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My Vertical Garden Wall


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Repot Begonia to Correct Potting Medium

One of the challenges concerning begonias are actually keeping the begonias alive. I had experienced countless times where a healthy begonia just succumb and fall apart like a domino effect either to root rot or stem rot - of course the next ideal thing to do to immediately take cuttings and replant the stem only to see the whole plant fall apart in pieces one leaf at a time. Before you know it - it had just disintegrated into a begonia rotting soup. 

Another factor is to safe the leaves hoping for a miracle in this case - it always end up the predictable predicament - the final leaf rot and the whole single plant species gone from your collection. And an expensive one at that.

Hence after years of trial and error
I had finally found a singular solution that works in my garden and hope this works best in your garden too. Of course, each garden have it's own conditions and factors - this one, works best in my garden condition - hopefully this may help you or maybe you might discover what works best based on your garden condition.

Just to give you a clear picture of how my garden condition is:

There are days where my garden receive a fair weather - a nice clear sky or clouded bright day where I water my whole garden in the morning and at times in the evening - depending on how hot the day is.

Often I skip the evening watering if it is heavily clouded 

And totally skip watering on the days that rains the whole day - usually this occurs when it rains in the morning and last throughout the evening and if this occurs the next day - same thing ( I skip watering)

These are my Solutions:

By changing the potting medium to fast draining type:- 

I spare the agony of root rot and save my plant, actually most of my sensitive plants are of this potting medium.

Basically I will repot immediately or within a week - depending on the weather condition and also not to stress out the plant as it may had come from a nursery which in turn would had been shipped or in transportation from a highland or from a different weather condition.

Keeping in few days for acclamation helps it to reduce stress before repotting.


Most often than not, I always come across the same potting medium - its either cocopeat or a mix of cocopeat with perlite or a heavy clay like medium around the root-ball. All these three medium doesn't suit well in my garden especially when it comes to my watering regime where its either too wet or soggy or too dry without any moisture retaining factor which stress out the roots and would be the demise of the plant.

By checking the root-ball - I can roughly tell how healthy the plant is - either it is tolerating the existing medium as it is in survival mode where most of the tiny filament roots are dead or dying or  healthy.

Here in the picture - I had not watered the plant yet and you can actually see the rootball is already soaking wet with the existing potting medium - you would not able to notice this unless you had repot the plant - hence why most begonias dies a quick death when you first notice the slight difference on the stem and leaves. 

The reason is - the roots are already rotten and dead but begonias do not show any sign of stress until it is too late. Once the roots are rotten - the stem start to turn brown/black.
In worse case scenario the infection is due to the bacteria or fungus - though it may appear to be infected at the bottom portion of the base of the begonia - it had already infected the whole plant, hence even though you may think you had saved the plant by cutting and replanting it - only to witness the whole plant rotting away in a slow death.


Checking the root-ball is very important 
As you can see that the fibrous root-ball is actually in healthy appearance at the base but slowly diminishing when it comes to the secondary growth factor - due to too much moisture and wetness also not and ideal potting mix, the roots had tend to grow in a section where it is protected from over watering factor.

However after removing the root-ball - refrain from washing off the existing medium as it can be very stressful for the plant - as I mentioned, too much water can damage the fine filaments in the root-ball and once it had triggered the highest stress level - the begonia does go into a dormant stage where it might drop off all the leaves and just remain in bare stem condition.

Just likely shake off the existing medium - here in this case, its cocopeat which had encompassed most of the root-ball.


Here I'm using for all my Begonias.

At the bottom of the pot - instead of using drainage stones/pebbles - I use cotton fiber to stop the sand particles from washing off from the drainage hole - also I need the medium to be fast draining as to avoid root rot hence I find sand helps to regulate roots to breathe and at the same time hold bare minimum moisture in comparison to cocopeat.

The only set back with Cocopeat is that it tend to rot when over watered whereas River sand tend to stay in shape without compromising any of the rotting effect.

Just after placing Cotton Fiber:


I place in 1-2 tablespoon of Compost normally with the NPK of (2-2-2)

1-2 tablespoon of Chicken Manure - normally will have very low NPK ratio 

Humus fertilizer (1-2 tablespoon) 
Locally identified as Coffee Fertilizer, it had a slight coffee fragrance however it is actually more of a fish based fertilizer.

(Depending of the size of the pot - too small, 1 tablespoon portion)

All these organic fertilizer are applied at the base of the potting mix - 1/3 portion area before the root-ball, normally I will put 1-2 scoop of sand and coconut chip as a layer before the root ball, this will give the roots to take time to grow and seek itself naturally the fertilizer when it start growing.

