Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
March, 2007
Regional Report

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Pink hollyhocks add old-fashioned charm to the garden.

Happy Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks bring a smile to just about everyone's face. They stand tall in the Arizona Herb Association's Demonstration Garden at Maricopa County Cooperative Extension in Phoenix. When I'm out weeding, I often overhear visitors comment with pleasure on the hollyhocks in bloom. It seems everyone's mother or grandmother grew them, while some folks didn't realize hollyhocks grow in the desert.

Sowing Seeds
Actually, hollyhocks do extraordinarily well here. Once you grow them, you'll probably always have them unless you are a more ruthless weeder than I. They self-sow like crazy. The Bulb Demo Garden is adjacent to the Herb Garden, and I (reluctantly) yank out numerous volunteers every spring because they take up too much space. A single plant spreads about 3 feet wide. Although some references suggest starting seeds indoors to transplant out, I don't find that volunteers transplant easily because they quickly grow a deep, fat taproot and it's difficult to dig the entire root without damage. So, unless you try to move volunteers while they are still quite small, it's simpler to sow seeds where you want them.

Plant seeds in full sun in garden soil that has been amended with organic matter and well loosened to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Incorporate nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer, such as ammonium phosphate (16-20-0); or organic sources, such as blood and bone meal. Seeds are best sown in spring (February-March) or fall (September-November), but can also be sown in the warmer months of April-June and September.

Traditional hollyhocks are biennials, growing vegetation the first year and flowering the second. However, in the low desert's extended growing seasons they may flower sooner. Plants that are 15 to 18 months old typically bloom with the most vigor. Hybrid annuals are also available.

Choosing a Spot
Hollyhocks develop thick stems and are quite sturdy, so they don't require support even in the winds that blow across the empty field near our Demo Gardens. However, strong winds can knock them down so take that into account when deciding where to plant. They look great next to a wall, covering an otherwise blank surface while receiving back support. The oversized foliage is unusual in a desert garden, where most native foliage has adapted to be tiny (think mesquite or salvia leaves) to limit moisture loss in an arid climate.

Flower stalks tower 6 to 9 feet tall, blooming from the base upwards. Seeds may dry at the base before flowering has finished at the top. After the first bloom stalk is spent, cut it to the ground to encourage a second round of flowering. There are single and double blossoms, with smooth or fringed edges, in shades of pink, rose, apricot, lavender, creamy yellow, red, and maroon-black. There's a color to suit just about every taste, so consider adding hollyhocks to your garden for a little bit of old-fashioned ambience that will bring a smile to you and your visitors.

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