Saturday 16 December 2017

Geranium mania

Why gardeners are mad about these (almost indestructible) blooms


Diarmuid Gavin

Geraniums are the most dependable and old-fashioned of our summer garden plants. Their bright blossoms, frilly leaf form and often scented foliage brighten even the dullest concrete yard. Technically speaking, the botanical name for geraniums is Pelargonium. This helps to distinguish them from their herbaceous perennial cousins, which are called hardy geraniums. Still, most of us know them simply as geraniums.

Geraniums are almost indestructible. Many originate from southern Africa so, while they definitely don't do frost, they'll take a lot of neglect, heat and drought. There are a few different types - the ones commonly used as bedding plants are 'zonal', so called for the darker zone on their leaves. Many of these have the bright pink, salmon and red flowers we associate with this plant, evoking images of whitewashed Greek cottages with terracotta pots filled with colourful blooms.

If you want trailing geraniums for hanging baskets, look for ivy-leaved geraniums. These scented types are grown more for their fragrant leaves which, when crushed or brushed by, release their fragrance. This makes them great for the edges of pathways or on patios near seating areas. Their essential oil is extracted and used in the perfume industry and many are used as culinary herbs. The range of scents is astonishing: from the more typical lemon and lavender through to peach, pine, ginger, nutmeg, pineapple, coconut and raspberry.

When caring for geraniums, remember that they come from semi-desert areas so they don't want to be damp or freezing - a sunny, dry spot is best (some tolerate semi-shade). Don't overwater, and feed with a granular mix fortnightly in summer. The secret to repeat blooms is to deadhead fading blossoms regularly to keep the display going. Bring them indoors at the end of summer before first frosts take a toll.

Leaves can die and turn brown for a few reasons, primarily because geraniums are quite sensitive to fungal disease from excess moisture and humidity. Keep your plants looking their best by removing dried or discoloured leaves. Your geraniums will reward you by looking great all season.

Scented geraniums are grown mainly for their aromatic leaves, usually smelling of citrus, apple, rose or mint. These have smaller, less showy flowers than the other types. Citrus-scented cultivars such as 'Citronella' are often sold as mosquito-repellent plants (although I wouldn't count on them dispersing the clouds of flying midgets which can be the scourge of many an enchanting Irish rural garden as the sun sets).

You can propagate them in August or September by snipping off a stem - choose a fresh-looking, non-flowering stem, about 3-4in long and cut just below a leaf. You only need a few leaves at the top, so cut off any other leaves. Pop into a compost: multi-purpose with some added grit is best. Moisten the soil and leave in a warm but shaded area to get rooted in no time at all.

Plug plants are available to buy from garden centres each year from May. There are hundreds of cultivars available but here are a few to whet your appetite...

'Appleblossom Rosebud': pretty pink and white buds opening to double flowers.

'Mabel Gray': the most highly scented lemon variety with small, pale pink flowers.

'Attar of Roses': pretty pale pink flowers with a delicious rose scent from the leaves.

'Balcon Red': a popular scarlet cascading geranium - perfect for windowboxes.

'Lord Bute': dark, velvety blooms - a favourite since Victorian times.

Often, geraniums will be planted with a collection of other flowering beauties in a pot or windowbox. As the plants share a container, they must have similar water and light needs. Choose plants of different heights so each plant stands out. Traditional choices include lobelia, alyssum and trailing ivy. Plants with different-shaped leaves and textures add visual interest. Consider flowering species such as lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), which has tiny lavender flowers, but it stands out for its aromatic lemony leaves. Lemon verbena can be taller than geraniums so there should be some space between the two in the container. Or you could try deliciously scented herbs such as basil (Ocimum basilicum) or oregano (Origanum vulgare).

Irish Independent

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