Above and Beyond: Hanging With the Legendary Fuchsias, Tuberous Begonias of Weidner’s Gardens

PHOTOS BY RYAN BENOIT

“We’ve all done pots, right? But baskets kind of allow you to use another space,” Kalim Owens (above) said during our recent trip to Weidner’s Gardens. “Many of us now have these small patio gardens, so your square footage on the ground is only so much. But you can always garden by going up.”

And up we went — to Encinitas, CA, where the legendary six-acre Weidner’s garden center has been cranking out its signature outbursts of color since 1973.

Weidner's Garden entrance

This sign hangs near the entrance of Weidner’s, which is located in the Leucadia neighborhood of Encinitas, CA. Don’t worry, our questions were both dumb and brilliant.

When we visited the shop last weekend, Kalim (pronounced “kay-lim”) was our warm, gregarious, Panama hat-clad guide for the day. Warning us that this time of year is their “lowest ebb” in floral activity, he took us behind the scenes: into the greenhouses where flowers are propagated (Weidner’s grows about 90 percent of what it sells), past adorably painted fertilizer tanks, and to the corners where its custom soil is mixed.

On the retail side, we gawked and gawked at the hundreds of the hanging baskets the “not-just-another-nursery” nursery is known for, which bubbled over with jazzy blooms: impatiens, scaevola, dipladenia, mandevilla, and the ever-popular fuchsia.

But let’s begin with the shade plant that started it all: Weidner’s famed tuberous begonias.

At Weidner's, a beautiful apricot tuberous begonia.

At Weidner’s, a beautiful apricot tuberous begonia.

Tuberous begonia at Weidner's Gardens

The hanging baskets at Weidner’s provide loveliness at eye level and above.

Kalim Owens, Weidner's Gardens

Originally from the San Joaquin Valley, Kalim Owens was raised on a cattle ranch that grew pomegranates and hay, and has “always been in agriculture.” Today he is Weidner’s sales manager and part owner.

Tuberous begonias at Weidner's Gardens.

How to care for your tuberous begonia? Provide a shady spot, water it twice a week, fertilize it every other week to every three weeks during its growing season, and deadhead the blooms for more vigorous flowering. Also, be sure not to overwater!

Weidner’s wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one man’s over-the-top gift. The late Bob Weidner, with wife Evelyn, had been in the foliage growing business before they briefly retired. One day Bob asked Evelyn if she’d like some tuberous begonias for her shade garden. When she said yes, he ordered 25,000 of them.

“There’s nothing that provides the flower power like a tuberous begonia,” Kalim said about the long-blooming flower, of which the garden sells thousands each year. “It is a big, beautiful, hard-to-resist flower. You’re not going to find many things that are going to give you that kind of display of color.”

How to care for a tuberous begonia? Place it in a shady spot, water it twice a week, fertilize it every other week to every three weeks during its growing season, and deadhead the blooms for more vigorous flowering. Because they grow from tubers, tuberous begonias are susceptible to all the scourges that affect bulbs, corms and tubers, like rot. So be careful not to overwater. But “they’re really hardier than people think they are,” Kalim said.

In January of this year, Evelyn Weidner, 84, sold the company to Kalim and head grower Oliver Storm. Nevertheless, Evelyn and her daughter Mary Witesman remain a regular presence at the garden center.

Evelyn Weidner

Evelyn Weidner, above, and her late husband Bob used to travel the world in search of flowering plants. This led to the founding of a global group of hybridizers that eventually became plant powerhouse Proven Winners.

Evelyn Weidner

Indeed, “Evelyn is like the matriarch of the plant business in Southern California,” said Kalim.

Oliver Storm

Weidner’s head grower and part owner Oliver Storm.

Another major change that happened this year was a radical change to Weidner’s hours: It is now open seven days a week year-round. (Previously, the garden center was only open seasonally and was always closed on Tuesdays.) The shop — one of the rare independent garden centers still out there — also began selling a wide range of herbs and vegetables this year.

One funky and beloved tradition that remains is the dig-your-own begonia patch — which reaches its peak in the springtime — followed by the same down-and-dirty arrangement for some 16,000 to 17,000 pansies come November.

Something else to look forward to? Preps are already well underway for the grand display of poinsettias slated to debut around Thanksgiving. (A pink “Luv U” poinsettia will also be available in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.) So mark your calendars for Weidner’s behind-the-scenes poinsettia tours November 23-24!

Kalim kindly gave us a sneak peak at the poinsettias at various stages of growth. They’re being propagated as we speak, inside Weidner’s own greenhouses:

Weidner's poinsettias

These are the big-tub poinsettias, which are destined for the retail floor in late fall.

Poinsettia cuttings

Poinsettia cuttings inside the greenhouse. Here, one is beginning to take root; it’s takes about 12 weeks for a poinsettia to go from cutting to retail-ready.

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A poinsettia cutting at an even earlier stage. It’s just been “stuck,” and is only beginning to develop its roots.

Biggest misconception about poinsettia? That its poisonous, especially to kids and pets. That myth was busted years ago by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Biggest misconception about poinsettia? That it’s poisonous, especially to kids and pets. That myth was busted years ago by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Cuttings of 'Beauty Pink' poinsettia

Another shot of the ‘Beauty Pink’ poinsettia cuttings. This year’s poinsettias will include red, white and pink flowering varieties.

