August & September in the garden

By now, Autumn has well and truly got its feet under the table. With characteristic tardiness, I’m taking a look back at the past couple of months – the height of summer recently departed, as portrayed on my Instagram grid. Here’s my pick of the best images.

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May in the garden

May brought us sunshine and rain, burgeoning borders, a late frost and, of course, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the month of the gardening calendar when everything goes a bit bonkers – in a wonderful, exuberant way. Always quite nice to reach the end with your sanity intact, and your body parts functioning, though by the final week I was being reminded of the need of a good stretch, and that its about time I really ought to be getting some serious yoga practice in.

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The national pelargonium collection 2/2

This is the second part of a long blog post. Please click here to read Part 1.

Pelargonium 'Shannon', hybridissed in Califonia by Jay Kapac
Crossing two species results in a species (or primary) hybrid. This category contains two of my absolute favourite pelargoniums, Pelargonium'Shannon', which I’ve waffled on about before (here). It’s quite a relaxed, almost straggly plant, with bright green foliage and small flowers of a colour often described as salmon pink, although I think the pink is a shade or two cooler than that would suggest. The markings in a deeper pink at the base of each petal are quite a feature. A great choice for containers.

Pelargonium 'Ardens'.
Pelargonium 'Ardens'.
Another species hybrid is the very beautiful Pelargonium 'Ardens'. This latter plant, a cross between Pelargonium lobatum and Pelargonium fulgidum, has particularly long flower stems (peduncles), at the end of which are blooms of the richest deep red with brown markings. It’s quite exquisite, the flowers giving the impression of just managing to contain some inner, burning flame. I first came across it only a few months ago in a feature in July’s Gardens Illustrated (no. 211 – worth getting hold of a copy), and was more than delighted to make its acquaintance in person.

The long peduncles of Pelargonium 'Ardens'.
Container planting with P. 'Ardens', Gardens Illustrated no. 211
The next group I was interested to spend some more time was the Stellar, or ‘Five Fingered Zonal’ pelargoniums – I was even fortunate enough  to catch most of these in flower, allowing me to appreicate some of the most interesting petals, in terms of both shape and colour, complementing some superb foliage. There’s something about these plants which I find particularly dynamic; showy, but without (for the most part) wandering beyond the realms of good taste. Do let me know if you agree by leaving a comment below!

Pelargonium 'Aaron West'
Pelargonium 'Aaron West'
Pelargonium 'Aaron West'. This has a striking flower, with long, thin white petals of equal size and distribution, each kinked like a bolt of lightning. A generous flecking of pink along the inner length of each petal completes the look – a sumptuos flower. The foliage has zonal markings and the typically five-fingered palmate form of the stellar pelargoniums.

Pelargonium 'Annsbrook Jupiter'
Pelargonium 'Annsbrook Jupiter' 
The petals of Pelargonium 'Annsbrook Jupiter' are neither as long nor as thin as P. 'Aaron West', although the colouring is similar, if a little more subtle with the pink flecking.

Pelargonium 'Vectis Volcano'
Pelargonium 'Vectis Volcano'
For the ultimate in flecking, there is Pelargonium 'Vectis Volcano', whose white petals (two smaller upper, three larger lower) appears to have been treated to a generous dusting with paprika.

Pelargonium 'Miss McKenzie'
Pelargonium 'Miss McKenzie'
But it wasn’t just the flowers that caught my eye here. The leaves of, for example, Pelargonium 'Miss McKenzie' are divided between the lobes, or fingers, to the extent that the fingers seem splayed out in an exaggerated fashion. These are real jazz hands.

Pelargonium 'Lotus Land'
Pelargonium 'Lotus Land'
The golden foliage of Pelargonium 'Lotus Land', contrasting with the bright pink of the flowers, reminds me of nothing so much as the leaves of the serenely beautiful Golden full moon maple, Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'. I can’t help but wonder what they might look like in a planting together – hideous, possibly, and certainly not an authentic combination, but I’ll probably have to try it just to see for myself.

