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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. Allison says:

    I love geraniums–they make me smile! I’ve never overwintered them, though. Maybe I should try this year.

  2. Lisa B says:

    Geraniums were the beginning of my interest in horticulture from way back when I was a little girl. I remember walking into my neighbor’s little greenhouse and the first thing I smelled were the geraniums and almost felt intoxicated! And then my dairy farm grandmother always brought inside one cat and one geranium for the winter. She kept it potted in a sunny window in the kitchen and I would brush the leaves with my fingers just to get a whiff. Now I am admiring all the different varieties available and can hardly chose a favorite. I do like the cascading ivy types for window boxes, but always pot up a few other types for fun. I continue my grandmother’s tradition and bring in only one for the winter (no room for more), but that may soon change!

  3. AmyO says:

    I’ve been collecting them for many years and my favorites are Vancouver Centennial, Mrs. Quilter and Grossersorten. Skies of Italy is nice and so is Mrs. Cox!

  4. Laura Thorne says:

    As a young gardener, I tried just about every type of plant. I once had a collection of all different kinds of geraniums and I lined them all up along the edge of my new, rounded patio. In clay pots. My yellow lab unfortunately managed to knock every last one of them over – I’d hear the crash out the window and curse his name! Norton! You’d think I’d have learned after the first one.

    Now older and hopefully slightly wiser, I have tried geraniums again and love the scented ones. I love nutmeg for the little white flowers it gets and I love the smell. I do live in Illinois and went to Shady Hill last summer in search of “snowflake”, which has variegated leaves – and found it!

    I did have luck overwintering it this year, though it did not involve plastic bags, dark closets, or hanging it upside down! Just simply taking a cutting from one in the fall (nutmeg), I started with five and have two left. Luckily they can handle some dryness (neglect), and while they aren’t huge, they’ll be ready to go outside soon.

  5. Judy Rock says:

    When I moved back to my mother’s house and entered the”root cellar” there were the remnants of old pieces of clothesline used to tie up her geraniums each winter. I’ve tried to do the same as your grandmother did but without the paper bags and no luck. I’ve also moved a huge pot of geraniums into the cellar before frost and just left the pot in a cold space but with some light from a nearby small window to keep them alive. By the time Spring rolled around, I still had a few flowers but they were very small as were the plants. But, they were alive!

  6. Celeste says:

    I love geraniums! Currently, I have 6 small pots in my sunny mudroom waiting to be planted outside. They have no name, but are bright pink with darker pink markings toward the center. Most of the geraniums sold in my area are red or red-orange. So these that I have are rather unusual around here. I love the unique geraniums offered by “Shady Hill Gardens,” and would be so happy to plant them in my garden. Hope I win!!!

    I have tried several times to winter-over geraniums in my cellar….no luck. But after reading several of the above comments, I am going to bring them in before the frost, cut them back, and place them in my sunny guest room. Seems like this will be a sure thing!

  7. Thandi says:

    The Persian Queen is my favorite from their website. I’ve never grown Geraniums so I don’t have a favorite overwintering technique.

  8. Claire Jinks says:

    I was a gardener in Florida where it wasn’t easy to keep geraniums. Now I live in Northern California and I have a lot of different varieties of geraniums. They thrive here. They spend their winters outside, clipped back. Thanks for the no saucer tip.

  9. Debra says:

    I love geraniums of all types and colors, but my favorite ones are the scented varieties especially lemon. I overwinter geraniums in an extra bedroom in front of a large sunny window. Guests staying in the bedroom are amazed that the geraniums are blooming at Christmas and during the colder winter months. Each spring I add several new varieties and also take cuttings of my collection in the winter so that I’m able to share with friends.

  10. cynthia merrill says:

    I have a large rose geranium with variegated leaves that lasts year to year inside and out. I keep it in a sunny window in the winter. I love the Persian Queen with it’s bright magenta blooms and stunning green leaves.

  11. Leah Kinder says:

    I, too, love all the colors and types of geraniums! I have only the two that I purchased this Spring so far, but would so LOVE to win this collection you are giving away, as our local nurseries don’t carry all the different varieties you talk about!

  12. Kathy Oburg says:

    I love these geraniums and would especially love to try the ones for shade as I don’t have a lot of sun. They do grow and bloom but I don’t get a profusion of flowers. I don’t have a favorite yet. Have tried to propagate some cuttings from my local arboretum but didn’t have any luck. Maybe too much watering. I overwinter my geraniums in their pots in a shed on the south-west side of my house. It gets a lot of sun but stays cool. I water occasionally but mostly they’re pretty dry. They stay green but don’t bloom. Actually, I’m amazed that they keep every year.
    Would love to win the Shady Hill box of geranium.
    Kathy O.

  13. bunkie says:

    Great informative post!!! I love the rose geranium. I was given my first last year, but did not keep it watered enough this winter and lost it. I have a couple of stems from it that I’m trying to sprout.

  14. Nancy says:

    I’m a big fan of all geraniums. I did over winter one 2 years ago. Just had it in my kitchen all winter and it started budding in the Spring before I put it back outside.

  15. Rae says:

    I’ve always added geraniums to my summer garden, even the scented ones when there was a nursery near my house that specialized in them. However, I don’t have the room to hold them over. I find the vining geraniums, which are grown for hanging, work so well if I take off the hanging hook, etc. and plunge the whole pot in a decorative pot which has soil underneath. That way they don’t get overwatered and seem to thrive in the closed environment all summer long with less attention.

  16. Susan says:

    My grandparents always had geraniums, bunches and bunches of the ones with dark zones on light green leaves and various pastel flowers! They took lots of cuttings and started lots of new plants. When I got older, I discovered scented geraniums. I have been in love with them ever since!

  17. Savannagal says:

    While poking around the web looking for gardening blogs I ran across yours. As luck would have it, I am looking for a geranium for my grandmother for Mother’s Day, and I live about an hour from Shady Hill. I’ve never heard of them though, so thanks for the intro. I’m definitely going to check them out. They seem to have a lot of varieties. As for me, I tried growing a scented geranium once because I’d heard you could add their leaves to salads and drinks. Sadly, I couldn’t keep the plant alive and I haven’t had another since. I did just read on the Shady Hill website that geraniums need 4-6 hours or more of sunlight. I think that was my trouble. I had it in a shady area on my patio. So, thanks again.

  18. Marie says:

    My favorite geranium?
    Yes! They are my favorite!
    Never met a geranium I didn’t like!
    I have a lemon scented geranium that I have kept going for years, first by bringing the pot indoors for the winter, by the window, and then last year, I took a cutting because the plant had gotten too big to bring in!
    I just love geraniums!

  19. Sharon Sacchetti says:

    I’m in a geranium garden club so we get to see so many varieties. One of my favorites right now is an ivy called “crocodile” which has leaves that look cracked or heavily veined. I’m not sure of the flower color so that will be a surprise! In winter I have mine outside under a tree or under a second story deck if we are expecting frost. Our club has a website called geraniumsonline.com. Check it out!

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