Geraniums in winter

By Tom Seymour | Dec 26, 2013
Photo by: Tom Seymour Blooming geraniums greet patients in Doc Horowitz's office.

As tender perennials, most geraniums raised or grown outdoors get discarded with the onset of the first fall frost. But for those who enjoy these sturdy and attractive plants, geraniums make excellent low-maintenance houseplants.

For years, my method of carrying geraniums over for the winter was simply to cut back at least a third of the plant and keep it in a cool corner or closet.

Once in a great while, it would get some small amount of water. In late winter, the plants would go to a brighter environment and get thoroughly watered, as well as given a diluted dose of plant food. By some time in May, the plant would have set flower buds and be ready for setting out.

But that method of keeping geraniums over winter does not permit of enjoying the plants year-round. Plants in a closet or dark corner do little to cheer winter-weary souls. And then one fall, my friend and chiropractor Dr. Richard Horowitz, gave me some rooted geranium clippings that he had taken from his plants. The topic of geraniums came up as “Doc” was manipulating my back. I mentioned how much I admired the geraniums in his waiting room and asked how he managed to get so many blooms in the dead of winter.

Doc’s answer was plain and simple. “I give them some light and water them when I think about it.” And that was when it hit me that in the case of geraniums in winter, less is more.

Ongoing process

As it turned out, Doc did give his geraniums special treatment before bringing them inside for the winter. He trimmed them all back by one-third, the same as I had done. And then, as opposed to my dark corner, it was to the moderately-bright waiting room for the enjoyment of Doc and his patients. Doc later added that although he only waters his geraniums sporadically (when he thinks about it), he always adds a small amount of granular plant food to the water. This is a store brand with the same chemical makeup as Miracle-Gro.

The plant food has a salutary effect on the plants. Doc said that within a week of watering and feeding, his geraniums respond with increased growth, which includes new blossoms.

But that’s not all to the story. Doc has geraniums in reserve, in an upstairs room of the rambling Victorian house where he lives and practices chiropractic medicine. “If one of the plants in the waiting room dies,” he said, “I immediately replace it with another one.”

Doc explained that some of his original plants, from a collection he acquired 15 years ago, are still growing. And besides that, he takes stem cuttings in late winter for setting out the following spring. But instead of using root-hormone treatment and special rooting soil, Doc simply applies clear plastic wrap over the mouth of a water-filled jar, cuts a hole in the middle and inserts the cutting. These quickly take root, without any special care other than keeping the jar filled with water.

Some of the geraniums in Doc’s waiting room are a bit tall and leggy. These are the ones furthest from the windows. And yet, these still set blossoms and when in flower, give the appearance of a flowering geranium vine. In fact, he once trained a particularly long and rambling specimen, much as we would train a ivy plant. The result was eye-catching.

Some of Doc’s geraniums, particularly those that get ample sunlight, are very sturdy and certainly within accepted size bounds for a houseplant. Also, this waiting-room collection represents Doc’s source of cuttings.

Therapeutic geraniums

Doc told me that he found raising geraniums quite therapeutic. And in addition to the dozens of geraniums in his house and waiting room, he plans on growing many more in a garden space of a newly-acquired vacation home. “It was always my dream to have a garden full of flowers,” Doc said. And it looks as if that dream will soon come true.

Doc’s shoreline camp has a deck and also, a dock. If he acts in accord with past behavior, both deck and dock should shine brightly next summer, with all those blooming geraniums.

Doc has, whether purposely or inadvertently, found just the perfect house plant for people to enjoy year-round. Inexpensive, readily available and easy to care for, geraniums are certainly a house plant to consider growing if you are only going to grow one kind of plant.

Specific requirements

Geraniums do have some basic requirements that need attention. For ideal blooming conditions, geraniums prefer full sun. That explains why some of the plants in Doc’s waiting room produce more blossoms than others. Also, warm indoor temperatures, especially nighttime temperatures, inhibit flowering. Perfect nighttime temperatures then range from 55 to 60 degrees.

It appears that Doc’s “when I think about it” method of watering geraniums jibes perfectly with that plant’s water requirements. Soil in geranium pots should become moderately dry between waterings. While passing time in Doc’s waiting room, I frequently check the soil in his geranium pots for dryness (don’t tell Doc, though). Sometimes a few plants will have very dry soil, but the plant itself remains a healthy, dark green. With my next visit, I usually find that the overly-dry plants have since had their ration of water.

Over-watering geraniums leads to root and stem rot because of the wet soil. And standing water touching leaves or stems causes them to rot. Even the air we grow our geraniums in needs to be on the dry side. Low-to medium humidity is just what geraniums like. Given the aridity of inside air during a Maine winter, it’s not hard to fulfill geranium’s humidity requirements.

Geranium types

The most common geranium, Pelargonium hortorum, produces either single or double flowers, year-round. Leaves of this species have a marked dark zone, or band.

The other type of geranium, Pelargonium domesticum, has deep-green leaves and the flowers exhibit blotches of varying colors. It has a short flowering season of between four and six weeks in late spring or early summer.

Even now, at the onset of what appears to be a long, cold Maine winter, we can easily begin growing geraniums indoors. If your local greenhouse or garden center has put their geraniums to bed or have simply run out until spring, just find a friend or relative with some geraniums and ask for a slip or two. Then, using Doc’s method, root the cuttings. Keep these in a cool place with indirect sun. Then, when fully rooted, transplant to a pot with some standard potting soil and begin enjoying your new plant or plants. Don’t leave rooted plants in water for too long, since the stem will begin to rot, from the bottom up.

Geraniums rank as a great, old-time favorite indoor and outdoor plant. Try spicing up a windowsill this winter with a few potted geraniums. They’ll reward you far beyond what they cost in terms of money and maintenance.

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