Are Begonias Perennials or Annuals? Plus, 5 Easy Begonia Care Tips

Most begonias won't survive freezing winters, but indoor plants can live for years.

Begonias are a wildly diverse group of plants. Just like a large extended family with all kinds of personalities and professions, some begonias are at home in sunny porch pots, while others grow well in the ground as a bedding plant, and still others thrive indoors as long-lived houseplants. Some members of the begonia family are demanding and particular—rex begonias are a good example; they grow best indoors, shielded from the wind and other harsh conditions—while other begonias have a go-with-the-flow growing style, such as hybrid bedding varieties. The following tips will help you get the most out of all the begonias in your garden beds and containers.

begonia rex curly fireflush pink plant
Denny Schrock

Annual vs. Perennial Begonias

Botanically speaking, an annual is any plant that completes its life cycle (seed to seed) in one growing season before naturally dying. Plants that survive winter in the landscape, blooming and growing again each year, are called perennials. Many plants from tropical areas, such as most begonias, can live for years, but are often treated as annuals because they won't survive freezing winters outdoors. However, if you brought frost-tender begonias indoors, they would continue to grow so they aren't technically annuals. Annual plants naturally die after growing for a year or less.

Then there's hardy begonia (Begonia grandis). This type of begonia comes back year after year in USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9. Unfortunately, gardeners in Zones 5 and colder don't have a perennial begonia option that will survive outdoors. Hardy begonia can't survive the extremely cold winter temperatures in these areas.

How to Grow Hardy Begonia

Perfect for planting in a shade garden, hardy begonias form a 2- to 3-foot-tall mound of glossy green foliage. Popular with pollinators, hardy begonias produce clusters of pink flowers beginning in midsummer and continuing into fall. Hardy begonia, like most begonias, thrives in moist, organically rich, well-drained soil. Grow it in part to full shade. Unlike many plants, it can grow in deep shade but it will produce fewer flowers.

Once it's established, hardy begonia is a perennial that will tolerate some drought, but it grows best when it's well-watered. Otherwise, this plant benefits from a 2-inch-layer of compost spread over its soil in spring to provide nutrients and help hold moisture in the soil. Deadhead faded flowers to encourage repeat bloom.

Hardy begonia naturalizes well, which means it slowly spreads to form a small colony within a couple of years. It spreads by forming tiny bulblets on the tips of its stems in fall. The bulblets drop to the ground and grow into new plants the following spring. Easy to keep within bounds if needed, the tiny new plants can be dislodged with a hoe or garden trowel.

What to Plant with Hardy Begonias

Pair hardy begonias with spring blooming bulbs. One of the latest plants to emerge in spring, hardy begonia appears well after bulbs finish blooming. This slowly spreading plant will form a carpet of color and texture that will help hide the dying bulb foliage.

Shrubs that tolerate shade, such azalea and rhododendron, are also good planting partners for hardy begonias. These types of shrubs also require little care other than watering during dry spells. Spread a 2-inch layer of shredded bark mulch around shrubs and hardy begonias in early summer to create a nearly care-free landscape bed.

dragon wing begonias wishbone flowers
Kim Cornelison

5 Garden Begonia Care Tips

Hybrid garden begonia varieties sold as container and bedding plants are one-season-wonders that are grown like annuals (though technically they can live longer than a year). They provide lush foliage and instant color from late spring until fall. In areas where it freezes, these plants die once cold weather sets in. Maximize your enjoyment of these colorful plants with these basic growing tips.

1. Be Mindful of Pot Size

Popular hybrid begonias, such as 'Dragon Wing' series and the 'BIG' series, grow fast. Plant large hybrids in containers that are at least 18 inches in diameter so they have plenty of space to develop arching, flower-filled stems.

2. Water Consistently

Allow the soil surface to dry to the touch between waterings. If the soil feels dry, water plants deeply. Otherwise, check again the next day. Begonias growing in shade need to be watered less frequently than those growing in full sun.

3. Pay Attention to Sun or Shade Preference

Enjoy begonias in sun or shade. For decades, begonias were primarily shade plants. Plant breeders have developed new varieties of hybrid begonias and wax begonias in recent years that can tolerate direct sun. For example, on a sunny patio you can plant containers of 'Dragon Wing' begonia for stunning, summer-long color. Check plant tags before buying to make sure you're selecting the best types of begonias for the light conditions you have.

4. Add Slow-Release Fertilizer

Begonias don't require lots of nutrients to bloom well. Keep them blooming all summer long by adding a slow-release fertilizer into the soil mix at planting time. Follow package directions to avoid overdoing it, which can burn plants.

5. Extend the Season

Begonias are sensitive to cold temperatures; near-freezing temperatures turn begonia foliage black. Cover plants to prevent early cold spells from cutting the bloom season short. When temperatures below 40℉ threaten in fall, cover potted plants with a blanket, tucking the blanket under the container to keep cold air away from the plant. Early fall blasts of cold are often followed by a stretch of warm days. A little effort protecting plants will likely extend the growing season a week or two.

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