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Keeping Geraniums Beautifully in Check

Seasons: September is the time to start shaping bushes in preparation for blooming, O.C. plant society officials say.


Ahh, the languid days of September, when Labor Day and the end of summer beckons people to swimming pools, beaches, barbecues . . . and pruning shears. For gardeners whose plant collections include scented geraniums or regal geraniums (better known as Martha Washington geraniums), September is the time to prune and shape their bushes in preparation for the bloom season.

"It's important to prune now to plan for next year," said Kay Moore, who tends 100 different geraniums at her Costa Mesa home.

President of the Orange County Geranium Society, Moore has been growing these colorful plants since 1969. Her collection includes pots filled with regal geraniums, zonal geraniums, scented geraniums and some true geraniums.

While gardeners refer to all of these types as geraniums, botanists distinguish geraniums as annual or perennial plants, often native to the Northern Hemisphere, with symmetrical flowers that are produced singly or in clusters.

Martha Washington, ivy, fancy-leafed and scented geraniums are classified as pelargoniums by botanists because they originated in South Africa, are evergreen or shrubby perennials, and produce slightly asymmetrical flowers in clusters.

Because geraniums bloom on new, green growth, gardeners prune and shape their plants before they send flower hormones to the tips of the new growth as signals to the plants to develop their flowers.

Martha Washington geraniums bloom in spring and summer, and continue to send out growth in summer. Some varieties become very leggy and lanky. Moore recommends shaping each plant according to its natural growth pattern.

"Upright growers like Zulu King or Vanity can throw long branches with sparse foliage, but some, like Duchess, are dwarf varieties and heavy bloomers that don't need a lot of pruning," she said.

She suggests gauging the cut to the size of the plant, and never cutting back to bare, brown wood.

"The stem must have green foliage or else the whole stem will die from the pruning cut," she added.

She also cautions against crushing or bruising the stem while make the cut. For this reason, she prefers to use a very sharp, single-edge razor blade, the type found at paint stores.

After she's pruned her plants, Moore fertilizes them with "whatever fertilizer I have on hand, diluted to one-quarter the recommended strength."

This helps the plants withstand the shock of pruning. Geranium fanciers will prune their plants again to encourage new growth farther down on the branch. They also fertilize regularly during the growing season to encourage vigorous, healthy foliage.

Scented geraniums need a less rigorous pruning in September.

"The first pruning, around Labor Day, should be very light--pinching back just the tips," explained Katherine Jennings, who is vice president of the Orange County Geranium Society. "It's really a two-step process with the second, more severe pruning occurring around Thanksgiving."

This tip pruning encourages scented geraniums to produce new growth at the bottom of the plant, just above the root zone. This new growth, plus the existing branches, needs another pruning in November.

"At that time, cut back each branch by about two-thirds, and cut out dead, weak and crossing branches, similar to the method used for pruning roses," Jennings added.

Some varieties of scented geraniums, such as apple, nutmeg, old spice or aroma, have a small, rounder growing habit and don't need the severe pruning that such taller varieties as apricot, rose or Mabel Grey require.

They need a general cleanup that consists of removing the dead branches and leaves surrounding the base of each plant. Resist the temptation to yank out the brown branches, as this can damage the plant. Instead, cut dead growth away with pruning shears.

Jennings owns Katie's Scented and Other Greens in Long Beach, where she lives and gardens. She's also a graduate of the Fullerton Arboretum Master Gardener program.

She urges people to make more effort to prune their geraniums.

"People are too afraid to cut or pinch them, but the plants look so much better when they are," she said. "I have a friend who refuses to prune her plants, yet she always tells me how nice mine look. Of course, it's because I prune them."

The green leaves from cuttings or prunings of scented geraniums can be used in cooking, cosmetics, potpourri or in other ways where the fragrant oils contained in their leaves can be enjoyed.

An added bonus is that new plants will grow from the cuttings of scented and Martha Washingtons.

Jennings and Moore recommend the following method:

* Remove the bottom leaf from a 2- to 3-inch cutting.

* Scrape the stem with a sharp blade to remove the protective coating that covers the leaf nodes.

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