Traditional Geraniums Pelargoniums

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe,
Gardeners in Spain for over twenty years.

The Geranium Renaissance

When we first came to Spain gloriously coloured long flowering banks of long established geraniums – or more strictly pelargoniums – were the norm both in private and public gardens and along roadsides. But sadly during the second half of the l990’s the geranium moth appeared in Spain – apparently from infected imports – and soon spread especially along the benign Mediterranean coast. Luckily the deep freeze of February 2005 killed of many over wintering chrysalises and the geraniums are making a come back and it is again possible to build up interesting collections from purchased plants, cuttings from neighbours and seeds. What one cannot buy in Spain is the young plug plants popular in the UK.

The Cordoba Patio Festival

So if geraniums/pelargoniums take your fancy now is the time to stock up your own gardens and apartment terraces and plan to visit this years Cordoba Patio Festival during May when patios with up to almost a thousand geraniums in wall pots will be on display.

When we first visited the festival some eight years ago we were amazed by such displays and our first reactions were ‘Where have the geranium moths gone?’ and ‘Who does all the watering and dead heading?’

The answers were nor hard to find and made the mind boggle. Such displays were not for the amateur gardener.

By the time we had visited most of the sixty plus patios open to the public – a long hot day on foot – we realised that perhaps only a quarter were dedicated to geraniums and that these were generally only prepared and fully maintained for the period of the fiesta. Others were genuine residential patios full of a wide variety of evergreen plants, succulents, pots of bulbous plants with some seasonal petunias and geraniums. The sort of patio garden that would be cool and colourful throughout the year.

Half way through the day we wandered from one geranium temple into a more natural patio tended by a group of elderly neighbours. Their geraniums were not as vigorous or healthy as the last patio. We asked why.’ We try and keep our geraniums from year to year and take cuttings from those that survive the summer oven of Cordoba. It reached 50 degrees in the shade last year. We don’t get any subsidy from the Town Hall and can’t afford to buy hundreds of new plants every year.’ We then walked through an arch into an adjacent patio .

Eight hundred fresh plants festooned the walls. Not a dead head or poor plant to be seen. We chatted to the owners. ‘No we don’t keep this up all summer. We water and dead head in preparation for and during the festival but then cut back on the watering and hours of daily care.

We can only water with a small half litre tilting can on the end of a 4 or 5 metre pole. It takes us 4 hours a day to just water each plant every other day. In two months most will have succumbed to the sun and geranium moth. It would be difficult to spray chemicals within these four high walls.

Yes, we buy 800 new plants every March!

It’s worth all the effort if we win a prize the year’ In practice only fifteen of the sixty patios we visited were in the competition . The others were kindly opening their cherished homes to the public for ten days to demonstrate that living in an old town house can be delightful.

Make 2008 Your Geranium Year.

As said earlier since then many moths have been killed off and available insecticide sprays have become more effective. So why not make 2008 your geranium year whether you have only space for only a few plants in pots, window boxes on a balcony or a suitable large flower beds or bank. But ensure you take the following safeguards from day one.

Geranium Growing Hints

  1. Only purchase strong healthy plants. Watch out for small black holes in stems where moths have already laid eggs and for signs of moths hovering over garden centre displays.
  2. Recognise that many of the geraniums for sale will have been forced in the controlled environment insect free hot houses of Holland, Italy, Germany etc as well as Spain. As we have found out over Easter there is still cold weather around so ensure that newly purchased plants are hardened off before planting out in exposed positions.
  3. Fleshy forced growth is also more susceptible to geranium moth attacks than the firmer growth of slowly brought on plants from cuttings or seed. Also interestingly the upright thick stemmed geraniums/ zonal pelargoniums are the most susceptible to attack by the dreaded geranium moth and the ivy leaved trailing varieties or crinkly leafed pelargoniums less so. The rampant pelargonium graviolean is rarely attacked and it is wise to plant one amongst a display of other varieties. The crispy leaved pelargoniums grandifloras regal geraniums also have good resistance.
    It is possible to grow the true species cranesbill geraniums in Spain. These are relatively easy to grow from seed and in our experience fairly moth resistant..
    However with all types assume the worst and spray new plants against the geranium moth the day you get them home from the garden centre. Ensure you then re-spray weekly. Recognise that although you may kill off the existing population of moths in your garden there are many more about to hop over the wall from unsprayed gardens, especially if adjacent properties are rarely occupied.
  4. Watch out for the small holes surrounded by a black circle that indicates that a geranium moth has been around in spite of your spraying. Prune out affected stems.
  5. Water to just keep damp. Probably every other day during hot weather.
  6. Feed container planted geraniums with a dilute geranium fertilizer once a fortnight.
  7. Dead head, and remove dead leaves weekly. Also remove any rubbish that builds up on the top of the soil in pots.
  8. Take strong cuttings in the Spring or in the Autumn to produce your own new plants for an even better and economic display.
  9. Sow from seed in spring or summer.

Above all join other gardeners in rebuilding Spain’s former reputation for glorious displays of geraniums for many months of the year – indeed throughout the year in the warmer parts of the Mediterranean coast..

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe March 2008.