How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Begonias
Begonias are beautiful flowers that are quite hardy and can be grown in a variety of different locations. If you've decided to add begonias to your garden this season, there are some important factors to consider when maximizing their growth. In this article, certified master gardener and begonia enthusiast Laura Elsener provides exact steps to plant, grow, and care for Begonias.
Begonias are the queen of the shade. This is a massive group of plants with many colorful options to choose from. These plants are tender perennials, which means that they don’t hold up well to frost, and usually don’t last more than one growing season. But they are truly beautiful, and there are different types of begonias for every gardener, no matter your goals!
These easy-to-grow flowers can be planted as annuals in gardens or containers. They can also be used as houseplants. There are even hardy perennial varieties of begonias for lower zone gardeners.
Begonias are a popular choice for gardeners for the pop of enchanting color they add, as well as for how easy they are to maintain. In this article, I dive into how to plant, grow, and care for begonias, as well as all the various types of begonias and their applications. Let’s dig into the wonderful world of begonias!
Plant Type Annual, Tender Perennial, Houseplant
Species Begonia sp.
Native Area Mexico, Brazil
Hardiness Zone USDA 10+
Exposure Shade-Sun, Variety Dependent
Plant Spacing Variety Dependent
Planting Depth To the Crown of the Plant
Height Variety Dependent
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests Spider Mites, Aphids, Mealybugs
Diseases Stem and Root Rot, Powdery Mildew
Soil Type Light, Hummus, Well-Draining
Plant With Lysimachia, Coleus, Palms, Hosta
Don’t Plant With Plants That Love Full Sun
Begonias are native to the New World; Brazil to be precise. They were discovered in the late 17th century by Franciscan monk Charles Plumier. Plumier made the discovery of the fibrous begonias in the rainforests of Brazil.
Although they were discovered in Brazil, there is actual evidence of begonias being used in Mexico and in China hundreds of years earlier. There are now more than a thousand different species of begonias, each prized for its beautiful flowers and foliage.
Begonias are technically short-lived tender perennials. They have been cultivated for hundreds of years and have more than 1,000 different species.
There are five main types of begonias: fibrous, tuberous, rhizomatous, and hardy. I will get more into each category later on. This makes begonias one of the most versatile genus of plants (in my opinion). There is a begonia for everyone. It’s a rare plant that both gardeners and houseplant enthusiasts cultivate and enjoy.
There are many ways to obtain a begonia. They are easily and often propagated. Here is a run down on the various methods to propagate begonias.
I always like to start with the easiest and most obvious method. Go to the greenhouse and purchase fully grown plants. Begonias appear in garden centers when the bedding annuals come in. They will have a variety of begonias. Wax, tuberous, hanging, etc.
Choose a variety that will suit your needs (I will get into the various types of begonias below). This is always fun, and sometimes dangerous. I am like a kid in the candy store.
For other types of begonias, ones that are more often grown as houseplants, check the indoor section of the garden center. Here is where you will find varieties of Rex begonia, Dragon Wing begonias, and other specialty ones like Eyelash begonias.
Another option for picking up begonias is to check out local florists (even ones at the grocery store). You will often find Rieger and Rex begonias for sale there.
Let’s talk about one of the hardest (yet, cheapest) ways to start begonias. It is entirely possible to grow a variety of begonias from seeds, but wax/fibrous begonias are best.
Begonias need to be started about 12 weeks before the final frost date in your area. A quick search online will give you an idea of when that is.
Choose the containers you want to use to start your seeds. You can purchase fancy seed starting trays with dome lids and drainage. You can also just use plastic take-out containers (the container a rotisserie chicken comes in works great) or berry containers. Make sure whatever you use you poke drainage holes into it.
Fill the containers with a soilless seed starting blend. You can use potting soil if you are in a pinch. I like to wet the seed starting soil mix in a separate tub to get it to just the right moisture level. It should be evenly moist and feel like a wrung sponge.
Next, sprinkle the tiny seeds onto the seed-starter mix. Do your best to spread them around. Don’t bury them with more soil as they require light to germinate. Give them a light misting of water. Put the lid on and leave them in some bright indirect light.
