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. Betsy Jones says:

    I love geraniums – they remind me of my grandmother and I have many, many in my yard – in pots and in beds – I have never really overwintered them – I live in Houston and we usually have mild enough winters for geraniums to make it – if it gets too cold for few days, i just bring them inside for a few days – even with our very severe winter this year, the geraniums in beds are coming back!

  2. Carolyn says:

    I like all kinds of geranuims. I have 8 year old plants that I have over wintered. I shake off the dirt, remove any dried leaves & store them upside down in cardboard boxes. In the spring, I cut them back until I see green in the stems, then pot them up April 1st, put them in my greenhouse until I put them in large pots for the summer.

  3. Kathy says:

    I love the tiny geraniums. I’ve grown “Jane Eyre” for more than 30 years, taking cuttings just in case I lose my original plant, but giving most of the cuttings away because my original Jane is still growing strong!

  4. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I tried to over-winter Mrs. Cox with its fancy colored foliage, but it suffered and petered out mid-winter. It was in my warm boiler room with grow lights above it.

  5. Cairn says:

    Well! I couldn’t be more stunned if you had picked me up, thrown me against the garden fence and hug me up on the pickets by my armpits! What a fascinating article! Pelargonium, you say? Who knew they are so fascinating?

    Only last week I stood mesmerized as multiple people were loading their shopping carts with red geraniums. I was wondering if they realized they have an odd scent. They were all so enthusiastic that I briefly considered buying one myself but thought, “No. They are so boring.” And now I know what they knew; they are not boring – at all.

    However, I am the last person anyone should entrust a nice collection of Pelargoniums to. Sadly, my thumb just is not green enough. But I sure enjoyed your article!

  6. Lana says:

    I like all geraniums, they don’t like me back – I tend to over-water so these tips will definitely come in handy. I am currently overwintering one of unknown name – will see how it goes in the spring :)

  7. Marsha says:

    I don’t have a favorite species of geranium but the experience with them that I treasure was in Peru. I was down there adopting my daughter and found that the geraniums there grow to 2-3 feet and they use them as low hedges. The climate must be just right for them.

    I have been able to successfully overwinter them in a small room that is cooler than the rest of my house but gets a lot of light from a skylight. I give them very little water then lots of tlc when I put it back outside.

  8. Lisa says:

    We used red geraniums for our outdoor August wedding 34 years ago. Since then they have always had a special place in my heart and I wish in my garden! Although I get some blooms they don’t seem to bloom as prolifically as they could.

  9. Cindy says:

    Exciting! I didn’t know there were different varieties of geraniums. I have tried to winter over a pot of scented ones, from Lowes I believe, with no luck at all.

    It would be thrilling to win the gift box for sure!

  10. Edie says:

    I overwinter my geraniums on a kitchen shelf hung with ordinary four-foot fluorescent lights. I have several fancies, a couple of ivy types, one scented and one zonal. Hard for me to pick one, especially since there are so many I haven’t even seen in person yet. I particularly like the brilliantly colored ones. I was surprised last summer to see the hummingbirds visiting some of my geraniums daily. The neon red blooms on “Crystal Palace Gem” in particular seem to draw hummers like a magnet. That one’s their favorite out of the varieties I have. Perhaps the nectar was inadvertently bred out of many of the modern geraniums.

  11. Rennie Biest says:

    While I don’t have a favorite I have quite a few and do not know their names. (Must get on internet and do some searching and labeling!) I’m blessed to live in FL where the only over-wintering is a couple of days in the garage.

  12. Linda says:

    I used to overwinter geraniums in large pots in front of the sliding glass door in my basement.

    I would love to try Pandora.

  13. Sheryl says:

    I love ivy geraniums and Martha Washingtons. Usually my favorites are the one I have at the moment. For a few years I have overwintered three beauties: the wonderfully variegated ‘Wilhelm Languth,’ and two with two-toned flowers, Ringo 2000 Scarlet Star and Candy Fantasy Kiss. Those under the grow light have stayed compact while those in the southern exposure window are fairly leggy. I look forward to taking them outside soon!

  14. Rebecca says:

    I’ve never tried anything but the traditional garden variety, not even realizing what I was missing! Thank you so much for the article.
    I do remember….almost 40 years ago… my first teaching job. One of the first grade teachers had a window ledge filled with red geraniums. It seemed they were all blooming! Perhaps a memory glitch there. But I was amazed at her classroom garden.

  15. Marlene Daniels says:

    My favorites are the scented geraniums, especially rose scented and nutmeg. But….I have in the last 2 years become very fond of the Vancouver buying it the last 2 years. :-) Now off to your site.

  16. Cathy Platt says:

    I have always associated certain flowers with special women in my life. Geraniums were the flower that my maternal grandmother always put out. Back then she grew basic garden reds. And, of course, they always grew profusely for her. I used to winter over my geraniums by simply bringing the pots inside. But, I must have killed them with kindness and overwatered them.

  17. Peggy La Belle says:

    I have clippings of the Vancouver variety in a pot on my window sill. They did fine this winter. Very pretty!

  18. Kit Cooley says:

    I love geraniums and have quite a collection of colors, leaf shapes, and scents. My maternal grandmother liked the “plain old” red ones, and those are my favorites because they remind me of her. I live in a zone 3 area, so my geraniums stay potted up and move indoors for the winter. Right now they are still occupying an east-facing bay window seat. I think I have 20 pots, but I always see another variety that I would like to have. I will cut them back very soon and root cuttings for myself and friends, and for sale.

  19. Laurie Brown says:

    I love pelargoniums! Some I’ve had for a number of years and they over winter in the windows. I cut them back hard in spring and then put them outside in late May (I live in zone 4) I try to remember to take cuttings of each so if the parent dies over winter (and I always lose at least one) I haven’t lost the variety.

    Picking a favorite is hard; ‘Attar of Rose’ is my favorite scented, and then there is ‘Tricolor’ (the flowers are orange but the leaves are zoned with yellow, green and a sort of bronzy orangey color; and then there is a ‘maple leaf’ type (I’ve always called them ‘stellars’ because they look like stars) that has a screaming hot pink flower that I don’t know the name of. And a Martha that has plum flowers with a dark, dark purple blotch.

  20. Kathleen Peppard says:

    My mother used to overwinter geraniums in NY on the window ledges in the garage. I have overwintered them here in the Pacific NW on my covered porch, pushed up against the house wall, sometimes covered with a blanket when I know a cold spell is coming. Eventually, they all succumb. I’ve enjoyed fancy leafed, scented, Martha Washington — but lately I’m reverting to old fashioned red ones, just like my mother had.

  21. Barbara says:

    My favorite is “Vancouver Centennial.” I’ve overwintered it in its pot in my mom’s garage for a couple of years now. Unlike my garage, my mom’s is attached to the house., so it gets cold but the plants don’t freeze inside. It doesn’t look great when I bring it home, but it’s still alive! Next fall, I’m going to take some cuttings, as well.

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