How to root geraniums

Photo courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler.
Pelargonium x hortorum 'Fidelity L Scarlet,' a gorgeous red, which is what all zonal geraniums should be.

Zonal geraniums have begun their final gush of bloom, which always reminds me of a teacher I once worked with. When I saw his water-filled tumblers crowded with geranium cuttings one September morning, I couldn’t resist warning him that they would rot, not root. (Of course I’d had nothing but failure following the directions that garden books offer: Propagate cuttings in damp sand or overwinter entire plants in a cellar by hanging them upside-down like a colony of horticultural bats.)

My coworker listened but waited until March to respond: a dozen potted geraniums left on my desk. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success, especially when it is achieved not by professionals in a climate-controlled greenhouse but by fourth-graders in an overheated, dusty, 100-year-old Vermont schoolhouse.

With prices ever edging upward, zonal geraniums — which we know are not “true” geraniums but are pelargoniums, Pelargonium × hortorum — are plants I like to grow, not buy.

They’ve inhabited our window boxes, pots, and gardens since the mid-1700s, traveling from South Africa to the American colonies after layovers in the Netherlands and England. It is a promiscuous clan — cultivars number in the thousands — yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that seeds capable of producing offspring true to their parent became available.

Growing geraniums from scratch, however, is a slow, uncertain business.

A better tack is to take 3- to 4-inch cuttings, thumb your nose at the experts, and root them in water. The cuttings, that is, not the experts. I remove all but three leaves from each shoot, plunk them into translucent plastic cups, and set them in a sunny location. Mine are lined up on the window sills, each filled with snips of ‘Red Elite,’ ‘Scarlet Border,’ or ‘Distinction.’ Geraniums ought to be red, after all.

I’ll add more water as needed, and change the water if it becomes so green I can’t see what is going on. Otherwise, there’s nothing to do beyond snipping off any flower buds that appear. Some cuttings root more quickly than others, but by Valentine’s Day most are ready to go into 3-inch pots filled with an all-purpose soil mix. I add a pinch of bone meal to each pot, water sparingly, and fertilize not at all.

No more geranium hibernacula in my basement. No more rotting cuttings keeling over in the damp sand. And no more wondering if they’re teaching anything in schools these days.

Interested in zonal geranium history? Englishwoman Anne Wilkinson tells the pelargonium story in "The Passion for Pelargoniums: How They Found Their Place in the Garden" (The History Press, 2007).

Clear instructions on how to grow zonal geraniums are available at the Kemper Center for Home Gardening (Missouri Botanical Garden) website.

Karan Davis Cutler, a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including "Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener" and "Herb Gardening for Dummies." She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She will be blogging regularly for Diggin' It.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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