Begonia seeds may require grow lights to get them growing. You can place them under the grow lights at this time.
Don’t let them dry out! Mist them as needed. If they are too wet they will get moldy. Take the lid off to dry them out for a bit if this happens.
Once the sprouts emerge, in about 10 days, remove the dome lid. Place into direct sun. Either a south-facing window or under a grow light. Let the babies grow!
If you planted too many seeds, you may have to thin them out to the strongest seedling. Simply pinch the other ones off so as to not disturb the roots of the good seedlings.
Keep them watered and growing until the last frost date when they are ready to go outside.
Beware of Fake Seeds
When purchasing begonia seeds make sure you buy them from a reputable seed seller. I recommend buying them from an actual garden store, a nursery, or a seed company website. Just be sure to purchase seeds from a reputable third-party website to avoid fake seeds. Anything that looks too good to be true definitely is.
Tuberous begonias can also be planted from tubers, as their name suggests. You can purchase begonia tubers from a garden center. They come out in the early spring and you will find them with hosta roots, alocasia tubers, and gladiolas.
The tubers should be started indoors 4-6 weeks before the final frost date. Plant tubers in a container with drainage (this doesn’t necessarily have to be the pot they will stay in). Fill the container with potting mix and plant the tubers with their hollow side up and cover lightly with soil.
Moisten the soil and keep it moist and allow the tubers to sprout. Once the begonias have grown, you can prune them into smaller single stems for more compact, densely flowering plants. or don’t prune them for large, more sprawling begonias. After the final frost has passed, bring them outside. Make sure to follow the hardening-off procedure.
This is a popular way to propagate the more houseplant variety of begonias. That is to say the rhizomatous variety. This includes Rex begonias, Eyelash begonias, and Ferox begonias.
You can simply take a leaf cutting. Make sure it has a node (the point where the leaf meets the stem). Place this cutting into water and it will root and grow there almost indefinitely.
If your end goal is to get it growing in soil, I recommend starting it directly in the soil, or only keeping it in the water until the first tiny roots start to sprout. I find cuttings don’t transition as easily into the soil from water if it has grown lots of roots.
Starting a cutting into the soil is a fairly simple process. Have a container with drainage and a dome lid, much like the one you’d use for seed starting. Have it filled with evenly moist, light, and fluffy potting mix or a seed starting mix.
Dip your cutting into rooting hormone. This can be purchased at almost any garden center. It isn’t entirely necessary, but it does help get the roots growing faster.
Place the cutting into the evenly moist soil. Cover the cutting with a clear baggy, or a dome lid of some kind to keep the humidity in. Keep the cutting away from direct sunlight.
In about a week or so remove the bag or dome and violà – a new plant is born. You will know the plant has taken root if the leaves are perked back up (they will be droopy when first planted).
Begonias can be divided. This is a common method for dividing hardy begonias. Dig up the begonia and then look to see where it naturally sections. With a sharp spade, cut a piece off. Replant the original piece and pot or plant the remaining piece. Try and do this in the morning or evening, not in the heat of the day. Water both sections well.
You can split off chunks of other types of begonias. Only do this if you are already repotting the plant. Also, make sure that the plant is big enough to be broken into pieces. You will see where the plant can be broken up. Break off a chunk and repot the new plant and the remaining plant.
Hardening off plants is an important step to bringing your plants outside. If a plant has been grown indoors it has no idea what wind, sun, or rain really feels like. This process usually only takes a week and it is very important. Do not skip this step!
Start by bringing your plants outside into the shade for a couple of hours. Bring them back in, they’ve had enough. Take them out the next day and leave them in the shade all day. Bring them in overnight. Then slowly introduce them to a bit of sun.
Most begonias don’t like the full blazing sun, just a bit of filtered sun is adequate. Bring them back in. Then it is time for them to spend the night outside. Let them have more sunlight and be closer to where they will be planted for the summer.
Leave them overnight as long as the night temperatures are over 50F (10C). Keep them watered throughout this entire process. If at any point the leaves are getting crispy or really droopy, move them into the shade or back indoors. After this process, they are ready to be planted in the garden.
