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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Classic Geraniums

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Mrs. Florence Friend kept potted geraniums on the wide windowsills in Rm. 204 of Wickford Junior High School. Their bright red blooms stopped daydreamers gaze outwards, a high view of green playing fields through tall glass windows. Many rambunctious students walked to school though the school’s wide arc of maples planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the ‘30’s. Beyond the geraniums the smell of salt water, the hunt for fiddler craps in Wickford Cove our primary concern. 

Mrs. Friend understood, generations universally knew “Flossie”, her daily walk from Pleasant St up Main St to the cove side path behind the school was like the tide’s ebb and flow under Ryan’s Market piers on Brown St. 

Mrs. Friend faced the quadratic equation each year as surely as summer, silence reigned behind her. She did not hesitate to call parents by first name, an uncanny memory for names past and present impressed us much more than algebra.  Yet she kept the geraniums, she too knew the lure of endless summers and quahog chowder, shells thrown onto others in the 2 rut driveway like everyone else and no, her Wickford colonial was not the last to have an outhouse behind privet bushes, it was the next to last. 

Geraniums are tough, free blooming sun lovers. They thrive in well drained soils and really come into their own in modest clay pots. Geraniums do well pot bound, their confined roots prefer their pots to dry out between watering. A bit of bone meal, an occasional watering of fish emulsion and your potted geraniums will forgive every blistering summer day spent cooler on the shore. Their charity is widespread, geraniums are not only among the finest constant reds, white or salmon pink blooms. Their distinctive dark green foliage is fragrant. We remember them on sight, vigils of Madeleines and tea. 

Scented geraniums are important to all gardeners who follow their nose through the garden. The nose is a gardener’s silent guide. Our sense of smell is powerful. Fragrance forms deep connections to memory, restless school children knew low tide without a clock. While colors move us scent fixes. Fragrance attaches to our DNA life-long. Scent serves many purposes for gardeners. We delight in harmony as we brush by peppermint kept along pathways. Savvy gardeners recognize scent attracts pollinating insects and also repels predatory insects. Distilled essences are excellent protection from many noisome insects. Safe for humans and quickly broken down into harmless elements on site, herbal brews of garlic, pepper and vegetable oil  is virtually free, easy to steep in plastic gallon jugs, and effective sprayed or watered onto vulnerable plants. 

Scented geraniums offer many choices. Rose scented geraniums surpass virtually all rose fragrances. Like roses, geraniums prefer direct sun, unlike all roses, rose scented geraniums are always fragrant. They grow well together, plant geraniums sunwards, never much taller than 18”, they ignore thorny rose stems and enjoy their protection from careless passersby. Do you hesitate at the floral? Scented gardens offer many harvests, explore the spicy fragrant geraniums. Nutmeg or cinnamon are two, pineapple and every variation of citrus is available as well. Harvest mature leaves on dry days, lay out on open mesh screens in a dark, dry space over dry paper. Dy-hydration concentrates the fragrant oils within the foliage. When dry, remove and store in suspended brown paper bags, include the siftings fallen through the mesh onto the paper beneath. Repeat as each bloom and leaf reaches maturity. Geraniums respond to grooming, many gardeners regard hands on plant care the most peaceful effort. Fresh new growth is unspoken reward.

Keep a simple straw basket on hand whenever in the garden. Snip blooms just past prime into the trundle. Be thoughtful, suit baskets to purpose, not to lug around unused gloves, trowels, or shaken detritus attracted to constant gardeners. Do wear a hat. 

Geraniums are fun to propagate. Trim leggy stems or 5”-6” cuttings, moisten and dust in rooting powder. Fill a 4” re-purposed plastic transplant pot full of rich potting soil, make a finger size hole, insert the cutting, firm the potting media and top off. Place in a sheltered cold frame or shady place and keep moist. Remove all but a couple leaves. Each clone is ready for a larger pot or sunny location within a few weeks. A rose scented geranium kept over winter in a basement window yielded 16 cuttings. The bonsai shaped truck is covered in fresh new growth and the ranks of cuttings are nearly ready to enter the garden, given to friends or swooped for other varieties. 

Geraniums are remarkably resilient plants.  In my zone 6 region late October is the usual time for winter storage. Groom away extended growth and store pots and plant in a cool cellar. Or one may gently remove the plants from pots or the ground, careful not to entirely shake away trapped soil and store in brown paper bags hung from a clothesline in a cool basement. Label each bag for color or scent and date. 

The stored geraniums may be nearly forgotten over winter, very dry conditions might awaken a need for gardeners to lightly water but the tough geraniums are safe. Move to a cold frame or bright windows in March, most will phoenix like green up. Or you may keep geraniums in a window for the winter months. Favored plants last for years. Day dreamers and those like Mrs. Friend, understand beyond the windowsill geranium is the future. The quadratic equation? The geraniums mathematical high tide.   

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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