Jennifer is an environmentalist from Ohio. She is passionate about advocating for the planet and wildlife through gardening and education.
Hardy Geraniums vs Tender Geraniums: Which Should You Plant in Your Garden?
If you are confused by the different types of geraniums available, you aren’t alone. It is easy to become confused about the different types of geraniums, considering there are multiple plants with different needs that share the name. Though the two types of geraniums are cousins, both belonging to the Geraniaceae family, they have different growing needs and are native to different climates. True geraniums are a hardy perennial plant, while the plants often sold as “geraniums” at garden centers, which are actually pelargoniums, are tender plants that are typically grown as annuals in cooler climates such as in my home-state, Ohio.
I first became interested in growing geraniums after reading that they are useful in repelling certain pests from the garden. I first purchased the only “geraniums” that were available at my local big-box home improvement store. After a bit more research, I found that these plants are not true geraniums, but rather “zonal geraniums,” and that they are grown as annuals in my growing zone, meaning they either need to be dug up and brought in doors over the winter, or replaced next spring. I prefer perennial plants, so I began researching perennial varieties of geraniums to use instead and was excited to learn that hardy geraniums are a native plant to my area, meaning they are more beneficial to local wildlife than more exotic varieties. Fast-forward several months, and I now have both types of geraniums growing in my garden.
Now, I’m not completely sure which geraniums the authors of the pest control articles I read were referring to, but I have noticed the garden bed that I have lined with true geraniums doesn’t get dug up by raccoons at night, while my tender zonal geraniums often show damage from critters when I check on my garden in the morning. Because of this, as well as the fact that true geraniums are native perennials, I find that true geraniums are a much better choice for my personal gardening needs.
True Geraniums (Hardy Geraniums, Wild Geraniums, Native Geraniums, Cranesbill)
True geraniums are most commonly referred to as “cranesbill” because of the distinctive shape of their seed pods that resemble to beak of a crane. These plants are native to temperate regions, including North America and are often found growing in woodland environments.
Geraniums thrive in shady gardens and make excellent borders and ground cover. These plants are easily cultivated, and readily spread via their horizontal root systems. Each clump of hardy geraniums can range in size from 12 to 28 inches tall and spread 12 to 18 inches wide.
The flowers produced by these plants range in shades of light pink to deep purple, occasionally even shades of blue or white. The flowers are about 1 to 1 ½ inch in diameter and feature five rounded petals each. They have dark green foliage that turns vibrant shades of red or yellow in the autumn.
Geraniums can be used to repel mosquitos, as well as other pesky garden pests. Some people claim that these plants also have a number of healing properties to treat several minor ailments.
Zonal Geraniums (Pelargoniums, Tender Geraniums, Garden Geraniums, Common Geraniums)
The plants most often sold as “geraniums” at garden centers are called zonal geraniums, which are actually not geraniums at all, but pelargoniums (a cousin of true geraniums). They are often called zonal geraniums because of the alternating bands of color on their leaves. Other common names for these plants include “garden geraniums,” “tender geraniums,” and “common geraniums.” There are many different types of pelargoniums that range in size, color, shape, and growth habit. These plants are native to warm climates, most notably South Africa, and are drought and heat tolerant. They are not, however, frost tolerant, so they can only be grown as annuals in temperate regions.
These annual flowers are most commonly available in a range of pink, white, and red shades, though other colors such as yellow and purple cultivars are also available. They feature blooms that are typically larger and more vibrant that their hardy counterparts. They tend to have more rounded leaves than true geraniums. Zonal geraniums are characterized by a dark stripe on the center of their leaves. These flowers grow up to 18 inches high.
As natives to warm, arid regions these heat-loving plants prefer full sun, but most can tolerate partial shade as well. They are drought-tolerant, and don’t do well when over watered. Unless you live in a place with a climate similar to their hot native regions, they need to be brought inside during the winter, or treated as an annual and replaced in the spring.
Which Geraniums are Better for Your Garden?
Deciding which type of geraniums is a better choice for your garden depends on your own personal goals. Usually, your growing region will determine the best plants for your garden. In most cases, for people who live in regions with temperate climates like mine, hardy geraniums are a better choice despite zonal geraniums being more common in garden centers.
Hardy geraniums are native to many places with temperate climates. If you are trying to create a garden that benefits local pollinators, you want to include as many native plants as possible. For this reason, it is always best to choose native geranium varieties for your garden.
Hardy geraniums are also much easier to care for in these types of regions, as they are naturally adapted to the climate. They are perennials that come back every year, and they don’t require special care to thrive.
If you live somewhere where pelargoniums are native, such as South Africa, it obviously makes much more sense to go with your own native flower varieties.
If you don’t care about pollinators or planting native plants in your garden, and just want the brightest, showiest blooms, you may prefer zonal geraniums. If this is the case for you, however, I recommend doing some research to see the benefits of native gardening and planting specifically for local pollinators before the next growing season.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Jennifer Wilber
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 22, 2021:
A wonderful read. Thanks.