Say geranium and most people picture "Pelargoniums," the bright red potted plant that is ubiquitous in the U.S. come Memorial Day. They're too flashy, too funereal for me. I think of them as flowers to put in the cemetery by family graves. I'm talking about "true" or "hardy" or "cranesbill" Geraniums. The ones that will come back every year in my Zone 4/5 Wisconsin garden.
I started with three plants of Geranium macrorrhizum, the bigroot Geranium back in the 1990s; the straight magenta species and the pale G. Ingwersen's Variety and pinkish G. spessart (first three photos). These are ground cover plants that smother weeds but are not invasive. In my front border these plants go right down to the street. They are not bothered by car fumes or the road salt and sand that get piled on this bed by the city plows every winter. I rarely even cut them back.
From the street this path through the Geraniums isn't even visible. The plants are just tall enough to make the path a surprise. I adore this plant. Our gardening neighbors to the west of us liked this solution to a sloping yard so much, that I gave them a bunch of starter plants to do the same thing. We also have them on a slope between our two houses.
G. cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' (close-up below) also covers large areas of the garden, mostly under trees and shrubs which are the stars of those areas. Since I am so happy with these varieties, I decided to use Geraniums in my moss garden re-do.
But this time I opted for Geranium phaeum varieties; similar leaves but different shape and color flowers. I am growing the straight species of this variety so I already have experience with it as well. Since this is all about lowering maintenance, I am not going far afield in my plant choices.
G. phaeum is also known as the "Mourning Widow" supposedly because of its somber colored flowers. But Digging Dog nursery notes that a Mr. Jason Hill wrote that "their subdued vivacity suggests a widow who has ceased to mourn." I have to agree with him. I find their nodding flowers charming and the colors are rich and sumptuous.
Though my favorite local nursery, Flower Factory, has a large selection of cranesbill Geraniums, they only carry the straight G. phaeum. So I'm splurging and going to the expert Geraniaceae nursery on the west coast. I ordered the five phaeum varieties below.
. . .
G. phaeum var. lividum 'Rose Madder' This was introduced by the famed grower, Trevor Bath, in the U.K. in the late 1980s. This is an unusual color for the species. (Photo by Donn Reiners)
I have one plant of the beautiful G. phaeum var. lividum' Joan Baker' and decided to add more rather than waiting for her to get big enough to divide.
G. phaeum 'Sericourt' has golden leaves that turn yellow green so this may not go in the moss garden. I don't want anything in that area to jump out visually too much. But I could not resist this leaf color.
G. phaeum 'Chocolate Chip' is the darkest phaeum of all, according to Robin Parer, the owner of Geraniaceae nursery and the breeder of this plant. (Photo by Donn Reiners from geraniaceae.com)
G. phaeum 'Lily Lovell' was raised and introduced by Trevor Bath of Surrey in the U.K. and is named after his mother. I have been growing the straight G. phaeum species via the old Hereonswood nursery for years and am very excited to add these varieties to my garden. Not only am I attracted to the range of flower colors but I find the swept back shape to be especially elegant.
As I've been crazy about cranesbill Geraniums since I first discovered them, I bought "The Gardener's Guide to Growing Hardy Geraniums" by Trevor Bath and Joy Jones when it came out in 1994. American Gerainium expert Robin Parer of Geraniaceae nursery, where I ordered the above plants, has a new book on the subject coming out this spring.
While I'm waiting for Parer's book to hit the stores, I went looking at the library to see what else was available on the subject. That's how I discovered the "Gardening with Hardy Geraniums" by Birgitte Husted Bentsen. Without seeing Parer's book, I will say that Bentsen has written a superb book on the subject.
She has chapters on Geraniums and bees — and roses — and rock gardens for starters. Then there's information on both species and hybrids, cultivation and propagation. Almost every Geranium Bentsen talks about is pictured; sometimes just the flower up close, other images show it growing in place. There are also pictures that show the varieties in a species. For example the book shows nine G. phaeum flowers where it is easy to see the differences in size and color.
The view above is looking from west to east across the width of the back garden toward the Moss Garden in 2014. The bright flowers in the center rear of the image are G. cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'. They cover a triangle where three paths meet at a Ginkgo tree.
Since I am so keen on the Geraniums I am already growing, I was pleased to discover that Birgitte Husted Bentsen supports my concept for redoing the moss garden with G. phaeums. She points out that "you can transform a boring, shady and dry corner into something exciting simply by using different varieties of G. phaeum." Amen.