Another factor I had often noticed is that these fertilizers often attract earthworms and it really help the plant and the growth regulation. The vermi-compost created naturally in the potting media together with the begonia somehow regulates the well balanced natural cycle where the plant and organic materials such as good bacteria, compost, earthworm and breathable root structures helps and regulate well balanced plant growth.


A lot of people misunderstand me when I mention Coconut chips.
Normally - I would personally collect the coconut husk and make that industrial labor myself by taking the time to trim and cut the coconut chips myself into bite sizes. This truly regulate and help strong root growth as I often notice after week or months inspection during repot where the newer stronger root-ball pick up held stronger in growth and texture around the coconut chips.

However it is not the same with coconut peat or fiber where the texture is too disintegrated and retains too much water and moisture where that harbor bacterial infection when something goes wrong.

Coconut chips however tend to dry out quickly but retains required moisture even handles well when overwatered.

I also noticed that coconut peat is usually used for propagation - it truly creates faster and vigorous root growth both on stem growth on Cane Begonias and also new plantlets appearing from Leaf propagation for Rex Begonias however after the initial growth it seemed to fall apart after few months when sold and placed in the hot and dry conditions together with highly wet and humid conditions in the lowland climate. 
Also - cocopeat retains strong moisture hence their are rarely watered instead they receive adequate misting regime in commercialize greenhouses - totally a different ball game altogether when it comes to change of atmosphere and garden conditions.


After layering the root-ball with coconut chips, I normally compact them with river sand.
Another factor that I noticed that works best is to always underpot the begonias. Keep them tight and compact, also instead of planting them in the center of the pot - place them at the side - giving more room from the center as when watering, water at the edge away from the plant as this refrain the begonia from taking too much water, eventually it will encourage new root growth when the plant is ready to receive more water - till then, it is safely tucked away at the corner, safe from overwatering.

When I talk about River Sand
I find it is easier than construction Sand or Sea Sand. Some how, the washed sand doesn't retain too much minerals and this helps to control how much fertilizer you want to use.
As too much fertilizer can actually burn the root-ball - control and check and balance actually helps a lot.
I believe less fertilizer is far more better than over-fertilizing. 

Some gardeners often ask me what other substitute to use apart from sand and inquired whether normal potting mix might just do the trick?
I often advise that it definitely not the same. Another alternative would be perlite or finer sand granules which you can get from pet/aquarium shops which may be costly. Another factor is well washed Construction Sand - using more of the coarse granules rather than fine sand particles.


I had found this works like miracle however I would only suggest this for those who have outdoor garden setting. Normally Asians like myself eat rice as staple food and so when washing rice - I would keep them in a separate bucket and keep aside for about 3 days - it will slowly ferment - with a slight white film appearing at the top.
Before application - I will fill up with the same portion of water and use that diluted fermented water all over my garden once a week. This helps to regulate the good bacteria to breakdown the NPK fertilizer for the plant to absorb and receive into their system - something similar like a symbiotic effect between plants and bacteria.
Also keeps away rotting fungi away.

There are other hard core gardeners who also use Fish Washed Water - however, I might not able to stand the smell as I have a very small garden and my garden is very much close to my entrance door.

Alternatively I have found that Boiled Pasta Water does the same trick - the starch actually helps the plant - just make sure you don't boil with salt as it can be too strong for the plant.


With this composition - I rarely and cautiously use NPK foliar fertilizer just to give some boost once or twice a week on all of my plants - just to give enough nutrients as not all my my potted plants are of this planting medium. Others that are doing so well and of those which I had not repotted months ago would had their organic fertilizer washed out may still require regular feeding and this helps for the rest of the plants in the garden.

However, I only use half strength - just to be cautious about over feeding as it can cause burns of leaves and root structure.


Different Brands and NPK ratios does make a lot of difference - hence if you have the funds and able to invest on well reputable companies - do some research and test it in a plant and observe the growth factor.
I noticed by experience that Begonias hate mix and match fertilizers - sticking to one fertilizer regime eg: One Brand with Regular Weekly Application helps a lot in a long run rather than alternative different brands and irregular application causing leaf burns and sudden plant death.

Also a Big NO-NO is when I get over zealous seeing and hearing other gardeners success stories and shift my feeding regime - changing the fertilizer - overfeeding them, end up killing them and regretting horribly later for that foolish action.

I had a horrible experience with Osmocote where I had killed half of my collection by over application of both NPK Foliar Fertilizer with Osmocote - Slow Release Fertilizer.

Personally I had realized over the years of experience of trial and error - Osmocote doesn't work for me, it appears like a time bomb waiting to suddenly kill my plant, I rather go for the slow and steady a journey in my garden plants as I prefer to have my plants in long term factor for many many decades in my life than just buying and replacing them over and over again.

