Geraniums that smell and trail? Meet Alpine Geraniums

On my trips to Germany and northern Italy, I was struck by the lovely window boxes. They featured these trailing flowers in red, pink and lavender and I was told by tour guides that they smelled lovely. When asked what plant they were, everyone told me that they were geraniums.

But geraniums grow upright! They don’t smell! They grew wild in the pasture at my Dad’s farm and in bald spots in my backyards in both Maryland and here in Virginia. What geraniums were they talking about?

Thus started my odyssey to figure out what plants captivated my heart in Europe. I’m proud to say that I’m growing my own alpine geraniums this season!

What are alpine geraniums?

Honestly, I don’t remember how I figured out what these plants are called. Somewhere, I stumbled across the fact that they are commonly called “alpine geraniums” here in the States because they do well in the European Alps. Other common names are cranesbill, heronsbill and storksbill geraniums – referencing their beak-like seed pods. I’ve also seen them called “Swiss Balcony geraniums.”

The scientific name is erodium reichardii for most of the plants I’m working with – but the entire genius Erodium is worth checking out. I purchased Ville de Paris and Ville de Paris-Dresden from Larsen’s Geraniums. These are considered full-sized cascading varieties. Ville de Paris can trail up to 3 feet with Dresden up to 2 feet!

Alpine geraniums are annuals although they are cold-hardy to USA Zone 7. Some varieties are known to self-seed. Generally they prefer full sun but can tolerate partial shade.

I promise I will update these pictures once they start flowering.

Growing alpine geraniums

The biggest hurdle in successfully growing alpine geraniums that I have seen is that (1) they prefer well-draining, almost rocky soils and (2) prefer alkaline soil. After my experience with killing my orchids (a future blog topic), and the specific note from the grower I purchased my plants from, I decided for the succulents/citrus mix and added perilite to the soil. I have no idea if it is going to work - so it is my experiment this season.

The note from Larson’s Geraniums is “We recommend soil mixes that DO NOT have water-holding crystals. We do not recommend Miracle Grow Potting Mix, since we have had complaints from customers who used it.” They further add, “Make sure the container you use has adequate drainage holds to allow excess water to drain freely.”

Larson’s also notes that alpine geraniums are “heavy feeders.” They recommend a slow release fertilizer and an additional weekly water-soluble fertilizer. I’ll put them on my orchid plan of weekly during flowering and bi monthly when they are without flowers.

Blooming begins in May (you can see some buds already on my plants) and lasts through October.

To promote growth for Ville de Paris varieties, Larson’s also recommends pinching. From their FAQ: “For the Ville de Paris series, plants would benefit from at least 2 pinches, when the stems are about 8-10″ long and again at 12-14″ long. Remove 1-2″ from the tips to pinch. You can also pinch longer pieces of stems later if the plants look “leggy.””

Figuring out where and in what to plant

My backyard is bordered by tall, mature trees. Which means, the majority of the yard is shaded for most of the day. The exception is my porch stairs and the lower patio. And since I fell in love with the European window boxes, I opted for a large container (30 inches) that was formed to withstand some pretty wicked winds and fit a 6 inch railing. I got these window boxes on sale from Gardener’s Supply.

The minium order from Larson's Geraniums was $40 so that meant I ordered 6 white Ville de Paris Dresden and a baker's dozen of the Ville de Paris mix. With 19 plants, I needed more than 2 window boxes. So I opted for 2 self-watering hanging baskets because I am awful about watering hanging baskets. I always seem to forget! I am not sure if the self-watering feature will work with these dry-soil loving plants. Another experiment!

Another feature I liked about these hanging pots from Gardener's Supply is that they allow us short people to water from the bottom (see the small hole at the bottom). Not sure if that means I'll have insects nesting in that spot or not. I'll post later about how I feel about the pots. They also were on sale!!!

This was my bribery effort to get Atlas to leave the plants alone while I put them into their pots. So far so good… Update 4/26 – I discovered that Atlas already dug up the Hen and her Chicks that I planted near the “stream” in our backyard. If you don’t already know, he is a full-blooded A$$hole. That is a technical term for his “smart dog” characteristic and has nothing to do with his breed.

Planting these babies

April 23 was a big plant day! I got my geraniums and my shipment from Wilde’s with my peonies, baby’s breath and hens & chicks. Lots to put in the ground this weekend. (See note above…)

Larson’s Geraniums grow their plants from tissue culture, not from seed. Their propagation is done in these awesome sytrofoam, lightweight packaging. I appreciate that as it cuts down on shipping costs.

They recommend pushing the dry root ball out of the package by using the eraser end of a pencil. Worked like charm! I was impressed by the mature root ball on all but one of the 19 plants.

How many to a pot or window box?

According to the grower's website, they recommend for a 30 inch x 6 inch window box to plant six full-size cascade plants and for a 12 inch hanging basket to plant five plants. As you can see here from my notes, that is what I decided to go for, divvying up the Dresden (white) plants and mixing the red, pink and lavender plants among the four pots.

For both window boxes, I plan to add the equally dry-soil loving foxtail rosemary to each end to provide some texture variation. Those plants are scheduled to arrive in early May.

Due to the Covid-19 quarantine, I am having the majority of my plants mailed to me.

I promise to update this post with pictures once the rosemary arrives and the geraniums start flowering. I likely will add information about pinching the long stems. Also, I do plan to allow them to go to seed and save seeds for next season. I’ll possibly do a blog in the fall about that seed saving. And yes, I am super excited to add these to my garden!

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