“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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