rethinking the plain old geranium, with shady hill

unusual geraniums at shady hillREADY FOR A GERANIUM SHAKE-UP? Before I met the Heidgen family of Shady Hill Gardens in Illinois, I thought a geranium was a geranium was a geranium–the thing with scalloped foliage that smelled a little different than your average leaf, and clusters of hot-colored flowers. The plant that my Grandma put into her patio pots and window boxes each year, then hung on her basement clothesline in paper bags in winter (I kid you not). The Heidgens changed all that for me, and many other gardeners.

By the time I met the Chuck, Matt and Joe Heidgen 17-plus years ago, when we were  working on the former Martha Stewart garden line at K-Mart, I at least already knew that when I said Geranium that I actually meant Pelargonium, because that’s the genus our annual geraniums actually are in. But I didn’t know that one could look, and smell, nothing like Grandma’s old standards, and perform roles in the garden she’d never imagined.

Today Joe Heidgen, with his brother Matt, runs the business called Shady Hill Gardens—both garden center (below) and mail-order specialists–that their father founded in Batavia 40 years ago. It’s now in Elburn, Illinois (an hour or so west of Chicago). For more than 30 years, Shady Hill has gained a national reputation as Pelargonium specialists, breeding and propagating every color, shape, size and scent imaginable (and then some). And good news: they sell them mail-order, too.

Listen in to our conversation on the latest podcast–or read the highlights below.

Shady Hill Gardens at sunrise

my geranium q&a with joe heidgen

Q. First, a little geography: Where do Pelargonium come from? Even though they seem like classic American garden subjects, I know they’re not natives.

A. They come from the southern tip of Africa, actually, where it’s all bright, sunny, dry days and cool nights. They were brought back to Victorian England in the mid- to late-1800s. Breeding has changed them a bit, but for the most part, because of the climate they’re from they’re still pretty tough old birds, and can take a lot. The two best tips: If you can give them plenty of sun and let them dry out. That goes back to their heritage, being from a rocky soil that drained well, and a climate with a seasonal dryspell.

Q. You group the plants into three classes: novelty, fancy-leaf and scented. Where shall we begin?

A. Let’s start with fancy-leaf—because people can probably pick them out of the crowd. In the way that Coleus has gained so much popularity again, I liken them to that. They have such unique foliage that even when the plant’s not in full bloom, it’s still such a striking show. You can use it both by itself or in combination, and get really good effects.

vancouver centennial, crystal palace gemQ. I love ‘Vancouver Centennial,’ for instance [photo above left].

A. That’s one of the most popular—and was from a home hobbyist breeder in Vancouver who had just come up with it, and now it’s everywhere.

Sometimes it’s called “maple-leaf geranium,” because of how it looks with the five points, and the rusty center with the gold edge. Such a striking plant, and it gets a mounded habit.

Q. Some have names that remind me of Victorian times, when they first became popular—like ‘Crystal Palace Gem,’ for instance, evoking the big old Victorian glass house at Kew Gardens or something.

A. That’s a great one, too—with the broad, typical leaf of a geranium, but with that citrusy-lime color, and then in the center of each leaf, it’s like watercolor strokes of darker green [photo above right], and they’re very irregular.

The one we like to use with that is ‘Happy Thought,’ which is kind of the reverse—with the darker edge and the lime center.

Q. Some have almost chartreuse leaves, yes?

A. ‘Persian Queen,’ for example, does. You know, many geraniums have that horseshoe-shaped mark—a “zone”—on the leaf, but ‘Persian Queen’ has none. So it has that bright leaf and then fuchsia-colored flowers.

mint scented rose and pine geraniumsQ. So what about the scenteds?

A. The scented geraniums are the hardest to pick out of all geraniums—because they don’t look like geraniums, but maybe more like herbs, if anything. [Photo above: mint-scented rose, left, and pine.]

Q. The textures and leaf colors—some of these can be grayish-blue, silvery even.

A. And the texture is so different, too—some so smooth and silky-slippery, and others like a fine sandpaper, rough and coarse. And like most plants that have a scent, the scent comes from an oil. Most of the leaves are covered in tiny little hairs—and when you touch or move the leaves, the scent is released.

