Geraniums: Workhorse of Hot Weather Gardening
© Tara A. Spears
I f you’re looking for vibrant color and low maintenance in a sunny garden, the common geranium is perfect. A perennial bloomer in a subtropical climate, or an annual in latitudes that have cold winters, the ubiquitous geranium can be relied on to provide continuous blooms in a wide range of bright colors. Geraniums compliment every type of plant from palms to roses, and thrive in containers or in the ground. The blooms last for weeks on the plant or as cut flowers in water. Besides being drought tolerant, geraniums resist insects and deer. The beautiful geranium gives so much but requires so little care it is a must have for savvy gardeners.
Versatile Plant: Geraniums make popular bedding plants in the garden but they’re also commonly grown indoors or outside in hanging baskets. Once established, geraniums require little care. Space plants about 8-12 inches apart and plant at the same depth as their original planting pots. Mulching the plants is also recommended to help retain moisture. When watering outdoor plants, it’s best to avoid overhead irrigation, as this can lead to pests or disease issues. Geraniums are drought tolerant plants and they do not like too much water. They prefer full sun and a well-drained, moderately rich soil. They can handle partial shade, but become more prone to mildew if kept damp. Geraniums are not particular about soil pH, but a neutral to slightly acid soil is ideal. (5.8 – 7.0)
There is a great deal of variety in the geranium genus, but most of the commonly grown varieties are low growing, dense carpet-like plants. The velvety leaves may be rounded, but more often they are serrated or lobed and quite attractive. Slightly hairy stems appear on some species. The flowers are small (1″) and cup-shaped, attracting plenty of butterflies and bees. Thin stems hold the flowers above the foliage. While the bloom period varies with the species, count on geraniums from early summer on with repeat blooms throughout the growing season-which is all year long in the Riviera Nayarit area.
Pest problems are minimal with geraniums: slugs are attracted to this plant but that is easy to control. Simply place lids of beer around the plants to prevent damage. Always keep fading flower stalks removed to reduce botrytis-a gray rot fungus, which can be a problem during wet seasons. Proper plant spacing will help, because it provides good air circulation, works to minimize botrytis. Bacterial blight can be a serious problem on geraniums–usually evident when the plant or single leaves wilt for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, no sprays are available, therefore if you notice one of the above conditions, remove the plant from the site immediately.
For years I had 10-12 varieties of geraniums in my garden. I particularly like the scented species, not only for the exotic fragrances-chocolate being a favorite- but because the blooms are exquisite. The ivy types also have a bicolor flower and pointy leaf that I find attractive. Scented geraniums are fragrant-leaved, woody-based, tender perennials of the genus Pelargonium. Scented geraniums were widely grown in the Victorian era for use in perfumery, potpourris, and occasionally for cooking. Among modern herb and cottage garden enthusiasts the scented geranium is in vogue and make easy-care, fragrant houseplants and bedding plants, readily propagated by cuttings and adaptable to containers, window boxes, and hanging baskets. One of the parents of the modern bedding geranium, this species is an upright, woody-stemmed, branched, hairy sub-shrub to 6′+ tall, bearing thick 2-3″ rounded to triangular leaves, hooded or cup-shaped, toothed or sometimes lobed. Their margins are often tinted in red and they are pungently scented.
Pruning and Propagation: Most species of Geranium live longer if divided every 3-5 years. You can divide more frequently, so keep them from spreading. But once you see the center dying out, it is definitely time to divide. Regular pruning is easy and keeps the plant attractive and healthy. Remove all of the dead and brown leaves from the geranium plant. Next trim away any unhealthy stems. Healthy geranium stems will feel firm if gently squeezed. If you would like a less woody and leggy geranium, cut back the geranium plant by 1/3, focusing on stems that have started to turn woody. Or you can simply pinch to shape: Once a stem on a geranium plant has gotten to be a few inches, using a sharp pair of scissors, or even your fingers, snip or pinch a 1/4-1/2 inch off the end of the stem. Repeat on all the stems. This will force the geranium to grow new stems off the original and this is what creates the bushier, fuller plant. The appearance of a large number of yellow leaves indicates either too much water or not enough water.
Additional plants can be started from stem cuttings, or “slips.” Remove cuttings, 3 to 4 inches in length, from the tip of the stems. Shorter cuttings can be taken if necessary. Strip off the lower leaves to facilitate sticking the cuttings in the rooting medium. Perlite or sharp sand alone or mixed equally with sphagnum peat moss is an ideal medium for rooting cuttings. Place cuttings 1 inch deep in the medium and water thoroughly. Place container in a north or east window until rooted. Rooting occurs best with soil temperatures of 72 to 75 degrees F. This generally takes 3 to 4 weeks. Water sparingly during this rooting period–the trick to successful rooting is to keep the cuttings fairly dry. When cuttings have rooted, place them in 4-inch pots. After the cuttings become established (approximately one week), start fertilizing with a liquid fertilizer at one-half the recommended rate of application. You can safely move the young plants into the ground after four weeks.
To maintain bright leaf color and a profusion of blooms, fertilize once a month. I use the time release pellets that are readily available at the Thursday market and local nurseries. Even without a fertilizer, the tough geranium plant will grow well for a year with proper watering.
Simply choose your favorite color, plop a geranium into a sunny spot, and sit back to enjoy the vibrant blooms.