Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Begonia days come early with calendar switch

A calendar change-up can create havoc for garden clubs. Just ask Joan Coulat, Sacramento’s begonia lady.

Sacramento’s annual tribute to begonias comes early this year. Instead of its usual date the weekend after Labor Day, the Sacramento begonia show and sale will fill the Shepard Garden and Arts Center on Aug. 29 and 30 with rainbow-hued flowers and foliage. In addition to the show’s large display of blue-ribbon begonias, the club’s popular sale features more than 1,000 eye-popping and often-rare plants.

And that’s what has Coulat worried. “I’m just hoping somebody shows up to buy them; they’re beautiful plants! They need homes.”

Coulat, a longtime fixture at the onetime Capital Nursery on Freeport Boulevard, is well known to local gardeners. So is the Sacramento begonia show and sale that she chairs.

Coulat and her cohorts work on the sale most of the year. They collect young plants from commercial growers and nurture them for months. They propagate rarities from their own gardens. Aiming these begonias to be their best on a particular date – sale weekend – takes practice, good weather and luck – especially if that date comes two weeks early.

As usual, this sale features a wide assortment of begonia varieties, grown for both their stunning leaves and bright silk-like flowers. The Sacramento branch of the American Begonia Society prides itself on its assortment, not found in local nurseries. Most plants are priced at $9 each (cash or check).

Besides being the club’s major fundraiser, the sale has become a draw for Sacramento’s plant-loving community. One problem: Local gardeners expect to be buying fall-blooming begonias in September, not August.

“We have a huge problem,” Coulat explained. “In the past, our shows have always been after Labor Day. People assumed that would be the same.”

But Labor Day falls late this year – Sept. 7 – squeezing September’s club calendar and overlapping traditional events at major venues.

“The only dates available for us (at Shepard Center) were Aug. 29 and 30,” Coulat said, “but everybody already published the September date for our show. I’m desperately trying to get the word out. I want to get rid of 1,000 plants; you won’t find ones like these anywhere around here.”

To help overcome the change in schedule, the club is offering more than plants to attract patrons. Fitting the show’s “A Symphony of Begonias” theme, classical musicians will serenade attendees at noon Saturday. At 1 p.m. Sunday, iced tea and punch will be served along with trays of home-baked cookies.

“Our hours are different, too,” Coulat said. “We’re opening early on Saturday morning.”

That could help attract foot traffic in busy McKinley Park, the Shepard Center’s home.

New among the plants this year will be terrarium begonias, which are miniature wonders that thrive indoors under glass with very little water.

“You only water them every three or four months,” Coulat said. “Because (the terrarium is) enclosed, the top of the terrarium fills up with droplets of water. Those come down and water the plants.

“Terrarium begonias are very hard to get,” she added. “They stay very small, all under 14 inches. Some of them are tuberous and die back in winter. Others look like grass. Some have red and green foliage; they’re very attractive. Several of them flower. There’s even a yellow-flowered one; that’s very unusual for begonias.”

And you don’t need a garden to grow them.

“They love a spot in a window or on an end table where they can get some light,” Coulat said. “They do very well indoors without much space, and they’re very easy.”

Beginning begonia enthusiasts can learn a lot at this event. Seminars each day teach begonia basics including soils, pruning, planting and grooming as well as how to put together a terrarium garden.

“We really do have a lot to offer,” Coulat said. “I’m just hoping enough people will actually show up.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington