Norman F. Walawender doesn't have a degree in horticulture, but he surely deserves an honorary degree in begonias.
His garden has a collection of begonias to die for with the biggest blooms of striking colors on thick, supporting stems that are three and four feet tall.
The retired Lackawanna city court judge is justly proud of his collection of the flower that first captured his fancy more than 30 years ago.
Before begonias, "it was mums," he remembered with a smile.
"I worked in a flower shop when I was in my teens and I even had a small greenhouse where I raised mums and was going to make money on them.
"I was still in high school and really didn't know much about the business end, but I raised my mums and then when I tried to sell them to the flower shops, they offered me practically nothing, so I thought about going to the Bailey market and almost got myself arrested.
"No one told me you had to have a permit to sell in the market," Walawender remembered.
Mums gave way to gloxinias, and then one day, he was given a package of begonia seeds.
It was the beginning of a lasting passion that has endured many years as Walawender never stops learning more about tuberous begonias and growing hybrids that are now producing dinner-plate-sized flowers.
The hybrids in his garden are not for everyone, Walawender cautioned, "because the tubers are expensive . . . $20, $30 or more. . . . (They are) hard to find and you have to give them the special care and time they demand."
But not to despair, "because the non-stops that all the nurseries and garden centers around here sell look nice, too," Walawender said. "Not like these, but because they are inexpensive, most people grow them for the season and then toss them out and buy new ones the next year."
"I am saying the year 2001 will be the year of the begonias," adds Jeff Leyonmark, manager of Lockwood's Greenhouses on Clark Street in Hamburg, "and for us, it will be the fibrous begonias."
Fibrous begonias, unlike the tuberous begonias, should be treated as an annual or with some cultivars, such as the Rex, can be potted up and be a houseplant during the winter months.
Historically, there are more than 10,000 recorded types of begonias dating back hundreds of years to wild ancestors that grew in the tropics.
They are named after Michael Begon (1683-1710) a French botanist who discovered them while he was governor of Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.
"They started out as small flowers with single petals and now look, giant blooms and many with double petals," said Walawender.
Whether they are the show-stopping tuberous-rooted begonias Walawender grows or the smaller non-stop tuberous begonias, they share the same needs for growing or wintering over.
Since we are approaching the end of the growing season, let's start with storing the tubers for the winter.
"When the first light frost hits and turns the foliage black," Walawender said, "cut the plant back to about two to three inches, dig up the tuber, wash clean and then place in a cool, dry spot for the tuber to dry out." The short stem will dry and fall off the bulb.
"Then I like to put some peat moss in a small paper bag, put each tuber in a separate bag, mark it with the name or at least the color and then store indoors. The cellar is usually a good place - not too warm, but warm enough that the tubers will not freeze," he said.
Next April, start to check "for signs of green," he continued. "When you do see some green sprouts, take them out of the bags and pot them up, place in a sunny spot in the house and start regularly watering, and every three weeks, giving them some fertilizer."
Walawender prefers either "Green Light" or "Peter's" fertilizers.
"Do not, absolutely do not bring them outdoors until all the danger of frost has passed," he warned. "Remember these are tropical flowers and very vulnerable to the cold."
Tuberous begonias like a humus-rich, well-drained soil, so if you have the clay soil found in many parts of Erie County, do what Walawender does - use containers and raised beds. And place them where they will get early morning or evening sun (not the bright afternoon sun) and are protected from the wind.
"Don't overwater," Walawender cautioned.
Tuberous begonias are far better off being too dry rather than too wet.
And finally, Walawender advised fertilizing every three weeks.
If you don't want to go through all the winter preparations, you can either throw the non-stops on the compost heap or buy new begonias next spring.
Leyonmark was particularly taken with the "Charisma" and the "Solenia" cultivars which, he said, "grow about 18 inches tall and come in lovely pastel colors."
Leyonmark also pointed out that "a lot of gardeners hate to throw out a plant but with the fibrous begonias, many of them can a be potted up at the end of the season and brought inside for a houseplant and then next year, you can take them back outside."
He particularly recommends the "Rex" species that "many people grow just for their brightly colored and patterned leaves. We have some new breeds of that coming in and there is one I am really excited about. It's called "Escargot' and promises to be a great houseplant for the winter."
Somehow, one of the categories in the Buffalo in Bloom competition never made it in the story that appeared in The Buffalo News on Sunday naming the winners in the citywide competition.
The category was "Community Gardens" and the winners were: first place, Marine Drive Community Gardens at the Marine Drive Apartments; second, Fargo Estate Neighborhood Association garden at Jersey and West and third, WZKL Park Gardens at 50-52 Zenner St.
Fall daylily chores
The Buffalo Daylily Society reminds daylily growers to get their plants ready for winter:
Mulch for moisture conservation and more mulch if you've got newly planted daylilies.
A sprinkling of steamed bone meal is a welcome fall treatment.
Trim any dead foliage for a neater appearance. But leave the rest of the foliage alone until it's hit by a killing frost - then you may remove it for appearance and ease in the spring. Or not!
The society is also making plans for "an ambitious European trip to Europe in the spring of 2001," according to Kathy Guest, president.
From April 29 through May 9, those making the trip will visit gardens in Holland, Paris, Normandy and England.
If you are interested, contact Ms. Guest via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write her at 494 North St., East Aurora, N.Y. 14052, or contact Mike Shadrack via e-mail at MikeShadrck@aol.com.