Q. Some are almost furry—like maybe peppermint?

A. Peppermint and also chocolate mint, yes—like fine velvet.

Q. And they are different in structure, or habit—almost groundcover-like, to spill over a pot edge.

A. Yes, they’re kind of horizontal, and can be used that way. Pine and apple both are finer-textured, but can cascade out of a pot, too—in planters toward the edge, or hanging baskets.

Q. Other scented geraniums for specific uses?

A. The lemon has the leaf that’s curled and fine like parsley—and it’s the one that’s most upright, so it lends itself best of them all for making topiaries, because it naturally grows very vertical, and can still make a pretty dense ball or cone even if you pinch it.

Q. Other scents to recommend?

A. There are even ginger, and citronella (sometimes referred to as the “mosquito plant”), for instance.

Pandora geranium Shady HillQ. And then we have the novelty types.

A. The novelties are a collection of things that don’t fit anywhere else—they’re not scented, and not fancy.

Probably the most popular novelty, or unusual, one we grow is ‘Pandora’ [photo above]. People call it “rosebud,” but it’s technically a tulip-flowered geranium. In the head or big ball of the geranium flower, each of the little flowers is really like a tulip, and never opens more than that, even when the flower is spent. It’s probably one of the best-blooming novelty types, and it has unique foliage, too–waxy, and shiny, and crinkled.

Q. Other novelties you especially love?

A. Another great novelty is sidoides—with silvery foliage, and small, maroon-burgundy flowers on long stems, very airy and elegant. It makes a stunning container on its own, or combined with something with white flowers, for instance.

geraniums growing at shady hillhow to grow geraniums

Q. So how do we grow geraniums, whichever type we prefer?

A. Plenty of sun: 5 hours or more. And let them dry out between watering. My father’s saying is, “They don’t like wet feet.”

Q. Never leave them outside with a saucer beneath the pots, that will collect rain water, right?

A. Exactly. It can just end up sitting there.

As far as other care, you can deadhead, and other than that, they don’t take much more. You can give them a little balanced fertilizer every three or four weeks, but really that’s it.

Mrs. Peters geranium Shady HillQ. Are there geraniums for shade—someone will ask me, I’m sure!

A. Not really—but some of the fancy-leaf types that have more white in the foliage, like ‘Mrs. Peters’ [photo above] or ‘Petals’—will tolerate a little less sun. The first thing that happens when geraniums don’t get enough sun is they don’t bloom enough, and then they get leggy and stretch out.

overwintering geraniums

Q. I really want to talk about my grandmother’s basement clothesline of geraniums. [Laughter.] But seriously—if I am in a cold zone, and have some treasures I want to try to overwinter, what is the best way to attempt it?

A. The first and best way would be to take a cutting from that plant in fall, and root it. That way, you’re going to get the same plant but you’ll be starting with fresh material. Otherwise after a couple of years the old plants lack vigor.

Say you take a cutting and it doesn’t work, and you still want to save the plant: My suggestion would be to try to keep it growing in the sunniest place you have inside. Cut it way back, and be even more vigilant about not overwatering.

People say to us, “I put them in dry-cleaning bags in our ice chest,” or, “I always put them in the Marshall Field’s box under the ping-pong table.” [Laughter.] There are some good stories.

And I say, if that works: Keep going! Isn’t that the first rule of gardening? If it works, keep doing it.

JOE HEIDGEN and I talked geraniums on my radio podcast on April 28, 2014, and though that episode isn’t archived, you can listen to newer ones anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or Spotify.

(All photos from Shady Hill Gardens. Top photo, clockwise from top left: ‘Crystal Palace Gem,’ ‘Pandora,’ ‘Vancouver Centennial,’ and ‘Mrs. Peters.’)

