Begonias thrive in the Carlisles' Los Osos garden

A passionate love of tuberous begonias brings a bounty of color in late summer

Special to The TribuneSeptember 11, 2013 


    • The plants like moisture, but their roots like to dry out between waterings.
    • Coarse sand, as part of the potting mix, lets the plant drain quickly.
    • Don’t use Los Osos sand because it is too fine for these plants.
    • Water by hand to avoid overwatering.
    • Take a proactive approach to mildew control. Spray fungicide two to three times during the growing season.
    • In order to have a stronger plant later, you must pinch out the first and sometimes the second flower bud.
    • All begonias need a balanced fertilizer.

A world-class begonia garden thrives in Los Osos, where cool coastal conditions create a perfect environment for growing specimens of rare quality.

Paul and Laurel Carlisle share a passion for begonias. They found what grows well in Los Osos with its humidity, fog and cool days, and the results are breathtaking.

When members of the American Begonia Society talk about the plants of fellow enthusiasts as “magnificent,” and relish the opportunity to see them at their peak in the Carlisle’s sunny shade structure, you wonder if they gasped in amazement like we did when we saw thousands of the ruffled flowers as large as dinner plates. The plants were tiered to make a brightly hued waterfall on plant benches. What a color explosion! Luckily, the couple enjoys encouraging hobby gardeners because anyone seeing such beauty would want to give it a try.

Laurel Carlisle explained that the shade structure where many of their begonias dwell is not a greenhouse. It has openings at both ends so the plants get constant air circulation. Since begonias don’t like full shade, the shade structure provides bright light that’s filtered.

Paul Carlisle smiled when he talked about digging up his first tuberous begonia in 1979. “From my first dig I was hooked.” At that time the entire plant was dug up when in full bloom and plunked into a shoebox for transport. He still has a plant from cuttings of the original, although the shoe box is long gone. The plants are no longer sold that way.

The dominant tuberous begonia exporters, Blackmore and Langdon in London, ship superior specimens worldwide. “Billie Langdon,” which is seen in one of the photos accompanying this article, is an example. However, agricultural inspections can make importing these plants really expensive, Paul Carlisle said.

If you want to give these plants a try, the more economical Golden State Bulb Growers in Moss Landing has 20 acres and 2 million plants to choose from and specializes in what it has named the AmeriHybrid begonia. The firm is one of the largest bulb growers in the world. Cal-   takes gardeners exploring online.

Seed-grown tubers are a great bargain for the hobbyist, less expensive and more flexible about temperature and cultural control, Laurel Carlisle said.

The British are keen on perfection when it comes to begonias. They insist that when a begonia is displayed for sale or for view its blossom must look you in the eye.

Custom-made, almost invisible, supports called begonia bras hold the blossoms in place so they don’t droop from the weight of the large flowers. Transporting them to exhibitions is not simple. Paul Carlisle has taken begonias to a number of shows, wrapping each blossom in puffy protectors for safe travel. Some will travel with the Carlisles for the prestigious auction and sale this month at Lotusland near Santa Barbara. Poor Santa Barbara folks, they simply can’t grow begonias like those who live on our part of the coast. The climate just doesn’t cooperate.

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