Jennifer StackhouseGeraniums, birds and dog bones

Hi, Jennifer Stackhouse here with my first blog for GardenDrum! I’m a great believer in having lots of colour and action right outside my kitchen windows. When I work from home I am usually to be found not in the office, but sitting at the kitchen bench with my eyes partly on the computer screen and partly on what’s happening outside in the garden.

Butcherbird (photo frankzed)

We get lots of birds here. There are butcherbirds, bowerbirds and kookaburras who visit along with the ubiquitous noisy miners and pee wees – or you may know them as mud larks. Magpies too stop by regularly as well as doves, wood ducks, the odd heron and choughs (pronounced chuffs). Oh and don’t forget the coots and the plovers.


Larry with his bone

These birds visit to graze on our lawns and paddocks, to raid the nectar-rich flowers in the garden or to eat some of our myriad insects. They’re also dropping by to check out the pet bowls, steal the dog’s bone or have a drink of water.

In summer there are also lots of lizards. They alternate between basking on the warm stones of our raised garden beds to also sneaking down to steal the dog bones.

Those dog bones are really popular and I’ve never ever seen them on any list of things to have in your garden to attract wildlife!

Big Red geranium

But, right now, beyond the window where it’s a bit cold and bleak, it is the ‘Big Red’ that’s taken my eye. No, it is not a bird, or a kangaroo, or a juicy bone and it’s not a bottle of tomato sauce!

‘Big Red’ is a hybrid geranium, and it is one of the best and most exciting plants I’ve ever grown. It’s a surprise winter bloomer on my doorstep.

This plant is an exuberant cross between the common zonal geranium and the trailing ivy geranium. Ivy geraniums are generally more disease resistant than zonals, but zonals produce the best flowers.

And this cross between these two different geranium species seems to have combined the best from both plants.

‘Big Red’ has large, disease-free leaves that are softer than a normal ivy geranium, and it has big heads of vibrant red flowers.

This interspecific hybrid (that is, a hybrid between two species) was developed in the United States where it is sold as ‘Calliope’. Or should that be Calliope – I never know!

I do know she was a daughter of Zeus and the muse of epic poetry. But, back to gardening matters.

I’m growing ‘Big Red’ in hanging baskets and right now they are giving me a bold show of red flowers and lush green leaves that is brightening the general grey of winter. The baskets have come back into bloom after their autumn prune. This unseasonably early flowering has been helped along by regular doses of liquid fertiliser.

Like all geraniums, this one grows very well from cutting so, if you can find a plant, let it grow then cut it back to provide yourself with lots of potential new plants. The reason I say if you can find a plant is that it was first released solely through Bunnings so it was a bit hard to find at nurseries but it should be more widely available now and particularly this spring.

My plants have already given up many progeny to eager gardeners who I hope are now enjoying their own cascading baskets of ‘Big Red’ geranium.



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Jennifer Stackhouse

About Jennifer Stackhouse

Recently Jennifer Stackhouse made the big move from Kurmond in NSW to a Federation house in the little village of Barrington tucked beneath Mt Roland in northwest Tasmania. With high rainfall, rich, red deep soil and a mild climate she reckons she's won the gardening lottery. She's taken on an acre garden that's been lovingly planted and tended for the past 28 years by a pair of keen gardeners so she is discovering a garden full of horticultural treasures. Jennifer is the author of several gardening books including 'Garden', which won a Book Laurel for 2013, as well as ‘The Organic Guide to Edible Gardens’, ‘Planting Techniques’ and ‘My Gardening Year’, which she wrote with her mother Shirley. She was editor of ABC 'Gardening Australia' magazine and now edits the trade journal 'Greenworld' magazine and writes regularly for the Saturday magazine in 'The Mercury'. She is often heard on radio and at garden shows answering garden queries.

26 thoughts on “Geraniums, birds and dog bones

  1. Hi Jennifer! Great to see you here!
    Pelargoniums tend not to do well in my suburb – it’s too cold, wet and misty over winter in all but the sunniest gardens – but you’re spot on about Big Red -it’s a terrific plant! It flowers from spring to autumn in my local plant nursery, without getting fungal diseases. Every week I remove the spent blooms but another set of buds is already forming, so it truly does flower continuously. We give them a fortnightly feed of high-potassium liquid fertiliser which helps too.

  2. Guess what Jennifer, I am still disinterring dog bones and my dog died eight years ago….! Great piece. Anne Latreille

  3. I can very much relate to the idea of being happily distracted from working at home by what is going on in the garden. I am constantly finding reasons to get up from my desk to go and investigate something that is happening in the garden. Welcome to the GardenDrum community.

    Happy GardenDrumming!!!

