Friday, July 17, 2009

Hardy Geranium - The Lovely Weed

We gardeners often complain that the plants we want to grow require too much cultivation and tender loving care, while weeds thrive despite all the invective and abuse we heap on them. If only weeds were more appealing.

Good news! There is such a weed. In fact, various of its charming species are native to every state in North America. Others were introduced and found our soils to their liking. What is this amazing creature? Hardy or "Cranesbill" geranium.

Before going further, it must be noted that hardy geraniums are not the same plants sold as annuals in many retail markets. The annuals are of another genus, Pelargonium.

Though most of the hardy geraniums on the market are improvements over the species having been selected or hybridized for superior characteristics, they are not far removed from their native roots. They still retain the vigor and persistence of their parents, so they require very little care once established.

Hardy geraniums possess only positive characteristics, blooming for most of the growing season, tolerating a wide range of temperatures, thriving in most types of soil and pH, and growing in full sun to full shade. They perform best in USDA climate zones 4 - 8, enjoying a bit of protecting shade in the South. Geraniums are perfect for the butterfly garden. Deer don't like 'em.

These are some of the most popular varieties:

  • G. x 'Ann Folkard' - Grows to 8" tall, trailing habit, and begins to bloom in early Spring. Hardy from zones 5-9.
  • G. pratense 'Double Jewel' - Grows to 10" tall and produces double, white petals with lilac center.
  • G. x 'Johnson's Blue' - Grows to 20" tall and begins to bear 1.5" bright violet-blue flowers in late Spring to early Summer.
  • G. x 'Orion' - Grows to 18" and begins to bear deep blue flowers with contrasting violet-red veining in mid-Summer. Very tolerant of most environmental conditions.
  • G. x 'Rozanne' - 2008 Perennial Plant of the Year. Grows to 24" tall and bears violet blue flowers. Hardy from zones 5-8.
  • G. endressii 'Wargrave Pink' - Very popular. Grows to 24" tall and bears salmon-pink flowers.
  • G. macrorrhizum 'Bevan's Variety' - Grows to 24" tall and begins to bear deep magenta flowers with dark red sepals from mid to late Spring. Fragrant foliage turns red to bronze in Fall. Grows densely and suppresses weeds.
  • G. maculatum - This wild geranium grows to 20" and begins to bear lavender-pink flowers in Spring to early Summer.
  • G. oxonianum 'Southcombe Double' - Grows to 10" tall and produces double, pink, frilly blooms.
  • G. sanguineum - Known as 'Bloody Geranium'. A popular plant that grows to 15" and begins to bear rose to wine-red flowers in May. Very easy to grow. Foliage turns red in Fall.
  • G. sanguineum 'Max Frei' - An improved 'Bloody Geranium' that grows more compactly with purple-red flowers.

For optimum results, provide the following conditions:
  • Moist, well-drained soil,
  • Full sun to full shade (depending on your region),
  • Average fertility,
  • pH from 5.8 to 7.0,
  • About 2" of mulch.

Hardy geraniums are most commonly available growing in 4" pots to 1 gallon pots, or as bare root plants.

Prepare the planting site by thoroughly cultivating the soil. Add compost if available, otherwise do not add fertilizer to the planting hole. Space from 12" to 18" apart. Remove them from their pots and plant at the same depth they grew before. If planting bare root geraniums, place them in the ground with roots downward and spread out. The bases of the crowns should be at soil level. Firm the dirt around them and water well. Add about 2" of mulch around the plants.

Hardy geraniums prefer moist, well-drained soil, but will tolerate mild drought conditions when established. But if possible, water deeply at least once per week if you haven't had adequate rainfall. The frequency depends on your environment. Occasional deep irrigation is better than frequent shallow watering.

After Spring bloom, trim the plants back from one quarter to half off. This will remove the slender seed pods and encourage more branching and bloom. If you use your imagination, you will see that the seed pods resemble cranes' bills. Thus the name.

Frost will wilt the leaves, but not before turning some of them burgundy or scarlet in color; especially Geranium sanguineum or 'Bloody Geranium'. Trim them off when spent, dispose of the debris in your compost pile, and wistfully anticipate Spring.

Over time, your geraniums will spread by underground rhizomes, becoming large clumps. About every three years, these can be divided and replanted elsewhere. To divide them, cut downward through the clump with a sharp spade and separate the parts. When you have enough, you'll love sharing them with your friends.

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