Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Fifty ways to lose your begonias



Buying tender plants at the height of summer is so easy, when the ice and snow of winter are but a dim and distant memory. It is easy to get carried away and buy far too many, far too large plants. I know. I am that person. However, once the temperature drops, they all need to be kept snug and frost free, if they are to survive until spring. I have been struggling to find the best way to do this for years, and, believe me, there have been many casualties along the way!

As an inexperienced gardener I tried the 'ostrich' approach, which meant that I stuck my head firmly in the sand and ignored all dire warnings on plant labels. I basically just left tender plants outside throughout the winter, and they died in their droves. I then progressed to wrapping them in fleece, which, although better than nothing, only gave minimal protection of a couple of degrees at most. Real divas just disregarded it and still died, although it really did help the borderline frost hardy plants. Wrapping most palms gets them through cold weather, and stuffing tree fern crowns with straw seems to do the trick, but it is finding the solution for the really tender stuff which causes the problems.

Getting a greenhouse was the first real step towards raising the survival rate of the delicate plants, but an unheated space is not necessarily frost free, as I found to my cost. Initially, I tried a paraffin heater but found it to be totally ineffective in the space, and impractical to use, as it is dependent upon you being there to light it.

The conservatory (which is heated) has been my saviour for the last ten years or so, and plants usually jostle together for space in there. It is a great solution for the plants, but not for the humans, as it virtually decommissions the conservatory from any other purpose other than that of a greenhouse for almost half of each year.


This year I decided to get the job done properly and to get electricity out to the greenhouse, so that I could have effective heating installed. Once that was in place I looked around for a good greenhouse heater, and researched online for recommendations.


They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and, although not as enjoyable, I think the same may be true of greenhouse heaters ! I tried a 2 kw electric fan heater, first, as sold by 'Two Wests and Elliot'. Rightly or wrongly I trust them as a company, and so felt confident in buying a heater from their website. The heater, itself, was actually fine, but I hadn't done enough homework, and had bought a heater which was just too small to heat the area of the greenhouse. Big fail.


Back to the internet, and I found a beast of a thing which would do the job - a powerful electric heater capable of heating the Albert Hall. Trouble was, when I asked the advice of Jim, our electrician, he just burst out laughing  - never a good sign! To run it, he pointed out, would need a whole new armoured cable, as it was so powerful - and it would also cost a fortune to use.

Jim suggested heating tubes, which are cheap to buy and to run and could be installed on the current system. He duly installed three tube heaters, to heat the entire space, and cleverly linked them to a thermostat, so that they come on automatically when the inside temperature drops below about 6 degrees. So far they have been very effective and the temperature has not dropped below 5. 2 degrees, even though there have been some cold nights. I have a max/ min thermometer, so that I can check the range every day, and monitor it carefully.


Although I know, in theory, that insulating a greenhouse makes a huge difference, it has taken several years for this fact to goad me into taking action! This year we have put up horticultural grade bubble wrap across windows and glass roof, and it makes a noticeable difference. It has to be horticultural grade to allow uv light in, I believe.



Ventilation is always an issue in a heated greenhouse, and it seems contra-intuitive to heat a space, then open a window, but moisture is the biggest danger, as it can cause mould, rot and all manner of unpleasant things. Insulation serves to hinder the free circulation of air even further, and can compound problems with moisture.


I try to open the doors when the weather is mild, to get as much air circulating as possible. Plants are checked regularly and dying flowers and foliage removed.  Everything is kept as dry as possible, as this makes a huge difference to survival rates. I barely water at all, and only give plants a little drink when they are starting to droop.


Precious things have joined us in the conservatory, and I have brought in young seedling, like Tetrapanax, and put them on the windowsill, along with cuttings of favourites such as Abutilons and salvias. In this way I hope to ensure I still keep some for next season, even if it all goes pear - shaped in the greenhouse. The big Ensete Ventricosum Maureliis are all snuggled up inside, as are some abutilons, which are still flowering. The Begonia 'Angels' have retained their foliage and still appear to be growing.


All succulents and cacti have been put into the smaller unheated greenhouse, which is kept ridiculously dry. There is an Astelia in there which has actually survived for two mild winters outside, but I don't want to chance it again. Also sheltering from the winter are agaves, aeoniums, aloes and yuccas. The theory is that they will be able to withstand the cold, as long as they are dry. If allowed to suffer the dreaded combination of wet and cold then their roots will rot, and death will surely follow. In spells of exceptionally cold weather they can be covered with horticultural fleece.


