For the love of begonias

A few of the varieties

Some gardening veterans—writers, industry, or otherwise—tend not to get too worked up about bedding annuals. They might use them in places where they’re pretty much required, but they won’t get excited or impressed. Shrubs are the cool thing. Or natives.

I have never been one of those people. I love annuals for their long-lasting color, but I appreciate their seasonal impermanence just as much. I won’t be taking cuttings to try to winter over my container annuals; I’d rather plan out a new scheme for the next summer’s plantings. So that’s why a place like the Erie Basin Marina Test Gardens appeals to me. For more than forty years, this sunny, windswept area on Buffalo’s waterfront has been an All-America Selections official test garden for mainly annuals (with some perennials). I’ve also heard it called the University Test Gardens, though there is no academic affiliation, as there is with other such facilities. These days most of the seeds come from Ball, with plants from Proven Winners.

It’s not a good place for testing shade annuals, which is why lead horticulturist at the Test Gardens, Stan Swisher, stopped by my office with an interesting proposal. He had been sent several hundred tuberous begonia seeds from Ball, and expected he’d have a good crop of 2-300 plants, representing about 17 varieties with different colors and forms. There is no way these could be tested at the Marina, which is pretty much full sun all the time (great for petunias).

I hadn’t thought about this type of begonia or a long time; I had been using the Angel Wing varieties, but these were (mostly) the AmeriHybrid ruffled, roseform, picotee, and other types. (You can see a lot of them here.) Stan spoke of baseball- and softball-size flowers and a vigorous growing habit for these. He figured we could get them, somehow, to gardeners taking part in Buffalo’s Garden Walk and Open Garden programs. Using Facebook and email, we got the word out, offering 3 plants apiece until the plants were all spoken for. The response was immediate, and the plants were gone within a couple hours.

The actual plants now

What excitement and enthusiasm over 3 free plants! When people arrived at the greenhouse to get their plants, they took their time, consulted the catalog (as all had been disbudded), and spent a lot of time talking to Stan, who’s been in this game for decades. They came in smiling and left smiling; I noticed some taking as long as an hour to decide which 3 plants they’d take.

I have an email account set up specifically for this and hope that people kept track of the names and will match them to the pictures they send at the end of the season. It needs to work out for the trial coordinator as well as for the gardeners.

As I said, many of us with industry connections can get a bit jaundiced. These are jaundiced times. But this giveaway was different—and kind of beautiful.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. As one of the recipients of Stan’s begonias, I’d like to thank Elizabeth for taking her time on a beautiful sunny Saturday to distribute the plants. I look forward to seeing them in bloom!

  2. “Many of us with industry connections can get a bit jaundiced. These are jaundiced times. But this giveaway was different—and kind of beautiful.” Sounds beautiful to this jaundiced insider, too! Susan

  3. I love this idea! I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of this experiment in your community – and who doesn’t want to see lots of pictures of blooming begonias?

  4. I love what you wrote about the “seasonal impermanence” of annuals. I’m mainly a perennials guy, but I appreciate and use annuals because I’m not locked into the same choices year after year. There are a couple of areas in my garden that I keep open for annuals and tropicals, and although I have my favorites that I grow most years, there’s always the option to try something new, without a long-term commitment. Rotating these through the scheme is fun and often surprising. Annuals definitely don’t get the respect they deserve.

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