All over the country, geraniums flaunt their red and scarlet, rose, pink, and white blooms with a gay abandon that few other plants can rival. In boxes on city fire escapes and rooftops, in window boxes on surburban and country houses, in tubs and pots on terraces and patios, and in hanging baskets of the porches of summer cottages, they are beloved and cherished plants; a welcome symbol of warmth and hospitality. For sheer impact of color, they cannot be surpassed.
Geraniums are also great favorites in Europe, where red and pink-flowering zonals, the common types, are commonly treated as bedding plants. In western and northern European countries, they are widely planted in window boxes and in pots and tubs at doorways of city and country gardens. Along the Mediterranean, where geraniums are hardy, zonal types develop into mounds that are six feet tall and equally broad. Ivy-leaved kinds clothe banks and slopes and cascade like waterfalls from balconies, rooftops, and garden walls.
This widespread planting is easy to understand. Not only is the geranium a spectacular flower, but it grows almost everywhere with ease, blossoming under neglect and surviving where other plants fail. Though it prefers and needs sun to bloom, it tolerates shade, where it is usually handled as a foliage plant. What it resents is too much moisture and a rich diet. Kept too wet, the leaves turn yellow; given a heavy soil, one high in nitrogen, plants go to foliage and flower sparingly. Even at that, geraniums are amazing plants that will perform admirably under a wide variety of growing conditions.
Actually, the name geranium is incorrect, for these free-flowering shrubby plants are members of the genus Pelargonium. The Greek word, meaning stork-bill, refers to the slender, curving form of the seed pod. Nevertheless, geranium is the commonly used name for the members of this interesting clan.
Far from uniform, the genus includes types that are herbaceous, shrubby, deciduous, annual, biennial, perennial, stemless, long-stemmed, tuberous and fibrous-rooted, sall of them well suited to container gardening. Even if you choose no other plants, you could have a varied pot garden of single and double zonal, fancy-leaved or variegated, scented-leaved, ivy and Lady or Martha Washington geraniums (also called show or fancy geraniums), not to mention a few oddities of cactus and climbing types.
Zonal, Fancy, and Scented-leaved
The zonal geranium is characterized by dark circular markings on the rounded green leaves. Double types dominate the trade and are offered by florists in the spring for planting in gardens and window boxes. You will like such pinks as Mrs. Lawrence, Fiat Enchantress, and Pink Abundance. Olympic Red is excellent, as is Better Times, an outstanding dark crimson.
Among desirable singles, consider the carmine Barbara Hope, the cherry-red to white Apple Blossom, the creamy coral Ecstasy, the scarlet to wine-red Nuit Poitevine, and the light orchid-pink Helen Van Pelt Wilson. All are so beautiful, they should be planted where they can easily be seen.
Variegated geraniums, with leaves that are often brilliantly colored, are attractive even out of bloom. Indeed, some feel, as I do, that flowers detract from the foliage. Among the best are Mrs. Cox, vermillion and purple, with an edging of yellow; Miss Burdett Coutts, purple-zoned and pink-splashed; and Skies of Italy, crimson-zoned with a yellow edging. Set among green-leaved geraniums and other foliage plants, pots of the variegateds add color and pattern.
Scented-leaved geraniums comprise a varied group that is treasured for the scent of the crushed leaves. The flowers, smaller and less showy than those of zonals, are not so important. Familiar kinds include the nutmeg, with round leaves and small white flowers; the peppermint, with large, hairy, velvety leaves; the pine-scented, with big finely-cut leaves; the rose, with deeply-cut, toothed leaves; and the lemon-scented, with small leaves on compact plants. A variety of the lemon-scented, Prince Rupert, is admired for its variegated green-and-white leaves. Scented-leaved geraniums prefer a light, well-drained loam. They make unique pot plants, and for a black iron kettle nothing is more decorative than a great sprawling peppermint geranium.
Ivy-leaved and Lady Washington Types
The trailing, ivy-leaved geraniums are among the most profuse flowering when grown under favorable conditions. They dislike shade and high humidity and thrive best in climates with warm days and cool nights, as in California. In window boxes, they offer a pleasant change from English ivy and vinca and present masses of lively color in hanging baskets suspended on porches, posts, lathhouses, garages, or trees. Adaptable basket varieties include the lilac-white to pink Alliance, the double pink Galilee, and the lavender Santa Paula.
Lady Washingtons, considered the handsomest of geraniums, are not so easy to grow. Like the ivy-leaved, they prefer cool nights and warm, sunny days, responding to shelter from wind and all-day sun. You may want a few for variety's sake, like the lovely Easter Greeting, Lucy Becker, Gay Nineties, and Marie Rober. Lady Washington geraniums are sold by florists at Easter time, and gift plants you receive can be included in the container garden.
Cactus and Climbing
If you are a geranium enthusiast, you may want to spark your pot plant collection with some cactus and climbing geraniums. They have bizarre and fascinating forms and flowers and are certain to arouse comment. There is the parsley-leaved Otidia, the heart-leaved, knotted and rue-scented stork-bills, the prickly-stalked geranium, and the climbing square-stalked Jenkinsonia. Perhaps they are more interesting than handsome.