I will have to wait and see what this winter has in store for us, before I can measure the success of our new arrangements. We have already had some frosts and everything is still looking healthy.





24 comments:

  1. You have a lot of plants requiring protection, which is wonderful in summer. In the good old days I had a greenhouse with a small section in it which I heated in winter. Prior to that, I used bubble wrap to create a small area within the greenhouse. Both worked & kept the bills down. Good luck with it all! Here's hoping that winter doesn't drag on too long.

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    1. Aye aye to that Sarah! There are comforts though - log fires, seed catalogues and ... well, that's about it really! Wine is an all year round pleasure ...

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  2. We have heated greenhouses in the past but don't do that any longer mainly down to the cost implication so we just have to buy plants that can rough it through winter

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    1. There is a lot to say for totally hardy plants Sue. As we have no more room left in our heated winter quarters, any more plants we buy will have to be hardy!

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  3. Good for you. I am glad you are getting more time in the greenhouse now. I have never heard of those tubes. I hope your area doesn't get so cold they don't work. Your conservatory sounds like my entire house. I will never forget my niece coming to visit during summer, she usually is only here during winter holidays. She said to me "your house seems so much larger". Ha... I figured it was because all the tender plants were outside for once. Enjoy your greenhouse. Can't wait to hear how this all goes. You have such beautiful plants, may they all survive.

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    1. I had never heard of these heating tubes before either, Lisa, but lots of fellow gardeners seem to have, and to have an opinion on them too! It's a bit of a minefield tbh!! Yours sound to be nice and snug in the house with you ,,, who needs space!

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  4. That conservatory is awesome--lucky you! We have a sunroom, so I try to overwinter some plants and start some new ones from seed at the end of winter. Sun is so blessed during the cold, winter months.

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    1. You are so right - every little beam of sunlight is very much appreciated during the dark days of winter!

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  5. Your plants are going to love their new environment, what luxury! My greenhouse is unheated, just bubblewrapped and plants do well if kept on the dry side. Our conservatory is heated when below 5C and this is where the succulents are over wintered so there is still a bit of room for us on a sunny day!

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    1. How many degrees of difference does bubblewrap make , do you think Pauline ? Two or three ? I am unsure and can't seem to find stats for it online.

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    2. I'm not sure Jane, but if frost is forecast I cover everything with horticultural fleece to be on the safe side!

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    3. same here Pauline - belt and braces!

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  6. So good your electrician could help work out a reasonable way to get the heating in. A multi-step process like that would surely take me years to work through :/ It looks like a wonderful solution!

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    1. Thanks Amy, I hope it works out, otherwise it is back to the drawing board again!

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  7. Haha - had to smile at those pictures of your plants crammed in and jostling for space! My greenhouses aren't quite as cosy - yet!! I changed to a tubular heater a couple of years ago and found it a relatively economic way of keeping them frost free once you work out what level to have the dial. I bought a roll of bubble wrap (not hort grade though...) last year but didn't use it because it was so mild - will perhaps partially cover this year if i turrns out to be a severe winter?

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    1. Ah, that is very reassuring! Good to find a positive endorsement for these heating tubes! I was hoping they would prove to be as economical as our electrician promised ! Let's hope this winter is as mild as last years, as all sorts of plants sailed through it totally unscathed!

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  8. It's a great deal of fun seeing a kindred spirit (plant lover) squirrel away plants for the winter. Thank you for the morning smile. Fingers crossed for another mild winter!

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    1. Oh I dearly hope so! We have had a dip recently into murky minus numbers but today is mild again. Phew! What about you ?

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  9. I invested in one tube heater last year which was ok because it was a mild winter. Can I ask what size greenhouse you have with the three tube heaters in?

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    1. Brian, I think it is about 25' x 8' but will pace it out and probably have to correct that! Let's hope this winter follows the same pattern and stays mild.

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  10. You are doing much better than me, that's for sure. I have all of my plants that need to be inside during the winter in my spare bedroom. What a pain! I hope to have a greenhouse put up this summer to be ready for next winter.

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  11. Nothing like having a greenhouse attached to your home. I would love to sit out among the plants while sipping a cup of tea and watching the inter rains pour down.

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  12. I love it! you really did a nice job providing your plants a good winter home. They will love you for it and grow better next summer.

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