Geraniums: simple garden pleasures

Martha Washington geranium (Pelargonium x domesticum)

Martha Washington geranium (Pelargonium x domesticum)

Geraniums are one of a gardener’s simplest pleasures.
Geraniums do not require special attention. They bloom on and off throughout the year and look especially fine in winter, when many other perennials are devoid of blooms. When geraniums start to look wild, you just prune them back. Divide the prunings into 4- to 6-inch stem pieces, with leaves attached, and stick them in pots. Do this for a few years and you will have a geranium forest.
Recently, I saw a large bed that was planted exclusively with lemon-scented geraniums. This was an area that was approximately 10 feet by 5 feet in size. Such a bed might have been planted with Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis), trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis `Prostratus’), the common yellow daisy bush known as euryops (Euryops pectinatus) or the violet-flowered, cabbage-leafed statice (Limonium perezeii), sometimes called sea lavender. All of these are sun lovers that flower during our winter season.
Flower power
A bed of scented geraniums is distinctive not only for its fragrance but for the strategy of maintaining it. Every few months, you make an even cut across the top of your geranium bed, reducing the height of the plants by one-third to one-half. Almost at once, the plants begin growing again.
There is a wonderful treasure trove of scented geraniums that most people know nothing about. They fill the air with aromas of mint, nutmeg, rose and chocolate. The citrus-scented types, in the manner of citronella candles, are purported to have some effect in keeping mosquitoes at bay. The `Crispum’ scented geraniums have always been favorites of mine on account of their ruffled foliage.
`Martha Washington’ geraniums (Pelargonium domesticum) are rarely found in gardens because they tend to be short-lived. Yet, during the two or three years of their brief lives, they provide a late-winter flower display that’s superior to every other class of geraniums. `Martha Washingtons’ come in salmon, violet, burgundy and pink. The colors are not as vibrant, perhaps, as the strong reds and pinks in the more common zonal or fish geraniums — those familiar subjects for terra cotta pots. Yet the massive bloom on a 3-foot `Martha Washington’ specimen will take your breath away in a manner unmatched by any other winter bloomer.
After the flower display is over, it is wise to take cuttings and stick them into fast-draining, sandy soil, where they will root within two months. In this way, you will have clones to replace the mother plants when they die.
Going vertical
Ivy geraniums are widely grown as ground cover, yet they look much better and live much longer when grown on balconies where they can spill over and down, or when they are trained to grow up a low fence.
When it comes to flowering and longevity, the hormonal balance of ivy geraniums favors vertical growth, whether up or down, as opposed to the horizontal spread they assume in a planter bed. The appropriately named `Balcon’ variety produces sheets of flowers that drape over balconies in red, pink or lavender-pink where full-sun exposure is available.
Leaf love
Geraniums have foliar as well as floral interest. Zonal geraniums (Pelargonium hortorum) may be seen with leaves symmetrically marked or streaked with cream, yellow, pink, burgundy or a combination of these colors.
The largest geranium nursery in the world is located in Carson. This 10-acre growing estate, Grand View Geranium Gardens, was founded in 1954 and supplies geraniums to the garden departments of home improvement centers across the U.S. You can view tantalizing pictures of many exotic geranium varieties on the nursery’s Web site, www.gvgeranium.com.
The fact that geraniums grow so well near the ocean hints at their native South African habitat. Many of our garden staples come from the bottom of the African continent, including ice plants, birds-of-paradise (Strelizia reginae) and the orange-flowered, shade-loving Kaffir lilies (Clivia). All of these plants bloom in the winter.

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

TIP OF THE WEEK: Violets (Viola odorata) are one of the easiest ground covers to grow, due to their tough rhizomatous root systems.
While requiring shade during the warmer months, they are not bothered by the sun during winter. In our climate, the best way to grow violets is in containers that can be moved into the shade when it’s hot and back into the sun when the weather cools. In summer, a violet plant’s heart-shaped leaves grab our attention. In winter, its flowers take center stage. Both the leaves and flowers are edible.

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