Begonias like to be planted to their crown (where the stem meets the roots). Do not bury them any deeper, or allow their root ball to be above the soil line.
When taking a begonia out of its pot to plant into another container or into the garden, make sure to scruff its roots. Especially if they have a thick mat of roots. Split the roots in half or tease them apart. This is important in order for the roots to reach out and grow.
How to Grow
There are so many types of begonias, there are a lot of different requirements. Some are universal to all begonias, others are variety dependent. Let’s break it down.
This is one area that is actually variety-dependent. I think we generally think of begonias as shade plants, but there are actually varieties that fit into all sun conditions.
Full sun is defined as six or more hours of direct sunlight. This is too much for most begonias. But, there are new begonias on the market that can tolerate full sun conditions.
Wax/fibrous begonias are generally more sun tolerant than the other groups of begonias. And even more so are the wax/fibrous varieties that have darker colored leaves. The cocktail series and the victory series are both bronze-colored wax begonias that do well in full sun conditions.
There are new varieties of begonias that can take full sun. The Solenia series for instance is a begonia that can take full sun.
Part Sun/Part Shade
This is the universal garden sweet spot for begonias I would say. All the varieties will be happy in these conditions. Part sun/part shade is defined as 4-6 hours of sun.
The difference between the part sun and part shade is the timing of the sun. The morning sun is gentler than the afternoon sun. For a lot of begonia varieties, morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal.
The big tuberous begonia varieties actually do not bloom very much in full shade. I like the rhizomatous begonias for full shade areas. These are the begonias that rely on their foliage for interest as opposed to their flowers. So they look great in shady areas.
If you live in an area where they can grow outdoors year-round (zones 10+) they will need more sun to grow and thrive. But where I’m from they look lovely in the shade for four months.
Indoor begonias like bright, filtered, or indirect sunlight. Too much direct sunlight and they will have scorched or bleached leaves. Too little light and they will be spindly and leggy. I also will rotate my begonia pot every time I water for nice even growth.
Soil is an area where all the varieties of begonias can agree. They prefer nice light soil full of organic matter. You can achieve this mix in all applications for begonias.
In the Garden
To achieve light soil in the garden, you may need to amend it. Start by assessing the soil in your garden. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it.
If it holds its shape in a ball, it is too heavy and will need coconut coir or peat. It should crumble away when you squeeze it in your hand. If the soil just sifts away and is light grey in color, add plenty of organic matter.
For outdoor containers, I would simply use an all-purpose potting soil. Begonias that are treated as annuals are only planted for a short time and don’t require any special soil. I will mix in some organic matter (e.g. compost, manure, worm castings) to give them a refresh.
If you are growing begonias indoors as houseplants, take the time to get the soil right. A good quality potting mix is a good place to start. Lower quality potting mix can be full of fungus gnats. While they aren’t detrimental to the health of the plant, they sure are annoying. Another option is baking or microwaving your soil before using it.
Next, mix in equal parts perlite, which are the little white balls found in potting soils. You can get this at garden centers. Then blend in some organic matter, such as worm castings.
Begonias like being in evenly moist soil. They never like being soggy or sitting in water. They will tolerate short periods of drought. This goes for in containers, in the garden, or in the home.
Signs of overwatering are yellowing and limp leaves and rotting stems. Signs of underwatering are crispy edges leaves. The soil should feel like a wrung sponge. That is the sweet spot.
Bottom watering works best, especially for houseplants. If your container is small and has bottom drainage holes, place it in a tray of water. This will allow it to soak it up from the bottom.
Though it is not necessary to fertilize begonias, especially if the soil has been amended, you can feed them during the growing months. Just be sure to water them before fertilizing. The type of fertilizer you use will depend on the variety you are growing.
In the Garden
Begonias planted in the garden can be fertilized. A shake and feed option is great. Shake the granules through the begonias and water them in. If your garden beds have been amended with plenty of organic matter, extra fertilizer is not necessary. Hardy begonias don’t need extra fertilizer if the beds are amended.