Golden acers in Kazyuyuki Ishihara’s Togenkyo Artisan Garden at Chelsea earlier this yeara
At this point in my visit, I was waylaid by a grouping of plants – the miniature zonal pelargoniums – how fantastic! Pocket sized, perfectly formed zonal pellies, with as great a variety of foliage and flower colour and form as their larger cousins. Growing to no more than 12 cm high, these are the perfect plants for a small window ledge, and so, several more names were added to my now immensely long shopping list of plants for the spring. Here are just a few.

Pelargonium 'Garnet Rosebud'
Pelargonium 'Garnet Rosebud'

Pelargonium 'Gwen'
Pelargonium 'Gwen'

Pelargonium 'Red Spider'
Pelargonium 'Red Spider'

Pelargonium 'Mini Czech'
Pelargonium 'Mini Czech'
Tearing myself away from these diminutive delights, I managed to find the area containing the scented-leaved pelargoniums, where ensued much rubbing of foliage and sniffing. The range of aromas includes fresh, minty and eucalpytus, invigorating citruses and rich, and more mellow scents of rose and spices. By this time, my poor nervous system was approaching sensory overload, but I managed to postpone turning into a gibbering wreck for just long enough to take a few more photographs.

Pelargonium 'Chocolate Peppermint'
Pelargonium 'Chocolate Peppermint'
I found one of the plants on my wish list, Pelargonium 'Chocolate Peppermint', which I recognised by its distinctive, oak-shaped leaves with dark brown central markings. I hadn’t been expecting the individual leaves to be quite so large, however – nor so soft and delicate. Quite a surprise; I’m now even more enthusiastic to add this to my collection, although quite where all these new plants are going to go in my house I’ve yet to work out. We don’t even have window ledges.

Pelargonium 'Annsbrooke Beauty'
Pelargonium 'Annsbrooke Beauty'
This photograph shows a specimen I didn’t have on my list, but as is so often the case, meeting the plant in person gives an entirely different impression, and I have a feeling that the lemon scented 'Annsbrooke Beauty' will soon be coming to stay. There’s something very well matched about the way the bicolour markings on the petals mirror the variagation on the handsome foliage.

Finally, a bench containing some fine ivy-leaved pelargoniums. These trailing plants are fabulous, they flower for an age and the foliage is rich and glossy.

I was particularly taken with the tactile, succulent foliage of 'Flakey', a dwarf trailing variety...

Pelargonium 'Flakey'
Pelargonium 'Flakey'
...and I will definitely be growing the considerably larger and more vigorous Pelargonium 'Chuan Cho' next year.

Pelargonium 'Chuan Cho'
Pelargonium 'Chuan Cho'
And that should have been it for this visit. However, even as I was walking back to the car, I couldn’t stop myself from sticking my head into another glasshouse, where I found another two plants which demand to be added to my small collection of dark flowered regals (at present comprising 'Lord Bute', 'Mystery' and 'Regalia Chocolate').

Pelargonium 'Garland'

Pelargonium 'Rimfire'

In all, it was a fascinating few hours spent with some truly wonderful plants, and the opporunity to see such a comprehensive collection is one not to be missed – even if, like me, you leave it till September. I would urge anyone with an interest in this genus to make the trip, especially if you’re in the area anyway visiting Stratford-upon-Avon or one of the many famous gardens in this part of the country (among them Waterperry, Rousham, Kiftsgate, Hidcote and Buscot Park, not to mention the pottery at Whichford). For me, though, the draw of the nursery and the National Pelargonium Collection was sufficient to entice me out of Kentish parts, and I’d like to thank Heather and the staff at Fibrex for accommodating my curiosity, putting up with a nosey visitor and making the trip so worthwhile. I’ll certainly be back next year.


The national pelargonium collection 1/2

To Fibrex Nurseries today, the home of a the national pelargonium collection, which I’ve been intending to visit for some time. It could be argued that it’s a bit late in the year to visit a collection comprising largely summer flowering perennials but, like most people, I’m at the mercy of my diary and today was the first opportunity in a long while that I’ve had to make the trip. To tell the truth, it wasn’t a source of bother to me; I’m such an enthusiastic fan of this particular genus that the foliage and the growth habit of the individual specimens promised to hold as much fascination for me as the flowers – more, if I’m honest.

