The begonia’s eye-catching, asymmetrical leaves make it the star of any collection, but what if your begonia is more stem than a leaf?
When a previously lush and leafy specimen produces an excess of stems and stalks, it shoots up until it’s nothing more than a tuft of greenery on a long bundle of sticks.
While begonias are prone to becoming leggy, there is a relatively simple fix that can result in even more begonias! Continue reading to learn how to turn this unfortunate circumstance into a win for your indoor garden.
To fix a leggy begonia, first, determine what is causing the overgrowth and then correct it by increasing light, temperature, or changing the plant’s pot. After you’ve resolved the initial problem, prune your plant from the top-down, removing the leggy parts. Finally, pinch back stray leaves on a regular basis to keep your begonia lush.
What is Leggy Begonia?
When we say a plant is “leggy,” we mean that its growth is concentrated in its stems. This causes begonias, particularly cane varieties such as the popular Polka Dot or Angel Wing varieties, to grow tall and lean, with few leaves along the stems.
A leggy begonia appears bare, with an insufficient amount of foliage. They can also become sprawling because fast-growing stems frequently lack the strength to keep their heads up. The weaker stems lean and nod, and your plant takes up more room in your arrangement.
A leggy begonia reminds me of a teenager in the middle of a growth spurt, gangly and out of proportion, and there’s some truth to that.
A leggy begonia, like an adolescent, is one that is rapidly growing. Etiolation is the rapid growth of the portion of the stem between the leaves. The stem stretches, causing the normal spacing between leaves to become excessively wide and gaping.
Overgrowth occurs in all begonias, but it is most noticeable in cane begonias. Tuberous, rhizomatous, and waxy begonias do not suffer as frequently as cane varieties, but long and malformed leaves can still be seen.
Causes of Leggy Begonia
Lack of light
Examine your begonia growing environment. A dimly lit environment will encourage your begonia to send out long stalks in search of light.
Your plant cannot photosynthesize and produce food if it is not exposed to light. Because your begonia cannot afford to produce both stems and leaves, it focuses on stems in the hope of achieving better illumination.
Begonias require less light than most house plants. However, while they do best in partial shade and indirect light, this is not the same as no light at all.
Plant growth is costly and necessitates the use of nutrients. Most potted plants have limited resources, and as a result, growth is restricted.
However, if you have over-fertilized your begonia, it may seize the opportunity to really get going, shooting up and becoming leggy. This is especially true in warmer weather – more on that later.
Begonias originated in the tropics and thrive in warm, humid climates. Most indoor plants, on the other hand, live in a kind of perpetual spring, where it is warm but not hot and there is little moisture in the air.
A brief period of unusual warmth will inspire your begonia to make the most of the summery conditions, resulting in a leggy plant.
Begonias, according to conventional wisdom, benefit from smaller-than-average pots. A small amount of root-binding is ideal for keeping your plant compact and lush. If you give your begonia too much space, it will seize the opportunity and spread as quickly as it can into the new space.
Repot your begonias only when they are completely root-bound. When shopping for a new pot, choose one that is only an inch (2.5cm) or so wider across the top. If you give them more than an inch, they’ll take a mile, and in this case, the mile in question is straight up.
Begonias shed their lower leaves as they grow older. An older begonia may become leggy as the leaves on its older stems fall off. Unlike other types of legginess, this is not caused by excessive growth. Rather, your plant is balding, which many older gardeners can certainly relate to!
How To Fix Your Leggy Begonia
Giving your leggy begonia a haircut is the absolute best way to deal with it! Lopping your begonia’s over-extended stems and pinching out its errant growth, as drastic as it may appear, is the most effective way to bring that growth back under control.
Cane begonias should be pruned on a regular basis to encourage a thicker growth, and other varieties benefit from having their excessively straggly growth removed as well.
Tuberous and rhizomatous begonias benefit from leaf removal and will reward you with new shoots and more perfectly formed growth.
It may seem brutal, but there really isn’t much to it. You will need pruning shears (This is the one I use), and I would recommend a jar or bowl of water for larger cuttings – more on that later! It’s best to do your pruning in the warmer months when the plant is growing, too.
- Take a close look at the shape of your begonia first. Is it skewed in one direction? Do you want to save any of the leaf patches? Because you can only cut once, consider what you want to keep and what needs to go.
- Begin by removing the tallest, thinnest stalks. Clip just above growth nodes to give the plant something to work with as it grows new leaves.
- Don’t be afraid! Trimming a cane begonia allows you to remove up to two-thirds of any stem without fear of killing the plant. Other varieties may not require as much vigorous pruning, but even the most delicate begonia will benefit from having its overgrown stalks and stems trimmed back.
- Replace any fluids lost during pruning by giving your plant a good drink and returning it to its original location to recover.
In no time you should start to see new growth springing up from the site of the old, woody stems. It’s not uncommon for a clipped cane to produce two new shoots, resulting in an overall thicker and bushier plant.