I like to fertilize all my outdoor containers with an all-purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer. Or a 15-30-15 blend that promotes blooms. I will fertilize every two weeks. Make sure you water the container before fertilizing. Fertilizing dry plants will burn them.
Use an all-purpose houseplant blend. Fertilize once every two weeks only during the active growing season, the summer months. You can also top-dress houseplants with a thin layer of worm casting to boost the nutrients.
Climate and Temperature
Begonias are ultra-tender plants. They cannot handle cold temperatures or frost. They also do not tolerate being constantly blown around by the wind. Choose a nice protected spot to plant begonias.
Begonias do require humidity. I never think about this when I plant them outside. I live in a dry climate. But I think between watering and rain they get enough humidity outside.
Indoor begonias on the other hand require some extra help for humidity. This can be provided in numerous ways. There are various ways to provide extra moisture. You can mist the plants or run a humidifier nearby. Even a tray filled with pebbles and water that you set the begonia on will provide some extra humidity.
For outdoor begonias (not including hardy begonias), make sure that the temperature is consistently over 50F (10C). Keep a close eye on the night temperatures especially, they do not like cold nights.
Ideally, keep them in a covered or slightly protected location. Like an overhang, or under a canopy of trees. This will protect them from hard rain and hail.
For indoor begonias, around 75F (23C) is ideal. Keep them away from drafty windows in the winter months. Also, keep them away from heat vents. They will not tolerate hot air blowing on them.
First, select the begonia you want to bring indoors. Don’t pick any that show any signs of pests or disease. Check very closely. Even just a few pests or slight mildew can wreak havoc on all your houseplants. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Pick only healthy pest-free begonias.
Next, dig up the begonia you want to bring inside. Pick a suitable container. Not much bigger than the root ball of the begonia itself. Add fresh potting mix and plant the begonia up to the crown. Water thoroughly. Bring inside to a bright indirect sun location.
I love begonias because they are relatively low maintenance. No plant is maintenance-free. But if you are looking for a plant that doesn’t require constant fussing, begonias are great.
Clip off any brown flowers or leaves. You can also clip begonias to make them grow bushier. Cut hardy begonias down in the fall once they have turned yellow.
Pests and Diseases
If you keep begonias growing in their ideal conditions, they have few problems with pests and disease. However, as they are part of the ecosystem, they can always be attacked by something. Here are a few of the more common pests and diseases associated with begonias.
Aphids, Spider Mites, Mealy Bugs
This is the unholy trio of pests. The best way of dealing with them is prevention. They attack unhealthy plants. Keep them in ideal conditions. Part sun, evenly moist, and light soil. This will prevent bugs.
If it is too late and you have bugs try giving them a good wash under the sink or with the hose. Begonias are sensitive to insecticidal soap. If you want to go this route, do a test leaf and wait 24 hours to see how the leaf looks. Or use a horticultural oil instead.
Slugs and Snails
Slugs and snails are garden pests. It is usually a sign the beds are too wet. But sometimes this is unavoidable if there is a lot of rain.
The best method I have found to deal with them is sprinkling slug bait weekly, or after a hard rain. You get it at garden centers and they eat it and somehow disappear. I started using it a few years back and I won’t go back to other methods.
You can also hand pick them. You can put rings of crushed eggshells around plants. Or you can do the classic trays of beer to attract the slugs. I still think slug bait is better.
Powdery mildew is a big one that affects begonias. Over watering and over planting are two of the main reasons powdery mildew gets into plants. Plant begonias far enough apart that they get airflow, and keep them evenly moist, not dripping wet. Bottom watering is also better if possible. Leaving the foliage dry will help prevent powdery mildew.
If I’m dealing with powdery mildew in my annual plants I sometimes will just pull them out if it’s near the end of the season. I will remove potting soil and start fresh again next season.
If I am dealing with a houseplant, or the powdery mildew is getting my begonias early in the season, I will spray them with a copper fungicide.
Root rot is a watering problem. Too much water. Or perhaps pots without drainage. Make sure your pots have large enough drainage holes and can drain extra water freely. If the leaves on your begonia are yellowing and the stems ate rotting and turning to mush, root rot is the likely issue.