Fuchsia cuttings at Weidner's Gardens

The fuchsia cuttings inside the Weidner’s greenhouses. The hotly colored shade plant is at its most spectacular in March, April and May.

Weidner's greenhouse

Warm water is pumped through tubes below the Oasis strips to keep the roots warm on cold nights.

Breynia nivosa

Breynia nivosa, growing here in a greenhouse, doesn’t flower but provides excellent interest and texture via its fiery leaves.

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Diluted fertilizer is injected into the irrigation system.

Weidner's custom soil blend

Weidner’s custom soil blend (used in its plants and also available for sale) includes a Canadian peat moss base with perlite, redwood sawdust and shavings mixed with nitrogen, and micronutrients.

Weidner's Gardens

The soil is blended in a concrete mixer.

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We like the FM radio in the perlite workspace!

Back on the retail side, we asked: If you’re used to planting in the ground but want to experiment with growing hanging plants, what’s the most important thing to consider?

According to Kalim, there’s a reason why plants like vinca, petunia and fuchsia need that extra H2O. “Because [a hanging basket plant] is up in the air, it dries out faster than a plant that’s in the ground or in a huge pot. So you have to be more mindful of the watering. That’s the biggest thing.”

Best moisture tester? Your finger.

Weidner's gardens

Above, impatiens and begonias take the space above and beyond. “There are very few nurseries that have the type of color we have,” Kalim said. “Color is what we’re all about.”

Weidner's Gardens

The garden center also carries fruit trees, succulents, herbs, vegetables. Some 70,000 cyclamen plants are also being grown for the fall season.

Verbena, calibrachoa, lobelia

A good starter basket would be this collection of verbena (magenta), calibrachoa (orange), lobelia (purple) flowers. They require full sun, water 2-3 times a week, and fertilizer once a month.

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Evelyn Weidner’s wry, witty voice pervades the space and is also present in the garden center’s newsletter.

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When we asked Evelyn what she grows at her own house, she cracked, “Depends on whether I’m having a party or not. The day before a party, a truck will bring in whatever’s in bloom. And the next day, the truck will come and take it away.”

Evelyn gave us a bite of yummy concoction she made with the grapes that grow on the property, a tart and delicious recipe involving brown sugar, walnuts, sour cream, cream cheese and vanilla. And then she sent us home with some of the grapes!

She adds, “I love fuchsia, but I manage to kill every one I take home.”

About those fuchsia:

'Voodoo' fuchsia planted with vinca major.

The ‘Voodoo’ fuchsia is one of Weidner’s “toughest, best” varieties, and blooms even in the “dead of winter.” Here it’s planted with vinca major, a long, luxurious vine we brought home for our own garden.

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Evelyn Weidner is known to talk gardeners from hot, dry areas out of buying fuchsias and tuberous begonias — so they can avoid the heartache. “I tell them, ‘You’ll probably kill them before you even get them out of the car,” she said.

Weidner's irrigation system

The fuchsias are watered and fed via spitters in small amounts (approximately half a cup) twice a day to prevent wasteful runoff.

Weidner's Garden's fuchsias.

‘Nelly’s Beauty’ fuchsia, a double bloom whose light pink sepals and lavender coronas remind us of a 1950s prom dress.

Fuchsias are another one of Weidner’s claims to fame. The garden center grows 80 varieties of the frothy, theatrical, shade-loving spellcaster.

Tending members of the Fuchsia genus “takes a little bit of effort,” Kalim notes. Typically they should be watered three times a week, fertilized every other week, and deadheaded consistently to encourage blooming. “If you want to keep your fuchsia and have it be a perennial, you have to cut it back and be patient with it and nurse it back to flowering again.” He then points us to the ‘Voodoo’ fuchsia whose pendulous blooms are blocked with magenta and blackish purple. This one can flower year-round, even “in the dead of winter,” he said.

A colorful discovery open for business year-round? Sounds like somebody we know. —TH

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During our visit, we learned we don’t feed our plants nearly enough. Luckily, Weidner’s sells “Good Stuff,” a balanced fertilizer it uses on its own flora.

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Watering wands are recommended for hydrating your hanging plants.

Scaevola

Kalim with a scaevola, one of the “workhorses” of the trailing plants.

Kalanchoe

The very easy-to-care-for kalanchoe.

Russelia, Weidner's

Baskets of russelia, the flowers of which hummingbirds are known to fight over.

Fuchsia with 'Snow Princess' alyssum

The hazy clusters of the ‘Snow Princess’ alyssum (right) mingle with a fuchsia on the left.

Angel wing begonia

An angel wing begonia.

Plant stands at Weidner's Gardens.

Groovy plant stands!

Weidner's Gardens

The shop also sells succulents like echeveria, crassula and tiger’s jaw. Unlike with the fuchsia and tuberous begonia, succulents don’t require a large amount of care, a reason why they’ve become “gateway” plants for beginner gardeners.

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Weidner's grapes

Evelyn Weidner sent us home with some of the most flavorful grapes we’ve ever had, grown on the property.

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As of this year, herbs and vegetables are now being sold in abundance at Weidner’s.

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A pomegranate fruit tree.

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Our vinca's new home.

Our vinca’s new home inside our yard.