How to Prune Geraniums

I have a confession to make. I spent years hating geraniums. Whenever I pictured them, I imagined a leggy plant with red flowers growing in a green plastic pot. I didn’t understand why so many people loved them when there are so many other beautiful flowers out there. 

I was missing several crucial pieces of information. 

First, geraniums aren’t just one species of plant. In fact, they’re an entire genus made up of hundreds of species. The red flowers I disliked so fervently aren’t even scientifically considered geraniums at all—they’re a separate genus called Pelargonium that gets lumped in with geraniums for the purposes of the average gardener. 

Now, that’s confusing. Things always are when you start looking into different taxonomies. Using the same word to refer to two completely different plants is a headache waiting to happen.

We’re going to focus on plants in the Pelargonium genus, but I’ll be calling them geraniums since that’s what everyone does in day-to-day conversations. 

The last vital piece of geranium-related information I was missing was how to prune them. When properly cared for, geraniums can brighten gardens and flower pots around your home. They don’t have to look weedy or reside in a boring flower pot.

Don’t miss out on these plants’ versatile beauty. Instead, take my advice and help your geraniums look their best. When you know when and how to prune, you can enjoy healthy, vibrant geraniums for years to come, not just the first few weeks after you bring one home from the garden center. 

A side note, if you were curious: true geraniums, which means the plants actually found within the geranium genus, don’t require much in the way of pruning. You can cut them back almost to the base of the stems when they’re done blooming the first time, and they’ll come back within a few weeks. That way, you can skip the weedy phase and the tedious deadheading. 

That’s all you need to know about true geraniums. For the rest of this article, we’ll be talking about geraniums that are actually pelargoniums, scientifically speaking. 

Next in this article:

  • Methods for pruning geraniums depending on how you wintered them. 
  • The four main types of geraniums. 
  • How to actually go about pruning geraniums.
  • Answers to some of the most common questions geranium-growers have. 

Methods For Pruning Geraniums

The best method for pruning your geraniums will depend on where you live and where the geraniums are kept.

Pruning Geraniums After Winter Dormancy

In cold climates, or if you make your geraniums go dormant over the winter, you should aim to prune them in the early spring. 

It’s not complicated. First, remove all of the dried, dead brown stems and leaves. Next, look for any live stems that are unhealthy. You should be able to tell based on the way the stem feels. Healthy ones are firm when you squeeze them lightly, while unhealthy stems will feel a bit softer. 

Now is your chance to prevent your geraniums from looking weedy or leggy for the rest of the growing season, too, although it takes a bit more work. To prevent a leggy appearance, trim back your geranium plant by a third. Pay particular attention to the stems that are on the woody side. 

Cutting Back Geraniums That are Wintered Alive

If you live somewhere geraniums stay green year-round or keep yours indoors during the winter, you’ll want to prune them sometime during the late fall. 

If you’re wintering your geraniums alive, cut them back by around a third. Do this right before you bring them indoors if that’s your overwintering plan for them. As with geraniums that survive the winter in a dormant state, focus on leggy, woody stems when you do the pruning. 

The Different Types of Geraniums 

As if you didn’t have enough to keep track of, there are different types of geraniums (which, remember, is the common name for this particular group of plants, not the scientific classification, which refers to other plants entirely.)

Common Garden Geraniums

Common garden geraniums are the quintessential type that I used to picture before learning that the world of geraniums was far more complicated than I could have ever imagined. 

Technically, common garden geraniums are a hybrid between two pelargonium species: Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium inquinans. They’re usually red, but you might see them in pink or white too.

If you want to make sure you’re researching the correct plant, use the term “ Pelargonium × hortorum,” which is their scientific name.

Ivy Geraniums

Ivy geraniums are referred to scientifically as Pelargonium peltatum. While popular, they’re pretty different from their common garden counterparts. Their leaves are glossy, and their flowers trail rather than growing directly upward. 

If you have a hanging basket or a window box that needs a spot of color, ivy geraniums are a great choice. You’ll see a broader range of colors in ivy geraniums, although reds, whites, and pinks are still the most common colors. 

Scented-Leaf Geraniums

Scented-leaf geraniums are my personal favorite. Scientifically, they’re known as Pelargonium domesticum. Compared to the other geraniums we have and will discuss, their flowers aren’t particularly impressive. Generally, they’re small and pink.

What sets scented-leaf geraniums apart from their relatives is their smell. When their leaves are touched or lightly bruised, they release a scent that will depend on the variety you’re growing.

You might see rose, mint, strawberry, cinnamon, lemon or another scent while you’re shopping. They grow well in pots, and I highly recommend them as houseplants. A caveat to that recommendation: plants within the Pelargonium species are toxic to cats and dogs, so if you have a furry friend, keep them away from your geraniums.  

Regal Geraniums

Regal geraniums are the showstoppers of the geranium world. They’re another hybrid, primarily resulting from a mixture of Pelargonium grandiflorum and Pelargonium cucullatum. Their scientific name, if you can bear more Latin, is Pelargonium x domesticum. They are not to be confused with the scented-leaf geranium, which is Pelargonium domesticum. 

Regal geraniums are best grown indoors. Their flowers come in whites, reds, pinks and purples, although they may be more than one color and ruffled. 

How to Prune Geraniums

You have options when it comes to pruning your geraniums. 

Create New Growth from Cuttings

If it feels wasteful to cut off perfectly healthy parts of your geranium plant, consider propagating more. Geraniums are pretty easy to propagate from cuttings. They’re excellent for beginners and still rewarding for long-time gardeners. 

Store the Entire Plant in Your Basement

If you’ve never made a geranium go dormant before, you’re going to hate the whole process. It feels like you’re killing the plant, and you might if you do it wrong.

First, you dig the plant up. Then, you shake the dirt out of its roots gently so as not to damage them. From there, you can hang them upside down somewhere cool and dark, like a basement.

Around once a month, take the plants down and soak their roots in water for an hour or two. The stems should be firm when you check them. If they’re wilted, it’s unlikely that the plant will survive.

When you want to bring the plants out of dormancy, pot them, water them and prune any dead pieces. Keep them watered and place them somewhere sunny, then be patient. It might take a few weeks for them to start growing.

Plant Them in Containers to Enjoy Indoors

If inducing dormancy sounds like more work than you’d like to do, you can just keep your geraniums as houseplants over the winter. I love to do this with scented-leaf geraniums, and regal geraniums prefer the indoors in the majority of areas. 

If you deadhead them regularly and give them the proper amount of sunlight, geraniums will flower all year round when kept as houseplants. Whether you live somewhere winters are dreary or like to have a green space in your home, geraniums are a great addition to your household. 

Common Questions 

How do you cut back leggy geraniums? As we discussed in an earlier section, to cut back a leggy geranium, remove about a third of the plant, focusing on the woody stems. 

When should geraniums be pruned? The correct time of year to prune your geraniums depends on how you plan to overwinter them. If your geraniums were dormant all winter, prune them in the spring. If you kept them alive and growing, prune them in the fall right before bringing them indoors. 

Do geraniums need cutting back? You don’t necessarily need to cut a geranium back, but it will improve its appearance and health. The terms “cutting back” and “pruning” are sometimes used interchangeably, but in general, the former refers to addressing an overgrown plant, while the latter refers to taking off dead or unhealthy stems. Pruning helps keep a plant neat and healthy while cutting it back prevents it from becoming leggy or overextended. 

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