One of the last orders to go out this year. Fibrex will begin despatching pelargoniums again in March
Fibrex is a family run nursery, nestled in the beautiful Warwickshire countryside. As well as the pelargoniums they are home to the national hedera collection and additionaly specialise in ferns and begonias. Maintaining a strong presence at the horticultural shows run by the RHS and other organisations throughout the year, and a wall in the office entirely covered with awards provides ample testimony to their enviable success and skill. Earlier in the year I’d met Heather Godard-Key at a couple of the RHS shows in London, and we’ve since spoken on twitter. She kindly agreed to show me around the nursery and, within moments of greeting me as I extracted myself from the car, had furnished me with a welcome cup of tea and a slice of pelargonium cake. It might be three and half hours from home, but this alone was worth the journey.

Pellie cake, which was worth the journey in itself
Pelargoniums hail mainly from South Africa, with a few species having been discovered in East Africa, Australia and the Middle East. They were originally classified alongside geraniums, with which they share some features, but due to significant differences* have been considered a distinct genus since the late eighteenth century. Notwithstanding this fact, the general public and even certain seed companies (who really ought to know better) still refer to 'geraniums' when talking of pelargoniums. This is particularly so with the ever-popular zonal varieties, and is one of those things that will make a horticulturalist wince; in fact, a rather dangerous look comes over Heather’s face when our conversation turns to this confusion, and so I choose not to dwell on it.

Heather reminds me that here you only get to refer to 'geraniums' once...
Suffice it to say that there are many pelargonium cultivars, providing an attractive, colourful and easy to grow solution for the garden and conservatory. Often with scented foliage, the majority are tender and evergreen, requiring protection throughout the winter, and as such they make excellent container plants. Cultivars appropriate for many situations fall into useful categories – zonal, regal, angel, stellar, ivy-leaved, scented etc – and the collection is laid out according to these groups, all clearly labelled and with helpful notes to guide the enthusiast through the 2,500 plus plants on show.

With so much to see, I knew before arriving that I had no hope of taking everything in. On this visit, although quite prepared to be waylaid by interesting specimens along the way, I had decided to concentrate on the species section, whilst also indulging my curiosity with the scented leaved and stellar varieties. Here is just a small sample of the wonderful pelargoniums I met today.

Pelargonium triste
Pelargonium triste. Photograph © Heather Godard-Key
Pelargonium triste   Noted for its strong evening scent, this is the earliest species to be brought into cultivation in the seventeenth century. The tactile leaves are hairy and deeply divided, rather like those of a carrot or some other umbelliferous thing. The flowers are variable, dull yellow to purple, though I think this one is rather splendid.

Pelargonium abrotainifolium
Pelargonium abrotainifolium
Pelargonium abrotainifolium  I was completely won over by these small, highly textured, blue grey leaves and the reddish brown, loosely unkempt stems. Gorgeous dark cerise markings on the white upper petals.

Pelargonium exstipulatum
Pelargonium exstipulatum  Like Pelargonium abrotanifolium above, this shares small, glaucus, kidney-shaped (reniform) leaves with one of my favourites, Pelargonium sidoides, and also with Pelargonium reniforme.

Pelargonium gibbosum
Pelargonium gibbosum  Yellowy, almost green flowers, fabulous! Known as the ‘gouty’ pelargonium due to swollen nodes, which gives it its latin name.

Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum
Pelargonium tricuspidatum  There is so much variety in leaf form amongst these species plants, this one took me by surprise!

Pelargonium glutinosum
Pelargonium glutinosum  Talking of leaves, these are rather handsome ones, albeit sticky. A shrubby pelargonium growing to over a metre tall.

Pelargonium denticulatum
Pelargonium denticulatum  Another large, shrubby plant, with fabulous foliage (also somewhat tacky)! Precisely defined, deeply cut leaves – although another form, Filicifolium, takes it even further.