Nothing should go to waste. Cuttings taken from leggy specimens are a great way to start new plants. Begonias easily form new roots in water, and some indoor plant enthusiasts simply replant the rooted cutting with the parent plant, resulting in dense arrangements that give the appearance of a larger, thriving begonia.
Trim the cutting to just below the next node along for cane or tuberous begonias. Then simply immerse the entire stalk in water. Once a nice cluster of roots has formed, they can be potted as a separate plant in their own right.
Rhizomatous varieties, such as the popular begonia rex, are even easier, requiring only a single leaf in water to produce a new addition to your collection. It’s both economical and satisfying to watch your sad, leggy begonia transform into a thriving swarm of new plants.
After you’ve pruned your begonia, it will begin to sprout new leaves. You don’t want it to take off again, so keep an eye on it.
After you’ve trimmed your plant to the desired height, pinch off new growth sprouting at the top on a regular basis. Young leaves should be removed before they unfurl.
While this may appear barbaric, it will prompt your blushing beauty to produce not one, but two new sprouts from the trimmed tip. It’s a great way to get your begonia bushing out instead of legging it upwards.
Can I Cut The Top Off My Begonia?
It is perfectly acceptable to lop off the entire top of your leggy begonia. They are resilient and thrive under that level of pruning.
You can cut off up to two-thirds of the top of any given cane begonia. On occasion, I’ve pruned the top of a begonia, removed the leggy portion of the stem, and then immersed the remaining top in water to establish root. It’s a very satisfying way to keep your begonias’ dramatic foliage.
Preventing Legginess In Begonias
Now that we’ve restored your radiant beauty, let’s look at how to keep that legginess from reappearing.
Provide Adequate Light
Your begonia, regardless of variety, requires partial shade to bright, indirect light to thrive. Your begonia has indicated this need by stretching its leaves in the direction of a brighter light source.
Examine your growing environment and choose a location for your newly trimmed begonia that receives more light than its previous location.
Avoid direct sunlight, but any location with good diffuse light will encourage your begonia to bloom with an abundance of alluring foliage.
Consider using a grow light if you can’t find a good bright spot. Compact grow lights are very common and simple to use and will provide your begonia with the light levels it requires to stay in one place rather than legging it off in search of a brighter day.
Keep It Cool
If your begonia is receiving adequate light but still reaching for the stars, the problem is one of temperature, and you must maintain your cool.
Keep your begonias in a growing environment that is between 58 – 72°F (14 – 22°C) for the best results. Warm spells are unavoidable – I personally avoid using air conditioning if possible due to my other, more heat-loving plants – but it’s best to keep your begonia in a cooler part of your home or office.
During the warmer months, take the time to pinch off new growth at the plant’s crown. All of that summer zeal will end up in the leaves, giving you a display of growth to be proud of.
Do Not Over-fertilize
Fertilize your begonia no more than once a month during the growing season for best results. For a previously leggy plant, a good all-purpose balanced liquid fertilizer is ideal. When used sparingly, this will encourage the growth of those lovely leaves without inspiring them to reach for the stars.
Use The Correct Pot Size
When choosing your pot, a good general rule of thumb is no more than 20cm across the top for each begonia. Obviously, a larger pot is required if you have a larger plant, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and stick to smaller ones to prevent them from sprinting off into every available bit of the new roomy pot.
Use The Proper Soil When Repotting
When it comes to repotting, your choice of potting medium is critical. Indoor begonias thrive in soil-free mediums. Because they are susceptible to fungal infections, it is a good idea to limit the opportunity for those pesky diseases to establish a foothold in potting soils.
I’ve found an equal mix of perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss to be an ideal growing medium for my indoor begonias. It drains well while retaining a good amount of moisture, and the slow but steady decomposition of the moss provides a consistent amount of nutrition. When peat moss is unavailable, I’ve had success substituting coir or sphagnum moss for it in this blend.
If you must use soils in your growing medium for any reason, make sure there is plenty of organic material scattered throughout to allow for proper drainage.
How Do I Make My Begonia Bushy?
Pruning and pinching will help you concentrate the growth of your plant and make it denser and bushier. By cleverly planting multiple plants in the same space, each with sprouted cuttings from the parent plant, you can give the appearance of a bushier plant.
Mixing plants in a small indoor pot is not recommended in general, but when it is literally parts of the same plant, you can avoid the pitfalls of over-planting your pot. Simply keeping your new dense delight well-watered and well-lit will result in thicker, more luscious growth.
How Do You Thicken Begonia Stem?
The best way to thicken the stem of your begonia is to simply wait. Pruning on a regular basis causes the plant to mature and develop a thicker set of stems.
This is especially true of cane begonias, which can grow to look almost like bamboo with careful, consistent care. Stick to the plan above, and your bundle of twigs will be restored to its verdant glory in no time.