The solution to root rot is to repot the plant into fresh new potting soil. Take the begonia out of its pot and remove all mushy dead roots. Then rinse the roots and repot in fresh fluffy new potting soil (add extra perlite for an extra fluffy mix).
Types of Begonias
There are a variety of types of begonias for all different purposes. Botanists categorize begonias into five main groups. I added a sixth group because I think hanging begonias are different enough to be described separately. Let’s take a deeper look!
To me, wax or fibrous begonias are the classic types. They remind me of grandma’s garden. Old fashioned, and sweet. These begonias look great mass planted in a garden bed or border.
They feature small fleshy leaves covered in flowers that are smaller in size. You can easily find these in the bedding plants in the summer. They often come in six-pack cells. They are also easier to start from seed than other types of begonias. My favorite varieties of wax begonias include:
Ambassador White is a classic begonia choice. It has small waxy leaves covered in white flowers with yellow eyes. These look great as a low-growing mass of flowers in a garden bed. Or it makes a great neutral filler plant in a container. The bright white flowers really brighten up shady corners.
One of the most popular varieties of house plant begonias is actually a fibrous variety. That is Begonia Maculata, or the Polka Dot or Angel Wing begonia. This begonia features large jagged leaves with irregular white spots. Then the underside is a rust color. It is on almost every houseplant enthusiast’s wishlist. For good reason too – its foliage is super unique.
This is my favorite category of begonia. Tuberous begonias are larger in size than most fibrous begonias. They have fleshy stems and large flowers. Only a few of these flowers planted in and amongst your garden will add impact. Some varieties have blooms that look like roses in the shade. Here are my favorites:
This is one of my favorite of all the begonia varieties. It has such versatility. The blooms are huge and deep red. They look like roses in the shade. You don’t even need too many to create an impact. Three to five of them nestled in amongst the hostas will stand out. Or for a real punch add them into containers. Add some blue lobelia for a great color combination.
Ontop Fandango is a lovely begonia. They have large double rosettes of blossoms that are white in the center with a bright pink margin. It is a dainty combination. It brightens up containers and adds a delicate touch to gardens.
Rieger begonias are a hybrid of fibrous and tuberous varieties. They were originally bred to be cool-season begonias that bloom in winter months, much like a poinsettia. But the new varieties are ever blooming. They are suitable for both outdoors and as houseplants.
They feature rosettes of flowers on the top of the plants. Look for Rieger begonias in the houseplant section of garden centers. They also pop up in the floral departments of grocery stores. These are some of my favorite varieties:
The Amstel Blitz is a bright sunny yellow begonia. It’s blooms sit upright on the plant in little rosettes. The blooms last a long time and don’t require much deadheading.
These are large double flowers that look like roses sitting on top of the plant. They are dark pink on the inside and fade to wide tips. These begonias have a big impact in garden pots or as houseplants.
Ok, this is technically not a scientific category. Most hanging begonias are actually tuberous. But I am a gardener, not a botanist. Hanging varieties are so different and used in a different way than other begonias, therefore, I give them their own category.
Hanging begonias look great in hanging baskets (surprise, surprise!), but they also look great spilling out of an annual display. Here are some of my favorite varieties of hanging begonias:
Dragon’s Wing begonias are actually a wax variety of begonia. They have small flesh leaves and sprays of bright red flowers that hang downwards.
Elegance is an amazing hanging begonia variety. The blossoms are white with light pink outer petals. They are considered some of the most robust begonias available. These drape down and look spectacular in hanging baskets or containers.
Rhizomatous begonias are the houseplant variety. This group includes Rex begonias and Eyelash begonias. There are many, many varieties of rhizomatous begonias.
These begonias are mostly known as foliage begonias. Some of them have intricate designs and colors. Others have thick textured leaves. Some of my favorite rhizomatous begonia varieties include:
T Rex Painter’s Palette
This Rex begonia is my favorite. The color combination is stunning. It starts a pinkish purple color in the center and radiates to whitish on the outside of the leaf. Then it has its veins highlighted in an almost black green. It is a work of art.
