Fundamental Facts

HARDINESS: Frost tolerant
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Neutral to slight alkaline
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Well-drained loam
PREFERRED LIGHT: Sun to partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: Profuse, large flowers in white, pink, red; for beds, pots, baskets
SEASON OF INTEREST: Early summer to fall
FAVORITES: Seed-sown hybrids, such as 'Elite' or 'Orbit'; 'Summer Showers' ivy geranium; all scented-leaf geraniums
QUIRKS: Allow soil to dry between waterings to ovoid rot
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Browallia, dusty miller, lobelia, petunia, verbena
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Sunny site, well-drained soil, windowsill, outdoors
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Geranium budworm
SOURCE: Bedding plants, seeds
DIMENSIONS: 1-3 ft (0.3-1 m) tall, 1-3 ft (0.3-1 m) wide

Bedding Geranium in the Landscape

A flowering plant that flourishes in window boxes and containers on every Main Street in the country has to be easy to please. Plants that are traditionally left on cemetery plots from Memorial Day through the end of summer to fend for themselves are bound to be low maintenance. That's the destiny of bedding geraniums. Not only do we love and leave them to care for themselves, we also call them by the wrong name.

The annual bedding geranium isn't a true geranium. Its proper botanical name is Pelargonium. Bedding geraniums, also called zonal geraniums, are actually tender perennials that hail from South Africa, where they thrive in lean soil and without reliable rainfall. This undaunted bloomer cut its teeth under those rigorous, survive-or-die conditions, and that explains why geraniums are often popped into tough places and nonetheless produce quantities of lollipop-like flower clusters crowning scalloped, velvety, deep green or variegated leaves.

In cool weather and in partial shade, geranium leaves are often marked with a reddish horseshoe-shaped band or zone, a trait that has won the plant its nickname of zonal geranium. In some varieties the leaves are almost as ornamental as the flowers. 'Flowers of Spring' has leaves variegated with silver, while those of 'Crystal Palace Gem' are golden.There are even geraniums with leaves accented by bands of several colors, such as old-fashioned 'Skies of Italy', which was popular in Victorian times. Such specialty geraniums can usually be found at mail-order nurseries.

These showy varieties, which are propagated exclusively by cuttings, are most appropriate as container plants for sunny indoor windowsills, where they bloom off and on year-round. For outdoor beds, seed-sown bedding geraniums, such as 'Elite' or 'Orbit', which branch freely and produce a summer-long display of self-cleaning flowers that need no grooming, are simply unbeatable. Flower colors include white, pink, red, magenta, lavender, salmon, and orange. And if you want especially dramatic geraniums to showcase in containers or window boxes, there are double- and semidouble-flowered varieties that produce breathtakingly large blossoms. The best of these are grown from cuttings rather than from seed, and are sold in roomy pots at garden centers in the spring.

Ivy Geranium

Although the beautiful upright-growing zonal geraniums are by far the most familiar members of the family, there are other care-free annual geraniums worth considering. Ivy geraniums (P. peltatum), which are sold as bedding plants, are a boon to any window box or hanging basket where nights remain cool through the summer. These enthusiastic growers will tumble and cascade out of their containers, concealing them behind a curtain of long, trailing stems. In California, ivy geraniums are often used as a trouble-free groundcover to camouflage steep hillsides with a generous crop of blossoms.

As you might imagine from the plant's name, ivy geraniums have something in common with ivy. Both have vinelike, spreading stems and thick, shiny, lobed, slightly curly leaves. While the geranium can't cling to surfaces as true ivy can, it has the bonus of profuse flower clusters I bearing single star-shaped blooms in white, pink, red, lavender, burgundy, or salmon flowers. The petals are often veined in a contrasting color near the

I center, adding a little drama. 'Summer Showers' is a particularly profuse-blooming strain. Give ivy geraniums full or partial sun. especially in hot-summer climates, water them sparingly, and they'll be perfectly happy to bloom with abandon.

Scented-Leaf Geranium

If you like to "garden" with your nose, you will quickly fall in love with the lemon, mint, apple, spice, and even chocolate scents given off by the leaves of some very special Pelargoniums called scented-leaf geraniums. The leaves not only smell delicious but are 1 edible and can be used as garnishes I or flavorings in salads, jellies, or in baked goods.

Also native to South Africa, these geraniums have foliage and growth habits as varied as their fragrances. Some, such as 'Nutmeg', have leaves no bigger than a thumbnail and spread by runners along the ground. 'Lemon' is a small plant with tiny leaves and a stiffly upright growth habit. Others, such as 'Peppermint', stand 3 ft (1 m) tall and have leaves the size of a man's hand.

Most scented-leaf geraniums flower primarily in spring with white, pink, lavender, or red blossoms. But a few, such as the rose-scented 'Little Gem and piquant 'Old Spice', bloom throughout the summer. Even when the plants are not in flower, the leaves can add pretty texture and color to the garden. One variety may have deeply cut leaves rimmed with ivory, while another has heart-shaped foliage covered with a soft hairs like fur.

Scented-leaf geraniums are ideal for containers or as accents in the garden. To overwinter pot-grown plants, you can move them at season's end to a cool place where temperatures will not drop below about 25°F (-4°C). In summer, be sure to place them where you can enjoy their fragrance, such as beside a bench or along a path.The leaves need only a light stroking for the scent to be released. Full sun is best for plants in Zones 3 to 6. In Zones 7 to 9 grow scented-leaf geraniums in partial shade.

Increasing the Bounty

Ready-to-plant bedding geraniums grown from seed are inexpensive and easily available at garden centers and supermarkets, but if you have a favorite plant and want to increase it. you can easily take cuttings. Snip off a stem just below 3 sets of leaves, remove all but the top 2 leaves, and dip the cut end of the stem into commercial rooting hormone. Insert the bottom inch of the stem in a pot of moistened potting soil, fuming the soil around the stem. Water lightly and keep the pot in partial shade, watering the soil only when it dries out. In 4 to 6 weeks, the cutting should have roots and be ready to transplant into a container or in the garden when the soil is warm.

Growing Geranium

Except in areas with very hot summers, bedding geraniums flower best with at least 6 hours of full sun each day. All geraniums benefit from well-drained soil enriched with compost or other organic matter, but they do not need large amounts of fertilizer. Apply it only periodically, to get them off to a good start and to support spurts of new growth. And because geraniums have a special fondness for soil that becomes almost dry between waterings, you can easily satisfy them by drenching them with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks. The secret to keeping bedding geraniums healthy and care-free lies in watering them only when the soil is dry but not bone dry, and feeding when the plants are hungry but not starving. Plants with yellowing leaves need fertilizer.

Pest problems with geraniums are rare, but an insect called the geranium budworm occasionally causes extensive damage where winter temperatures seldom fall below 20°F (-7°C). The larvae of a moth, budworms hatch from eggs laid on flower buds. The worms bore inside the buds and ruin the blossoms. Use the biological insecticide BT (Bacillus thuhagieasis), a caterpillar stomach poison, applied as directed to control this pest.

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