First published in The Guardian, August 3, 2014. Read the original here.
We grew common begonias when I was little: in terra cotta pots tucked on occasional tables, as borders around the “real” plants (irises, lilies, pansies, impatiens and endless roses), and in the shady areas in the lee of the porch where little else would flower. Growing up, begonias - waxy of leaf and spindly of stem, whose washed-out flowers seem to retain only the memory of color – were everywhere.
And how can anyone love a common begonia?
I hated the vulgar fleshiness of their red stems, how meat-like they looked; I despised the ones with leaves the color of brackish water, a muddy indeterminacy at the intersection of red, brown, and green. Begonias seemed to revel in those cast-off colors that you only find in bargain basement clothing, never anything pure or bright.
Every summer my brother and I were conscripted to work under the careful tutelage of my mother, father, and grandmother (who’d been raised on a subsistence farm in Ireland). We were the only house in our small suburban town to tear up our lawn and replace it with a food garden in which we grew tomatoes, peas, squash, and strawberries, corn, watermelon and even gooseberries over the years. It was a comfort to my grandmother, a revelation to my city-raised parents and a character building experience for my brother and I – about which we loved to complain. Aside from the year that we tried to dig a hole to China, my brother and I mostly spent the summer weeding, watering, and harvesting crops growing in between the ever-present begonias. I learned to love sun-warmed strawberries and peas straight from the pod – and to loathe begonias, which seemed neither pretty nor functional enough to be worth the space we gave them.
A few years ago, I received a genuine Manhattan miracle: an affordable ground-floor apartment with a private backyard. But miracles can be messy: my tiny slice of the great outdoors was little more than a trash heap when I moved in. Its hard-packed dirt was covered by a glittery lawn of broken glass, dotted with a few scraggly trees whose branches held more plastic bags then leaves. To this day I can’t plant so much as a marigold without digging up a broken bottle, a bent syringe, or the twisted plastic packaging of some bygone snacky-treat. The soil is bad, the direct sunlight is nearly nonexistent, and, six inches down, there is a mysterious and haphazard layer of concrete that bedevils my every effort at landscaping.
It is my perfect piece of paradise.
In my first year there, pretty much everything that I planted died: raccoons (yes, raccoons) dug up the bulbs, the seeds never sprouted, and a thriving ivy shrivelled to nothing a month after being potted. Local cats used my mulch as kitty litter, and workmen from next door accidentally poured lead paint dust on my lavender. The holly got a fungus, and the strawberries were besieged by spit bugs. The only thing that did well was a poison ivy vine – thick around as my wrist – which slowly tried to pull down the fence that separated my yard from the construction site next door.
But then there were the begonias, which my mother had recommended and my boyfriend had purchased. I’d given them a gimlet eye but dotted them dutifully around the yard, figuring I was writing their death sentence in potting soil. But in shade or partial sun, in the ground or in a pot, the begonias persisted.
Begonias, I discovered, were dependable. No, not just dependable – indefatigable. In the hot heart of summer, when the pansies fainted like fops in a Victorian novel, the begonias sat squatly undisturbed. They flowered before the lilies burst into showy banana-yellow blossoms, and were still flowering when those yellow petals showered to the ground … six days later. They adapted to being overwatered, but, like a middle child, were also fine if forgotten for a week.
And there were weeks when I forgot to tend my private paradise. I never realized how much time it takes to keep up a garden (even a tiny Manhattan-sized one). As a child, gardening seemed like a fun summer pursuit, at least for my parents; as an adult, I couldn’t figure out how they worked full-time, raised three boys, ran what sometimes felt like a halfway home for our enormous extended family, and maintained a beautiful garden.
The answer, it turned out was begonias (and impatiens and geraniums) – common flowers that we could afford and that were easy to maintain. While my parents carefully tended their roses and the crops that we ate, almost everything else we planted (I have since learned) were the super troopers of the botanical world – flowering cockroaches that can survive anything.
And who doesn’t love a survivor? Let the horticulturalists raise fickle exotics, high-maintenance orchids, and all the other divas of the dirt. I want a peaceful refuge, not one more stressful thing that demands my constant, unwavering attention. Perhaps a fancier garden would be easier in a perfect, south-facing plot, with soil that hadn’t spent 100 years accumulating city toxins and trash. I suspect I’ll never be able to afford to find out – but the begonias and I are content.
Each year I still try a few new plants: some make it and most don’t. Every time some fancy new flower wilts and dies while I watch helplessly, I’m simply left with a better view of the begonias. The more I look, the more I see that maybe their colors aren’t washed out, just subtle. It takes time to appreciate a begonia – time that I have because they are there, in full flower, from March to October, a constant flower for an inconstant gardener.