February 28, 2006

Leaf-Layering a Good Way to Propagate Begonias

I have had a wonderful time over the years propagating plants of various kinds. It gives me so much pleasure to take a leaf, a seed or a branch and watch it grow into a replica of the original plant. I also have found that this kind of propagating enables me to share with friends and other gardeners, giving them valuable specimens of unusual plants or hard-to-find cultivars or species.

I am very fortunate to have some of this country's leading horticulturists and plant collectors on my daily television show, explaining the qualities and peculiarities of some of the beautiful species of flowers and plants that fill our botanical gardens and historic landscapes.

Once, agave expert Mary Irish came to New York from Arizona with scores of small specimens. I kept about 40 of these succulents and I have propagated dozens of each variety since. A clivia expert visited from White Flower Farm in Connecticut, and within two years, I was able to give away many clivias nurtured from the small "pups" that were offshoots of the main plant.

Thanks to a segment with an epimedium expert -- and the 20 or so specimens I acquired before he left -- I have been able to fill a large portion of woodland without buying any additional plants. I also spent a couple of years creating hundreds of new plants from stem cuttings of scented geraniums that I discovered at the greenhouses of Allen C. Haskell in New Bedford, Mass.

However, this column is not about those plants, or about peonies, daylilies, hostas or ferns, all of which can be divided and in turn multiplied. It is about my love of fancy-leaved begonias and my success with leaf layering as a means of creating hundreds of specimen plants that many of my friends are enjoying.

I first became interested in these unusual plants when I visited my maternal grandparents in Buffalo, N.Y. Grandma had several large begonia plants on her sunporch and dining room windowsills. I loved the convoluted leaves, the weird colours, the scaly and hairy stems. I loved to clean up the plants for Grandma, removing the yellowed and dried leaves, thinning out the bigger ones to give the newer ones space to grow.

I used a large pair of tweezers to reach into the interior of the plant to remove old leaves so that I would not crack or break the curiously brittle but moist leaves of her odd begonias. It was Grandma who first showed me how to leaf layer -- or propagate -- and we did this several times over the years. I would take my rooted leaves back to New Jersey with me on the train and plant the leaves in soil-filled pots to grow and grow.

Two or three years ago, when horticulturist Brian McGowan came to the television studio with about 80 showy specimen begonias, I just about went mad with envy. Remembering the lessons I had learned in childhood, I asked for a few leaves from my favorite plants and started my own collection.

Andrew Beckman (my head gardener at the time) and I cut each leaf into pieces, dipped the pieces into rooting hormone and then planted just the edges of the leaves in a peat-and-perlite mix.

Within three months I had a few hundred small begonias that were then potted into 10-centimeter pots, and then in another month or so into 15- or 20-centimeter pots. I diligently followed the watering and feeding schedule Brian suggested, and the plants thrived. By spring of last year, I had enough to give to many of my friends and family.

Many of the begonias that I grew burgeoned into large plants and were especially well-suited to dining-table displays. I often gather several kinds as a centerpiece. On long hall tables, a row of pots, each filled with the same begonia, always looks fabulous.

Others look really good in some great big planters alongside the mantel in the dining room. I place five or six pots in the planters and cover the soil and rims of the pots with sheet moss. They can stay this way in indirect light, with weekly watering, for 10 to 15 days.

I don't know which plant I'll concentrate on next, but I seem to be leaning heavily toward the prehistoric and stunning cycad -- and because there are hundreds of known varieties, I have quite a job on my hands to find pups of the rare types, or seeds, and years of growing pleasure ahead of me.

If you have questions for Martha Stewart, send them to Ask Martha, in care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10036, or e-mail to [email protected] Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.