  1. Carol says:

    My grandmother always had these two wonderful cement urns on the tops of her outdoor brownstone stairway – every year there was “the planting of the pots” with these wonderfully scented green things with the ruffly looking leaves that we watched until they bloomed – it was like watching fireworks when the buds finally opened……….
    To this day, I have no idea which geranium she planted (they were red flowered) or how she over-wintered, (even though her basement had a corner with a window on each where she held her small pots along with a peace lily that would bloom during the winter months in the window near her washboard and washing machine – I have those same planters now – they still wait every year for their geraniums……………… thanks for your wonderful website article

  2. chris allen says:

    Ive take the plants down in the basement pot and all thay were good over the winter because I live in central new york

  3. Debby West says:

    I love to grow scented geraniums. I have not been successful in overwintering pelargoniums but after this podcast I know what I am doing wrong and will try again this winter. Thank you for a wonderful, informative podcast interview!

  4. Judy R. says:

    My favorite is the above-mentioned Vancouver Centennial. It overwinters beautifully in a sunny window, and I am going to try to take some cuttings this year to place in “holes” around the garden. I used to be a serious “snob” about pelargoniums, but the newer varieties are really changing my mind – those, and the scenteds, of which my very favorite is “True Rose” – mmmmm!

  5. Betty Grindrod says:

    I love Crystal Palace Gem and fuzzy Peppermint. I used to have a greenhouse to overwinter cuttings, but space was limited last winter so I have to start fresh :)

  6. Mary Ellen Segraves says:

    I don’t have a favorite geranium, but I am fortunate to live 10 minutes from Shady Hill. Just walking into their greenhouse is a treat — eye-popping color everywhere!
    No, I have never tried to over-winter them, but my 90-year-old mother stores them under the back stairs during the winter.

  7. Sidney says:

    I had a geranium last year that I bought from the gardening club.
    I’m not sure what the name was but it had dark green leafs and pink
    Flowers. It was my first geranium and was in a plastic cup. I planted it in a blue ceramic pot.
    I went on vacation and came home to a dead geranium. I guess it was overlooked by a friend who came by to water my plants and feed my cat. I have been waiting for geraniums to become available at the store where I buy all my plants.
    I would love to win more geraniums!! Thanks for the chance! :)

  8. pauline says:

    I overwintered for this first time in the basement this year, but wasn’t successful (mold, I think). But the one plant I saved upstairs, in the house, survived. I just cut off two pieces a few weeks ago and both are leafing out well …

  9. Wendy says:

    I’m a sucker for the ivy geraniums and tried to overwinter them in my Zone 5 Iowa garage… didn’t work. I’m sure I’ll try again this winter.

    Thanks for the giveaways!

  10. patricia in Glens Falls says:

    The Vancouver C’s are quite beautiful and not always easy to find….they look great when planted with the white flowers of the Euphorbia and Vinca Vine in a window planter box….always would love to receive them!! Thanks for highlighting these geraniums.

  11. Hannelore says:

    Overwintering Geraniums:
    Every year, just prior to frost, I bring my window boxes with the Geraniums into the garage, cut off all other flowers (Alyssum, Petunias, etc.) and cut the Geraniums back to about 4 inches. The window boxes with the cut Geraniums are then placed into the basement on a table, unattended, without water and light until mid to end of January.
    Check occasionally, as at that time you should see some small pale shoots coming out from the stems. Turn on the grow lights, take about an inch off the top of the soil and replace it with new potting mix, start watering and by the time they can be placed outside (mid May) you should already have flowers on them. Be sure to slowly acclimate them to the sun outside – about a week of moving them from very little exposure to sun to shade…). Add some organic fertilizer, plant your fillers in between and you are ready to go for another season.
    This year I got a bonus as one of the sweet potato vines and several Alyssum came up as well in the window boxes.
    It has not worked for me with Martha Washington or Ivy Geraniums.


  12. Debora Andrianos says:

    I over winter every year and 8 out of 10 come back double its size there amazing! I cut them pretty low in there pots and put them in my garage with very little water ,I live in ny so it’s get very cold sometimes in the garage but they do ok. April I loosen the dirt put some new dirt and miracle grow put them in the sun and they come back to me with Beautiful blooms ! Love these

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