I love this begonia. It looks great in containers or as a little border on a garden path. The stunning foliage also makes an eye-catching houseplant. It has frosty white leaves with a dark snail shell swirl pattern.
I think the hardy begonias are often the most overlooked category of begonia. But yes, these begonias are perennials in zone 5 or 6+. They have distinct begonia-shaped leaves, but they live in the perennial garden.
This perennial begonia is hardy in zones 5-9. It has the classic heart-shaped leaf of begonias. It flowers sprays of dainty pink flowers in the summer.
This perfectly named perennial begonia forms a large mound. It has smaller leaves and flowers whitish-pink flowers out the top. The name comes from the red underside of its leaves. It thrives in zones 6-9.
Now for the fun part, design. There really is a begonia for every purpose. I am going to break down some of my favorite ways to use begonias.
In the Garden
For planting large borders in a garden, use wax begonias. This beautiful, old-fashioned look in gardens is perfect for a cottage garden. The waxy leaves and small flowers look great all through the season.
Hardy, Tuberous, and Regier begonias can also be planted in gardens. They add great foliage and will flower in the summer.
Begonias in containers are by far my favorite application for begonias. Just about every variety of begonia can add a big punch to containers. They pair well with other plants just fine.
Begonias make great houseplants as well. Keep them in a container only slightly larger than the begonias itself. Rieger is best for flowering begonias and Rhizomatous varieties are excellent for their unique foliage.
The main thing to keep in mind is to plant begonias with other plants that like the same conditions. Sun-loving begonias, like the Cocktail series, can be mixed with other sun-loving plants like Calibrachoa and Petunias.
Most of the part sun/shade begonias would prefer to be paired with other shade-loving plants like Coleus and Senecio ivy. Here are a few of my favorite companion plants for begonias:
Palms are a classic pairing with begonias. I love Majesty or Areca palms planted in a large pot with nonstop tuberous begonias underneath. It’s a combination I keep going back to.
The palms are usually fairly inexpensive at garden centers or hardware stores. They like the same conditions as begonias. And they give a lovely tropical vibe for the summer. Try this combination in a North or east-facing planter.
Hostas and begonias are lovely together. They both like the same part shade conditions outdoors. Plant hostas with hardy begonias for a lush leafy garden bed. Or add a few Reiger or tuberous begonias in and amongst the hostas for a pop of color.
Coleus and begonias grow incredibly well together. Plant them together in container designs for shady areas. Play with the foliage colors of the coleus with the foliage of Rex begonias. Or play with the flower colors of the begonias with the foliage on the coleus. There are infinite amounts of combinations for this shade-loving duo.
I love adding spiller plants into my container designs, and Golden Lysimachia is the one I keep going back to. It is a vibrant yellow that makes it pop in the shade. It would also be a lovely ground cover underneath a hardy variety of begonia.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are begonias better in the sun or shade?
I think the overall sweet spot for begonias is part shade. Early morning sun is best. But there are certain varieties that take sun look for the Solenia series of tuberous varieties. Or the bronze-colored wax varieties (e.g. cocktail series) will take full sun.
How do you keep begonias blooming?
Why are my begonias leggy?
They probably are not getting enough sun. Cut off the leggy bits and then place in an area with more sun. It should regrow bushier.
Are begonias high maintenance?
Yes and no. They are sensitive to watering, especially as houseplants. They like to be evenly moist, but not soggy. It may take some time to get that sweet spot, but once you figure it out they will be easy to maintain.
Why do my begonias keep dying?
It’s probably a watering issue. Overwatering most likely, or perhaps underwatering. Yellowing leaves and rotting stems are signs of overwatering. Crispy leaves are a sign of underwatering.
Stick your finger into the pot and check the moisture. It should feel damp like a wrung sponge not sopping wet or crispy dry. Read the section on soil to get great soil that will help retain and drain water better to make watering easier.
Begonias have to be one of the largest and most versatile plants for the average gardener and/or houseplant enthusiast. They have so many uses and come in so many colors, shapes, and sizes. They can take a wide variety of sun conditions (variety dependent). All these things together make begonias the classic, beloved plant that all plant people love.