with Ted Smith
This is a tough time of year to be a gardener. The winter seems to be running on and spring is still just a whisper of hope in the air. We are ready to grow now, despite the weather; ready to add some green to our lives. Unfortunately, we’re still a little too early to begin most of our annual seed starting endeavours. In general, vegetables started now will get overgrown and leggy by the time they can be safely planted out. There are some flowers, however, that benefit from an extra early start. Many of these flowers can be brought to the ready-to-flower stage right in the house and then as soon as the warm weather of early summer arrives, these plants can provide an almost immediate splash of colour.
One such indispensable plant is the common geranium (Pelargonium spp). There is likely not a gardener amongst us who hasn’t grown geraniums. Sometimes when a plant becomes this common they tend to loose their allure. Not so with the vibrant geranium whose annual sales just keep increasing every year. While Canadian numbers are harder to find, in the United States the bedding plant industry is worth over two billion dollars annually. Of this, geraniums comprise a huge portion with plant production in excess of 120 million plants. The really interesting thing that is lost in this story is that the vast majority of growers treat their geraniums as “throw-away annuals.” This means they have to purchase new plants each season. Truly frugal gardeners see this for the shame it is knowing that geraniums are exceptionally easy to bring indoors and overwinter as houseplants.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning. While it’s quite easy to simply go to the local nursery and buy your geranium plants, this does limit your options as far as the varieties you will have to choose from. Considering how easy geranium seeds are to start, and the incredible number of varieties that are available as seeds, it surprises me that more gardeners don’t go this route.
Geraniums originated in tropical South Africa. This tells us that they enjoy the heat. Keep that in mind when starting young geraniums from seed and never let your tiny charges get chilled. Starting out requires a few basic supplies. You will need the seeds, starting trays or very small pots, sterile seed starting mix, plastic wrap or a humidity dome, a heat source such as a seed starting mat and a good light source. First, fill your chosen containers with seed starting mix and ensure that it is evenly moist but not wet. Bury the seeds under a very thin layer of soil and gently press into place. Cover your new seed containers with plastic wrap or a humidity dome and then position them on your heat source. Geranium seeds germinate fairly quickly and easily as long as the temperature and humidity are maintained. As soon as you see the first green sprouts, place your plant light as close as possible to the seedlings (but never touch them with the light or they will burn) and let them have about 14 to 16 hours of light a day. Southern windows can be used and your geraniums will grow but they will definitely be leggier and weaker with less direct light. Be sure the soil never dries up around the new seedlings and also make sure there is good enough airflow to prevent mould from getting started. Also, never let your geraniums of any age sit with wet feet. Ideal temperatures for your geranium plants range from 21C in the daytime to 15C at night. Also keep temperature in mind when you decide to set your young geraniums outside as they are very frost sensitive. Older plants are a little better at tolerating cold temperatures but they still can’t take a frost. Feeding of your new geranium seedlings will help ensure the quickest and healthiest growth possible. If you can get a liquid fish or kelp fertilizer you will be set to go. Mix the fertilizer based on the directions but for the first few weeks, only feed your geraniums a diluted half strength formula once a week. After this they can be fed once a week with a full strength mix. For healthiest plants, continue this treatment throughout the summer.
When all danger of frost has passed your geraniums can be planted outdoors. You have plenty of options here as geraniums can be worked into nearly every garden or container setup that you can think of. If you intend to use geraniums in containers, remember that they prefer to grow in moist soil so letting the planter soil get too dry could be a no recovery scenario. Ivy leaf geraniums (which we will discuss next week) are much more tolerant of dry conditions and will often rebound nicely. When planting directly in gardens, simply ensure that your geraniums will get as much sun as possible and be sure to water them deeply during periods of low rain fall.
Next week we will dig right back in where we’ve left off today, I’ll meet you back here.