As all gardeners know, geraniums are in fact hardy herbaceous perennials which are sometimes known as cranesbills. They cover the ground fast, come in every combination of blue, pink and white, and there are varieties to suit every type of soil and situation. What many gardeners may not appreciate, however, is the versatility of pelargoniums: they are much more than plants with universal bedding appeal.
Pelargoniums have a prodigal ability to keep on flowering. While this accounts for their development as summer bedding, they also possess other qualities that ought to make them as popular as they once were in Victorian times, when every house had one in a pot on a sunny windowsill, summer and winter.
For winter flowering, the old varieties with single flowers, the single zonals, which can be bought only from specialist nurseries, are the ones to try. The holder of the National Collection of pelargoniums, Fibrex Nurseries in Warkwickshire, recommend "Madame Du-barry", with coral-red flowers, "Mr Wren", with white-edged petals on an orange flower, and "Beauty", a soft red. The semi-double "Irene" will also bloom in winter if it is properly managed. For a winter show Fibrex commend "Irene" and "Toyon", both rich crimson. Buy any of these now in a 3in pot and grow it through the summer. You will need to pinch out the sideshoots to make it bushy and the buds to stop it flowering. Feed it with an ordinary balanced fertiliser and when the roots fill the pot (test by gently removing the plant), pot it on in stages from a 4in to a 5in pot. By September it will be ready to perform. As soon as you want it to flower, switch to a tomato fertiliser with high potash, put it on a sunny windowsill or conservatory and it will be a star all winter.
As indoor plants, pelargoniums are hard to beat. In a conservatory or greenhouse my first choice up a wall would be the cerise-pink, scented- leaf "Clorinda", which grows as high as you can give it room, achieving 10ft or more in a couple of seasons. It is hard to stop "Clorinda" flowering all year round; she hardly seems to need a rest at all. "Sweet Mimosa", with paler pink flowers, is just as willing to climb, but is not quite so prodigal with blooms.
There are other scented-leaf paragons to put in the conservatory or use as summer features outdoors. "Copthorne" will make a tall pyramid, perhaps 5ft high, covered in large, scented pale mauve flowers streaked with darker veins. P. crispum, with tiny curled silver leaves, can be grown to a 6ft tower. But P. tomentosum, with huge, pale green felty leaves that smell of mint, grows laterally rather than vertically, to spread into a great mound 5ft wide. This is one pelar-gonium that seems not to mind shade.
If all these sound too large, try the group known as Angels. These make neat bushy plants covered in flowers. They are a recent introduction, dating from the late 1970s. "Tip Top Duet", "Captain Starlight" and "Rose Bengal" are some of the prettiest. And if you want larger flowers on plants of a manageable size, consider the Regal group of varieties. Their flowers are huge and frilled and come in rich colours, from bright as you like to near-black velvet. The range is terrific. The most dashing new Regals are being bred in Australia.
Both Angels and Regals can be martyrs to whitefly and it is vital to keep a close watch on them for the first signs of attack. Yellow sticky strips can be a help, but as they only catch the flying insects, the population will not be suppressed at birth. Soapy sprays in the ecological Safer range of products and the nastier systemic insecticides on the market tend to leave the plants smelling as unattractive to humans as they do to greenfly, but I find the Phostrogen brand insect "plant pins" effective. If you want to grow Angels and Regals to flower in winter they will need extra light. Sixteen hours of light is what they require to keep them going, but it is all the same to them whether it comes from the sun or artificial strip-lighting.
The ivy leaves are another group of pelargoniums. They are trailers by habit but they can be made to climb if they are given plenty of support. Variegated "Hederinum", which is sometimes listed as "Duke of Edinburgh", has pink flowers and silvery leaves. "Yale" has cherry-red flowers and "Barbe Bleu" is the colour of Ribena in the bottle. All are the sort of blooms that cause people to stop and say: "What is that plant?" Around the edges of pots or in baskets, ivy leaves are the flowers to grow.
All pelargoniums can survive at surprisingly low temperatures. The best way to get them through the winter is to cut the plants right down in September to between 4in-6in and put them in a well-insulated greenhouse or on a window sill indoors. They should withstand up to five degrees of frost with a covering of fleece or a couple of layers of newspaper, which can be left over them for a week without any harmful effects. If it gets really cold they will need a little background heating. During the winter the resting pelargoniums need minimum water and no feeding. As the days lengthen, by about the end of February, start watering a little more, and when the plants shoot take cuttings for new plants. When these are established, the pelar-goniums need feeding with a general fertiliser (Maxicrop is a good one because whitefly are said to dislike its taste), and as they grow they need regular pinching to make strong bushy plants. When the first flowers start to form, change over to a high potash fertiliser.
The best place to see the huge and thrilling family of pelargoniums is at Fibrex Nurseries, where the Key family own and run the nursery. Hazel Key is the reigning expert on pelargoniums and her guide in the Wisley Handbook Series (Cassell, pounds 3.95) is the one to have.
! Fibrex Nurseries, Honeybourne Road, Peb-worth, near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 8XT (01789 720788). Open Tues-Sun, 12-5pm, April-August. (No mail order in summer).
FOR WINTER FLOWERS: Caledonian Maiden, Snowstorm, Irene, Madame Dubarry, Mr Wren
FOR SCENTED LEAVES: Clorinda (cedar), Mabel Grey (lemon verbena), Radula (rose lemon), Citriodorum (citrus)
AS CLIMBERS: Clorinda (shocking pink), Sweet Mimosa (pale pink), Crimson Unique (tiny flowers), Marie Crousse (ivy leaves), Caroline Schmidt (variegated leaves)
IVY LEAVES: Yale, L'Elegante, Barbe Bleu, Marie Crousse, variegated HederinumReuse content