Designing With Begonias

WB-mainTo appreciate begonias, we need to understand the jobs that they do best. Expert landscape designers incorporate them into their work because of the many strong qualities these plants exhibit, so we’ve been noticing begonias in more and more high-end projects. A great illustration of this is the landscape design surrounding the Columbus Convention Center during Cultivate ’14 (formerly known as OFA 2014) a couple of weeks ago.

For example, let’s look at the large urns that decorate the plaza outside the Hyatt Regency. The urns flank one of the primary entrances to the Convention Center itself. A dwarf palm tree serves as the focal point with the base surrounded by a fairly sophisticated assortment of annuals. Looking closely at the arrangement, we see scaevola, euphorbia, calibrachoa, and—what do you know—two kinds of begonias: the Big series of wax begonias and Dragon Wing begonias, both featured prominently.

Big Series Begonia with Calibrachoa

The designer knew how to use the two different types. In the photo above, the Big series is more upright so the designer placed it toward the center. Since the Dragon Wing is pendulous it was set closer to the edge. 

Dragon Wing Begonia with Scaevola

You might be wondering what the humble begonia is doing in such a fancy, high-value account; it actually has many roles to fulfill. Large begonias bring strength; their stems and leaves are thick and sturdy so they even help to hold up other flowers high above the rim of the container. By forming solid internal scaffolding, large begonias serve to prop up other plants in the arrangement.

The larger begonias also provide soil protection in these sizable containers. Their broad thick leaves shield the soil from mid-day heat and help retain moisture. Since the begonias prevent all the water from evaporating in the sun, the more delicate plants around them will have enough moisture to make it through the day. Hint: plant the begonias on the south side of containers for maximum protection.

Design power is another plus when it comes to these begonias. In the Hyatt arrangements, the large leaves and pendulous red flowers stand out against the scaevola. Contrast in size and color is a key presentation technique, and both the Big series and the Dragon Wing begonias effectively distinguish themselves from the other denizens around them.

Dragon Wing Begonia with Sedum (front) and Angelonia (back)

As strong as the begonia is, it also plays nicely with others. Keeping such a busy arrangement in balance as the entire container grows out can be difficult. Often one cultivar will swamp the others but neither of these begonias will be guilty of this; they mound out nicely and always stay put.

Near the Drury we saw a similar but different dynamic played out between the two begonia varieties. This large garden had the Big series in the front, next to New Guinea impatiens and coleus, as part of a much larger design that also included salvia, calla, and angelonia. It’s an ambitious garden, designed to showcase the best work in a very prominent spot on the property. But look to the back where the cars exit the parking garage and, in the shade of a weeping pine, you’ll see a large swath of Dragon Wing begonias over the ‘Angelina’ sedum.

Big Series Begonia with Coleus and New Guinea Impatiens

In the Hyatt design, the two begonias were used for their flowers and intimate textures blended together. In the Drury garden, both begonias were used to set up large blocks of color and texture to contrast with the material planted nearby. Treating the same begonias with different design techniques results in two completely different looks.

Both types of begonias are incredibly sturdy plants that thrive no matter where they are placed. They’re so dependable and so reliable that some landscaping accounts use them exclusively. Believe it or not, you can design attractive themes with wax and winged begonias alone, with solid financial payback. A nice example of this style appears at the Red Roof Inn, just one block down from the Hyatt Regency.

Dragon Wing and Bada Bing Begonias

At the Red Roof, the designer used Dragon Wing and Bada Bing begonias to set up a series of contrasts with just two cultivars:

  • High and Low: Dragon Wings are large and high; Bada Bings are small and short.
  • Red and White: Red for the Wings; white for the Badas.
  • Open and Tight: The Wings have a loose habit; the Badas are much tighter.

Dragon Wing and Bada Bing Begonias

Notice that the designer kept the leaf color green throughout the bed—the green leaf is the common thread that ties the garden together. Also, it was clever to plant diagonal stripes and not just up-and-down parallel lines. Planting on the diagonal allows the design to handle the curving sidewalks and the fluid shapes of the landscape bed more naturally.

Again, this design only uses two cultivars but it feels rich and full because of the skill of the landscape designer. Part of the garden’s beauty lies in the fact that it is incredibly durable; the designer wasn’t hampered by needing to know where the shade falls on the property because these begonias don’t care. Notice that the large gardens are under trees, but you will also see a little point garden next to the parking lot in full glaring sun. Even with completely opposite sun conditions the two gardens are thriving equally well.

When we stand back and look at the overall design of the Red Roof garden, several thoughts come to mind:

  • This is an easy garden to plant.
  • It would be simple for a crew to do it, even if they were not familiar with the plants.
  • This garden will need very little maintenance over the season.
  • This garden can handle bad weather with very little damage.
  • It looks extremely nice, very quickly.
  • It will not look overgrown by the end of the season.

These three gardens explain why it is important for landscape designers to master begonias and use them to their strengths. We saw both wax and winged begonias all over the place during our visit to Columbus: gracing dinner tabletops at awards ceremonies; mixed with New Guineas in front of other hotels; coloring up many a restaurant garden—even decorating the capital building a few blocks to the north. Such widespread use signifies that the begonia is, quite simply, an important element in the design language of landscaping.