If I do hear any gardeners mentions to me that the plants was doing was doing so well and suddenly it appears that one fine day without any warning - the plant suddenly dies. 
My trouble-shooting begins and always I find one of the culprits is the use of Oscmocote as the Fertilizer. In most cases, the new beginner gardener would had over applied it and the plant had tolerated and struggled with the overwhelming slow release strength and would had gave way when faced with another stress factor.


Lastly, it is not considered an essential need however any good and strong catalyst will help in the long run. I find that a good rooting hormone which is ideal and safe to mix with liquid fertilizer actually strengthen and boost up the root growth structure.

Hence I had found two types:
1) Vitamin B1 - normally these are sold in yellow bottle or blue bottle from Thailand.
There are quite a study on this product and was told that the both different bottles have separate specific functions - however on the base line - they are considered root hormone chemicals.

2) Seaweed Solution
This particular one is far more expensive as it more organic compared to Vit. B1.
Also it is considered another type of rooting hormone - depending on your specific gardening requirement and affordability. 

I would suggest a monthly application of Vitamin B1 - diluted to half strength with NPK solution which actually goes a long way as it helps to aid and boost roots growth development.

Once the begonia had established itself in its full growth and stability, there is nothing to worry about except occasional care and maintenance on watering and feeding regime. Of course when the plant had grown to it's fullness, it is always wise to take cuttings and create spares as these can suddenly get stressed and die anytime.

Hence, doing the best you can with your ability and available resources and within the affordable budget will go in a long way in keeping and growing a begonia collection without a heart-ache.

I also had found that some other gardeners had found and tried different methods and it worked wonderfully due to their garden condition and their availability in gardening whether they are in their busy schedule or free most of their time.

Hence, there are a lot of factors involved - choose and adopt what works best for you in your lifestyle in gardening. 
I always say:
Let the Garden Follow your Lifestyle and Not the other way around.
If you are too busy and in experienced and practically no time to cultivate a garden but love to own one - then do proper research and study in what works best in what you manage and introduce those types of plants in your garden.

For example:
If you are too busy, then introduce hardy plants which requires little or no care in the garden space.
Then you can cultivate and spend time when you are able - at least once a week in cleaning, pruning and feeding. Of course, begonias are out of the question here, for a start - Sanseverias and succulent types of plants require not much of attention - left alone, they thrive due to negligence. 

However when it comes to Begonias - they do require attention, care and maintenance. When they are well cared and maintained - they do indeed reward you with beautiful foliage and flowers and brighten up your garden and even your day, mesmerized by their captivating beauty.

Again when it comes to begonia, it is actually an acquired taste, Not everyone get it right for the first time, there are many challenges, trial and errors and you might even feel like giving up. But once you get the niche - the trick of how to cultivating them successfully, it would be a domino effect of constant success especially when you master the essential basics of potting mix: medium, watering and feeding.

Also, plant location too is essential - not too dry, not too wet, and just the right level of humidity. Some begonias may not grow and thrive no matter what you do - I had countless tries and finally decided to let it go, knowing it would not survive in my garden conditions, hence I only focus on the ones that are ideal and able to handle and grow well & thrive in my garden conditions - thus, I had decided enough with Rex Begonias.

Somehow, Cane Begonias seemed to be fair very well in my garden conditions and I'm actually focusing more of my attention on those particular species and cultivars.

At times, you might develop something unique and well balanced begonias growing perfectly in that particular spot where it won't do well in other areas. Finding that sweet spot in your garden is truly a treasure.

Another factor might be the combination of all the factors (humidity, medium, lighting & watering)
and one fall out of balance and the whole thing can succumb to a downfall. However, you will be surprised that against all odds - they can just thrive without making any sense and that makes it more interestingly a sense of mystery and a reality that there are more that we don't know about nature and it's hidden secrets.

Till then, these are the secrets that I had found and thus far, revealing what I had found in my years of experience for everyone's benefit of those who are seeking knowledge and plant study.



Lorelei said...

Hi James, your plants are beautiful. I also love coco chips in potting mix for my begonia, and also use when potting my Hoya and aroids. It does not cause root rot like peat and lets roots get oxygen. Instead of sand I have used pumice with great success. I enjoy your blog and the photos very much!


James David said...

Hi Lorelei,

Its is true that it also works for most of the sensitive plants as you mentioned.

Thank you so much for your support and encouragement. Really appreciate it.

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Tropical Garden, Batu Caves, Malaysia
My Malaysian Tropical Garden mainly focused on unique and colorful plants ranging from rare to common plants all around the tropical belt across the world. Ideal for inspiration for challenging areas in the garden space - indoor gardening, balcony gardening and small green spaces especially for ariods, bromeliads, begonias, edibles, cascading & vertical garden plants, succulents & cacti, orchids, together with both shade and sun loving plants.

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