  4. My grandma used to say there is a compensation to everything that happens in life – “you just have to look for it” – and you never know what pops up! Elwyn Swane

  5. I love looking out my door at the birdbath which is a lovely source of distraction and identifying the swooping feathered friends! Can totally relate to your lovely piece and I like Elwyn’s comment! You will have time to look at alternatives and this could be the start of something huge!

  6. Hi Jennifer,
    ‘Calliope’ I can see is a winner !! … MUST try some in the next design. I know of another very good interspecific hybrid ivy geranium I got from the Geranium Queen herself, Robyn Bible. Called ‘Achievement’, it appears to have similar form and flowers in a Bellevue Hill design of mine all year according to my delighted client there, Felicity Jansen … Anyway, thinking of you at this time Jennifer, wishing you well and I just KNOW after some careful thought, you will make the most of some welcome space that’s suddenly opened up as it often does in life… warm wishes, Peter XX

  7. Thanks for all the feedback and positive comments! I am looking forward to new things – just wish I knew what they will be! Jennifer

  8. Thanks for the contribution on the geranium, Jennifer, and for your contribution to Gardening Australia magazine.
    Hmm … from memory, something like this has happened before, and to the other body’s detriment.
    I know you’ll keep smiling,
    Gil Teague

  9. I thoroughly agree with everything you said about Geranium ‘Big Red’. Mine is flowering right now – it never stops, even through winter, although in Willoughby it is rarely below 5C. It’s in a terracotta pot, spilling happily over the edges, and it’s such a vibrant, solid red! If you want to get a taste of Italy in the sub-tropics, give it a try. Mine has never had fungal problems such as rust, even when it spent its first winter in only part sun.

    • Spot on, Helen Y: The rust resistance is also key for my climate in the Adelaide Hills. Other ivy-leaf geraniums and pelargoniums just rot away and vanish or get rust, but Big Red is not affected at all – we have them flowering in pots right now in midwinter in foggy, misty, damp ,cold Crafers. There’s a lot of hype surrounding new (or even not so new) cultivars as they come out on the sushi PBR production train of but alas, all too often there’s a minor tweak of an old favourite – not worth paying any extra dollars for essentially the same plant your grandma grew. So how refreshing to find something like Big Red!

  10. Hi Jennifer
    Great article and I too am a devotee of Big Red – it’s the disease resistance that is the big winner. Looking forward to more articles!
    Peter Whitehead

  11. Lovely post, Jennifer. Am very encouraged to read your enthusiasm for humble geraniums. I came way from a visit to a dear aunt last month with about 16 cuttings of geraniums of all shapes and colours. I love them trailing from hanging baskets on my now baring leptospernum branches. I do my garden writing also with ambience – under the poinciana tree in the front garden. Some leaf droppings and occasional bird “calling cards” interrupt things, but mainly it’s a gorgeous inspirational spot to gather gardening thoughts.
    Look forward to more of your blog.
    Julie Thomson

  12. Dear Jennifer…As I said on the GA Facebook page…you will be sorely missed…I am so pleased I did get to meet both you and Stephen in Sydney last year and I have my photos to add to my “memories”…. I don’t know anything much about “blogging” but I look forward to seeing and reading lots of what you blog…I enjoyed this one very much and relate just SO much to it…I sit at my computer and watch the birds all the time IF I am not out in the garden working and with about 2acres of garden on our 5acres that is a LOT of the time…I just love the wrens , the honeyeaters and Wattlebirds in the Grevilleas,BUT also love the Yellow tailed black cockatoos who visit to eat the Hakea and Banksia seeds…AND the Robins at the beginning of Winter…We have over 45 species of birds that have visited our garden that I have noted…possibly there have been others…I wish you all the very best in whatever you may do apart from your blog…I am sure a knowledgable person like yourself will not be idle long…I really look forward to your next blog…
    Di Russell

    • Thanks Di! I too love the black cockatoos – I love their slow flight as they pass overhead here looking for something to eat among the trees.

  13. Hi Jennifer, do you know if Geranium Calliope (Big Red) can be edible? Many sites mentioned Rose Geranium and Scented Geranium. But is the petals or leaves of Big Red Geranium Calliope be eaten? Thank you.

  14. I am sure they could be eaten Tee Tem, but I don’t think you’d want to and it’s not advisable. The rose, lemon, peppermint geraniums and others that are mentioned in recipes are used as they have a sweet flavour. They are used to flavour cakes, biscuits or custards but the leaf itself is not usually eaten. Big Red is a hybrid between a zonal and ivy geranium and does not have a sweetly flavoured or scented leaf. The leaves are also quite tough. Jennifer

    • Big Red is a botanically a hybrid pelargonium (an ivy type crossed with a zonal type) but is always sold as ‘Big Red’ geranium. I have found that it grows really well in a pot but gets fungal problems in the garden, even in a well-drained spot.

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