Geraniums are sun-loving plants. They will grow in window boxes and pots on the east, south, or west side of the house and on terraces with sun for half a day. In spite of their love of sunshine, they will even flourish with just a little, provided they receive plenty of strong light. The north side of a house, beyond the shade of trees, will produce extraordinary plants. When geraniums are grown against hot, sunny brick, concrete, or stone walls or pavements, some shielding from the torrid noonday sun is advisable. This is to cut down on reflected heat through the middle part of the day.
Soil and Potting
Geraniums flourish and look well in pots, boxes, and planters. They thrive in various soil mixtures if drainage is good. For abundant bloom, however, supply a special preparation, not high in nitrogen, or lush foliage and few blooms will result. A combination of three parts good garden loam and one part leafmold, peatmoss, or compost plus a five-inch pot of bonemeal to each bushel is good. If the garden loam is heavy, add sand. Acid soil will also need some lime. I have success with good garden soil and a sprinkling of a 5-10-5 fertilizer and bonemeal. During the growing season, plants respond to a low-nitrogen fertilizer in liquid form.
When potting, be generous with drainage material to insure free passage of water. Always water with care, since too much or not enough can be harmful. The best rule is to water when the surface of the soil feels dry. Then soak the soil well and do not water again until plants need it. If soil is kept too wet, leaves will turn yellow; if too dry, they wilt and discolor. Both extremes cause legginess, a common complaint from gardeners.
Keep up Appearances
To maintain even plant growth, turn containers from time to time. Remove yellow leaves and faded blossoms, which are especially distracting on plants at doorways and other key spots. If rain rots and disfigures the center florets of the heads, pull them off with your fingers, leaving the unmarred outer florets and buds. This is admittedly an exacting chore for the busy gardener, but one that greatly improves the appearance of plants.
On the whole, geraniums are pest free, but if insects prove troublesome, malathion or lindane will clean them up. To your delight, you may even discover dead Japanese beetles on the foliage, since flower and leaf parts contain a substance that is poisonous to this pest.
If you want plants for next spring, take two- to four-inch cuttings in August or early September. Look for mature stems (with leaves spaced close together) that break easily like a snap bean. Woody growth is hard to root and succulent tips tend to rot. Before planting, spread out cuttings in a shady place for several hours so leaves will lose excess moisture.
Rooting and Cuttings
When ready to plant, cut off the lower leaves, allowing but two or three to each cutting. Also pull off the little wings on the stem, since they are inclined to rot. Dip stem ends in hydrated lime to prevent decay and then insert, about halfway, in a flat or large pot of pure sand or a mixture of sand and peatmoss. With geraniums, rooting powders are hardly necessary. When cuttings develop inch-long roots, they are ready for spacing out in another flat or for separate planting in 21/2-inch pots. Fill with a mixture of three parts sandy loam and one part peatmoss or leafmold. After planting, keep in the shade for the first few days, and bring indoors before cold weather.
When the separated cuttings have developed strong root systems, shift to 31/2- or 4-inch pots. Use the same potting mixture as before, with bonemeal added. Later, as established plants begin to grow, feed periodically with a high phosphorous fertilizer, as 5-10-5 or 4-12-8.
To keep plants bushy and to encourage branching, pinch while small, starting when they are three to four inches high. Provide sunny windows, and keep turning pots to prevent lopsided growth. Water regularly, but allow soil to dry out just a little between applications. Above all, do not permit pots to stand in water, but set them on pebbles spread out in the saucers. Best growing temperatures are 60 to 70 degrees F. by day, no higher, with a ten degree drop at night, though this is not always possible in the average home.
If you wish, you can hold onto your original plants and winter them indoors. Cut back tops to 6 or 8 inches, and if containers are not too enormous, place them in a sunny house or a well-lighted cellar window. The important thing in winter is to grow old plants cool, at about 50 degrees F., and to water sparingly to encourage rest. Plants may also be wintered in cool cellars with little light. Remember only that the less light, the cooler the temperatures should be. This is because too much warmth and insufficient light cause lanky growth that undermines vigor. In late winter or early spring, if old plants are growing in strong light, take cuttings for young plants to use outdoors, rooting by the method described. Or if you prefer, when weather permits, cut back your old plants, repot them in fresh soil and set outdoors.
Many gardeners find this method successful, and it does provide big specimens. Growers of geraniums often ask whether plants can be lifted in fall and stored by hanging upside down in cellars or basements. This was possible in old-fashioned cellars with dirt floors and without central heating units; but it is not possible in modern basements, which are warm, dry, and well insulated. Gardeners with cellars or sheds where temperatures remain above freezing, can winter geraniums this way. The dead-looking sticks, set out in pots or in the garden in warm weather, will astound you when they develop into glorious flowering specimens. The fact that geraniums, under certain conditions, can be wintered without soil is certainly proof of their toughness.