, sure, but I don't mind because I learn little from a warm winter. When several begonias survived a winter with lows in the high teens (ca. -8° C) it was interesting but I couldn't get very excited about it. But last winter, when I had a low of 5° F (-15° C) in January, followed by several more cold waves with temperatures in the high single digits to low teens, and some extended periods below freezing, now that told me something, and each plant that popped up last spring gave me a thrill.
So I'm looking forward to April and May, unsure of what might survive but pretty confident that something will, and that something is going to be pretty special. Below are some of my latest begonia hybrids, now spending their first winter in the ground, that may (or may not) reappear in a few weeks.