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GARDENING

Geraniums: A Green Thumb Isn't Required

August 01, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're looking for a plant that needs little care and blooms most of the year, look no further than the geranium. Just water these cheery plants and they thrive in our Mediterranean climate.

"Geraniums are definitely a plant that you can plop in the ground and ignore, and they will grow successfully," says Gerald Stewart, who owns New Leaf Nurseries in Vista, a mail-order and retail company that specializes in geraniums of all types.

Another bonus: Geraniums attract hummingbirds.

There are many types of geraniums in a wide array of flower colors, including rose, purple, pink and blue. Most do well in containers.

For continuous flowering, zonal or common geraniums and ivy-leaved types are best. Martha Washington or regal geraniums have a showy bloom, but it usually only lasts throughout spring and early summer. Scented geraniums are generally not grown for their flowers, which are usually small. Those plants are collected for their intriguing fragrances, such as nutmeg, apple, peppermint, lemon, rose and lime.

Common geraniums come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from 4 inches high to several feet. Some of these cascade, making them good choices for hanging baskets. Also perfect for hanging are ivy-leaved geraniums, which can hang 2 or 3 feet and longer. Some are also used as ground cover.

You'll have the best luck with these easy growers by keeping the following tips in mind.

* For good flowering, most geraniums need a minimum of four hours a day of direct sun. Two exceptions are the peppermint-scented geranium (P. Tomentosum) and golden-leaved zonal varieties.

* Geraniums need well-drained soil, or they will rot. If planting in ground of questionable drainage, plant on a mound that is 2 inches high. This assures that the plant's crown stays dry. No amending is suggested when planting, as geraniums generally do well in existing soil.

* To plant in containers, use two parts high-quality potting soil and one part perlite.

* Protect the roots of small potted plants from baking in the sun by placing each pot inside another container. (Make sure both have good drainage.) Stewart suggests planting in plastic containers, which retain water well, and putting those inside terra-cotta containers.

* Water geraniums when the soil surface approaches dryness. If in doubt about watering, don't: Geraniums will take drought better than over-watering.

* Geraniums aren't heavy feeders, but they do need some food for healthy growth and blooming. It's optimum to feed three times a year with a well-balanced fertilizer such as a 15-15-15, although just about any fertilizer will do. For container plants, Stewart suggests using time-released food so the plants have a constant source of nutrients.

* Prune year-round blooming geraniums occasionally, when they begin to look straggly. Remove old bloom stalks and do light shaping, and the plant will continue to bloom.

* Geraniums are easy to propagate by cuttings. Cut off a piece of plant underneath a leaf node and stick the cut end into a container of moist potting soil or directly into the ground. Keep it moist but not soggy, and it should root in a month or so.

New Leaf Nurseries is at 2456 Foothill Drive, Vista, CA 92084. There will be a free scented-geranium lecture at the nursery at 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 15. (760) 726-9269.

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