Geraniums have been an annual mainstay in the garden for centuries.
The first plants -- Pelargonium triste -- were brought from South Africa to England by plantsman John Tradescant in the early 17th century. The fragrant and ivy geraniums soon followed, and the coveted flowers first became conservatory plants, then garden specimens.
Generally considered to be an annual, geraniums are actually a tender perennial, says the National Garden Bureau, which has proclaimed 1998 the Year of the Geranium.
Even though geraniums thrive on warm weather, they won't be killed by the first frost but will actually perk up when the cooler nights and still-warm days of fall arrive.
There are more than 200 species of geraniums, but only a few are widely grown. Garden geraniums generally fall into four basic types: common, ivy-leaved, Martha Washington and scented-leaf.
They are an upright plant that grows 1 to 2 feet tall and spreads 12 to 18 inches. Geraniums love full sun but will thrive in part shade. They prefer well-drained, medium-rich, acidic soil. Feed them frequently -- every two weeks -- or use a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote or Sta-Green, but let them dry out between waterings.
Geraniums can be used most anywhere in the garden: hanging baskets, deck or patio containers, window boxes, massed and grouped. They look good with lobelia, vinca vine, parsley, petunias, verbenda, dusty miller, ageratum and aspargus fern. If you want to prolong the life of a geranium variety you covet and have a hard time finding, take cuttings in early September to root for houseplants. Some gardeners overwinter plants by removing soil from the roots, placing plants upside down in a paper bag and hanging in a dark, dry, cool lace. Others keep pots of geraniums in an unheated but nonfreezing garage; bring the pots outdoors on warm sunny days until spring arrives.
Relatively pest free, geraniums can be susceptible to a couple problems in the home garden:
[z]n Botrytis, an air-borne fungus that first causes a mold on the blooms, which should be removed and destroyed, not composted. It tends to show up when days are warm and nights are cool enough to create a "drippy" dew in the morning or on overcast days.
[z]n Geranium rust causes dusty, orange rings on the bottoms of leaves. The plant defoliates. Remove affected leaves, or better yet, remove the plant, putting it in a bag so the disease doesn't spread.
Geraniums, however, are among the prettiest and easiest to grow. Purchase plants with healthy, dark green leaves, with no discolored spots above or underneath, and look for fairly compact growth because leggy stems indicate the plant was grown in poor light.
Whether your color mood prefers bright reds and oranges or cooler pinks, lavender and white, you'll find a geranium to suit your style.