Before we leave the species, I wanted to share two final discoveries. First, the diminutive, glossy-leaved Pelargonium saxifragoides...

Pelargonium saxifragoides
Pelargonium saxifragoides
... and finally, the mother of all ivy-leaved forms, Pelargonium peltatum, named after the peltate (shield shaped) leaves in which the stalk attached towards the centre of the leaf, rather than at the outer margin. It may not be the most attractive trailing pelargonium, but its always interesting to see the parents of the more showy cultivars.

Pelargonium peltatum
Pelargonium peltatum

Part 2 of  this post can be read here

Fibrex Nurseries can be found on the web here, and on Twitter @FibrexNurseries 

*the differences are complex, but as an example, flowers of the genus Geranium will have five equally sized petals, arranged regularly around the centre, and ten fertile stamens, whereas a Pelargonium flower will typically have two larger upper petals, three smaller lower petals, with fewer than ten fertile stamens. Confusingly, the petals of the zonal cultivars, probably the most commonly seen pellie, have been bred to be even in shape, size, and arrangement. Which only goes to show what a minefield taxonomy can be.

Plant fever

Pelargonium 'Mystery'
Could it be the case that, just as a person’s sense of taste changes over the years – the bitterness of coffee and alcohol becoming more appealing – so one’s sense of smell also undergoes a similar transformation with advancing age? I can only speak for myself, but this seems a reasonable hypothesis. As a child I had a particular dislike for the sent of certain leaves – my youthful nose finding tomatoes and zonal pelargoniums (which we called ‘geraniums’) most offensive. Now, I positively look forward to pinching out the side shoots on my tomato plants, releasing tiny clouds of refreshingly astringent perfume as I nip with finger and thumb – and can’t pass a pelargonium without impulsively reaching to squeeze a leaf to similar effect. But I don't grow tomatoes to sniff them – like any sensible person I grow them because a home grown tomato tastes so much better than a shop bought tomato, whilst bestowing upon the grower the gratification of knowing that you’re eating the fruit of a plant you've raised yourself from seed – knowledge which brings satisfaction and smugness in equal measure. As justifications for growing a particular genus go, that’s pretty uncomplicated. My reasons for growing pelargoniums, on the other hand...well, I'm altogether more suspicious of those.

You can’t eat a pelargonium. Well, that’s not quite true – I’ve recently been taunted with photographs of pelargonium cake, something I’ve yet to sample. But you don't grow them as a fruit, or a vegetable – you grow them for their cheery flowers. Perhaps, too, because the pelargoniums I grew up with made you feel like a green fingered gardening god – almost impossible to kill by neglect, they can cope with dry conditions, being supremely forgiving should you neglect to water them for weeks on end. You accidentally knocked a bit off from over zealous deadheading? No problem! Simply stick the end into some compost and, a few weeks later – hey presto! – a new plant! For as long as I can remember, the unpretentious cheer of zonal pelargoniums has been a fixture of the summer garden – rounded heads of single scarlet flowers, on long, succulent stems, rising from a mound of fleshy, rounded leaves with the characteristic burgundy half-moon markings – all seemingly quite innocent. But then a fancier relative of my familiar, unglamorous companions caught my eye, and that, I’m afraid, was that. A Something seemed to start.

I bought my first fancy pelargonium from Marchants Hardy Pants in East Sussex. It looked nothing like the plants I was used to – long, trailing stems, mid green, parsley like foliage, slightly curled on itself, with soft pink single flowers, each with five petals – two large at the top, three smaller below, the base of each petal with a splash of a deeper pink. I loved this plant, and it kept me company next to my potting bench. Sadly, inexplicably, I failed to give it adequate protection one year and it succumbed to the worst of a cold winter in an unprotected greenhouse, though for now it lives on in the header image on my Twitter page. I will replace it as soon as I find another.

Pelargonium 'Shannon'
While at Marchants I also fell in love with a spectacular, delicate plant, Pelargonium sidoides, a species pelargonium. It has smallish, glaucous blue-grey leaves, which are the most perfect foil for the deep maroon flowers held above on long stems, each flower with the same petal arrangement as Shannon, but more delicate in form. Frustratingly, these weren’t for sale at the time, though a few months later I managed to find one in a collection with a silly name at

Pelargonium sidoides
It came with two regal pelargoniums, 'Lord Bute', which has flowers of deep burgundy, almost black, fringed with a lighter pink, and 'Mystery', a bright, rich red with darker centres. The Regal group of pelargoniums was again new to me – the flowers are much larger and more flamboyant than those of any pelargonium I’d encountered before, though the form of the plant was not so different from the plants whose scent I’d found so unappealing as a boy. The leaves, however, were noticeably different, and here I hope you’ll pardon me for introducing the topic of food again. To my mind, the most sensible way to describe in words the difference between the leaves of a zonal and a regal pelargonium is to use a crisp-based metaphor. If the leaves of the zonal pelargonium are gently rounded, in the style of a normal Walkers potato crisp, then the ridges and scalloped edges of the foliage on a regal pelargonium are more of the McCoy's ridge-cut type. Far more tactile, and quite a novelty to me.

I found the loss of the Shannon rather disheartening and perhaps partly due to this, and also to the inevitably butterfly nature of my mind when it comes to the garden, the newer pelargoniums, whilst not being entirely neglected, were not lavished with quite the attention they deserved. I’ve learnt, for example, that you need to stop these plants (pinch out the growing tips to encourage side branching) if you want bushy specimens – both the regals and the species got a little rangy, although they seemed perfectly happy.

And then, in around May this year, I came across a particularly splendid, dark flowered regal, petals a uniform shade of deep, red-black wine. The owner couldn’t remember the name, but I chanced across Pelargonium 'Chocolate' while collecting an order of roses from Rumwood Nurseries in Maidstone, which seemed to be the same cultivar, or at least one very similar. I bought two mature, bushy plants in two litre pots, one for the front of the house, one for the back (the one in the front, which gets more sun, and probably a bit less watering, is flowering most exuberantly, though both are healthy).

Pelargonium 'Chocolate'
The acquisition of these new plants more or less coincided with Chelsea – time to gaze in wonder at, amongst other things, rank upon rank of pelargoniums in mind-blowing forms and habits and colours. But I didn't add to my collection. Aware of my somewhat flaky record of looking after things-wot-must-live-in-containers, I was wary of introducing yet another potentially dead thing to the garden. Rather to my surprise, my resolve even lasted at Hampton Court, despite having the car with me and being therefore unable to use the excuse of plants getting squashed on the tube and train on the way home. But a week later I gave in, placing my first order on the website of Fibrex Nurseries, who hold the National Pelargonium Collection.

Pellies in paper
So barely a week later I found myself eagerly unwrapping a cardboard box which held my precious cargo; seven new pelargoniums, each carefully wrapped and nestled in shredded newspaper. (When you find yourself babbling with enthusiasm about the packaging, before even setting eyes on the contents, I think it’s safe to say that you’re in trouble. This could become a habit.) My latest arrivals are as follows: 'Turkish Coffee' (regal), 'Cy's Sunbust' (scented leaf), 'Lady Plymouth' (scented leaf), 'Creamery' and 'Gladys Weller' (both double zonals), 'Harvard' (ivy-leaved) and 'Snowbright' (stellar).  Within minutes of unpacking they were all potted up and in their new homes – four inside on the kitchen window ledge, three outside in the courtyard. I will post on these individually as they bulk up and come into flower; just now, I’m pulling off any flowers that dare to appear as I’d prefer the plants concentrate their metabolic efforts on growing roots, shoots and leaves. Tough love.

I’m left with the question – what is it that makes some of us slightly obsessive about one genus of plants or another? Is it an evocative smell, a childhood memory, or something more nebulous? Do leave a comment below if you have any answers, I’d love to hear them. As for me and pelargoniums,
I think it’s clearly too late to extricate myself from their clutches. Save yourselves if you can. Or better yet, just surrender to it, find a plant you can get ridiculously enthusiastic about, and let it take over. There are far worse habits to have.