Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
March, 2010
Regional Report

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Hollyhocks bring an old-fashioned charm to the garden.

Grandmother's Hollyhocks

My grandmother lived in a big, old Italianate-style house in a small city in upstate New York. The house stood on a wide street lined with tall elms whose arching branches formed a cool, green canopy in summer. The elms, of course, are long gone, but my wonderful childhood memories remain. I spent many an afternoon sitting on the broad front porch, swinging back and forth in the glider, the big heart-shaped leaves of the Dutchman's pipe vine that scrambled up a trellis at one end hiding me from the view of passersby. And I loved to wander through Grammy's gardens with her, marveling at the frothy white sprays of spirea in spring and the delicate speckled blossoms of tiger lilies in midsummer. But my favorite spot was her backyard garden. Within the neat border of a white picket fence, a riotous mix of flowers bloomed with wild abandon. My grandmother believed that Nature's hand was a great designer and she was delighted when plants sowed themselves. Foxglove and cosmos and larkspur sprouted up amidst the peonies and phlox, but my favorite flowers were the tall spires of hollyhocks that came up year after year in places of their own choosing.

Cottage Garden Favorites
So I always include hollyhocks in my garden now, and though they never seem quite as stately and abundant to me as they did in that well-loved garden of my past, they are always a welcome addition in my landscape. Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are the quintessential cottage garden flower, beloved of English gardeners and grown in this country since the early 1600s. My grandmother grew the old-fashioned, single-flowered variety, with simple blossoms in shades of pink, white and salmon borne on stalks that rose five to six feet tall or more. Double flowering varieties looking like rows of powderpuffs have also been in cultivation since the early 18th century. Both provide a strong vertical element to the flower border, a welcome contrast to the rounded shapes of so many other garden flowers.

Though you might not guess it from their appearance, hollyhocks are members of the cotton family with a long history of medicinal as well as ornamental use. Their juice is soothing and was used in the past as a cough syrup. In fact their botanical name Alcea means "that which heals". Although I've never tried them, the blossoms and small seed pods are reputed to be edible, even tasty.

Growing Hollyhocks
Most of the older varieties of hollyhocks are either biennials (plants that produce leaves the first year, then flower and set seed the second) or short-lived perennials. The newer varieties will flower the first year if started early enough in the season and can be grown as annuals. But either way, if you let some of the blossoms set seeds, you will invariably have new, self-sown plants popping up to continue the garden show from year to year, although these volunteers may not look just like their parents.

They are easy to start from seed. If you're growing newer varieties that will bloom the same season, sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep in peat pots 8 weeks before your last frost date. Set the young seedlings out in the garden after all danger of frost is past. For older varieties that produce only a rosette of basal leaves the first year, you can sow seeds directly in the garden or a nursery bed in early summer. Move seedlings to their permanent location in the early fall. They'll reward you with flowers the following summer. You can transplant young self-sown seedling to new locations in early spring if you choose. Space plants 18-36 inches apart.

Hollyhocks do best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Try to choose a spot with some protection from the wind; staking is often necessary, especially with the taller older varieties. A dose of fertilizer in the spring, a topdressing of compost, and regular watering throughout the summer will help your hollyhocks to thrive. If you cut down the flower stalk to just above the ground after the first flush of bloom and give plants a dose of fertilizer, you may be rewarded with a second flush of bloom in early fall. Deadheading the individual blossoms as they fade is time-consuming, but will extend bloom and may help the plant to be more perennial, but remember to let at least a few flowers set seed if you want plants to self-sow.

Insect and Disease Problems
Unfortunately, no matter how good the growing conditions, your hollyhocks are still likely to suffer from some insect and disease problems. Rust, a fungal disease, is the curse of just about all hollyhocks, especially the older varieties. First you'll notice yellow or orange spots on the upper sides of the leaves in early spring. Later on you'll see grayish brown spots on the leaf undersides. Severely infected leaves will shrivel and turn brown. The lower leaves are attacked first, then damage spreads up the stalk. To minimize problems, water from below so the foliage doesn't stay wet, thin plants to provide good air circulation, pick off and destroy infected leaves as soon as you see them and clean up the garden well at the end of the season as the fungus overwinters in plant debris. You can spray with a fungicide, but you'll need to make repeat applications to control this disease. To my mind, this just isn't worth it because rust doesn't bother the flowers and it's usually only the lower leaves that look horrible. If your hollyhocks are at the back of the border or surrounded by spreading plants such as phlox or baby's breath, the ratty foliage will be hidden and the spires of blossoms will still add a beautiful accent to your garden.

The other big problem you are likely to encounter is Japanese beetles. These voracious pests love to dine on the leaves of hollyhocks, but, again, they usually leave the flowers alone. You can handpick beetles in the early morning or evening when they are sluggish, try beetle traps set away from the plants you are trying to protect, or spray with a botanical insecticide such as neem or pyrethrum if they are really doing a lot of damage.

On a more positive note, deer generally turn up their noses at hollyhocks. And remember, gardening isn't about perfection. Hollyhocks are too gorgeous to pass over just because they aren't problem free. If you're looking for a real challenge, you can try to beat the record for the world's tallest hollyhock as noted in the 1982 Guiness Book of World Records- 24 feet, 3 inches tall!

Something A Little Different
There are a couple other species of hollyhock that make great additions to the garden. The fig leaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia) is supposed to be more resistant to rust than the common hollyhock. It has pink or yellow flowers and-surprise!- fig-shaped leaves. The Russian hollyhock (Alcea rugosa) is also reputed to be more disease resistant and more perennial than other kinds. It bears 4-inch, single, light yellow flowers on stalks that soar as high as 6-7 feet above its basal rosette of wrinkled, gray-green leaves. I planted this in my garden last summer and it's been pretty much rust-free so far. The Black Watchman hollyhock (Alcea rosea var. nigra) bears single flowers of such a deep purple hue that they appear almost black. This is an heirloom variety that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. It makes a very dramatic statement in the garden and looks amazing when combined with deep orange dahlias. However, it is quite susceptible to disease, so put it at the back of the border so its foliage isn't as noticeable.

Varieties to Try
Spring Celebrities: A new dwarf variety from Burpee Seeds with double flowers in shades of white, pink, salmon and rose on stocky, 20-30" plants.

Chater's Double: An old- time favorite with double flowers in mixed colors on 6-8' plants.

Majorette: A 2' dwarf variety with semi-double flowers in mixed colors; blooms the first year from seed.

Indian Spring: An old-fashioned variety with single and semi-double flowers in mixed colors on 6-8' tall stalks.

Apricot-Peach Parfait: A new introduction by Renee's Garden Seeds with apricot and rosy pink, double flowers on 5-7' stalks.

Queeny Purple: Double, mauve flowers with frilled edges on a 30" dwarf plant that blooms early from seed. Nice in a container.

Creme de Cassis: Striking, semi-double , 3-4", berry-colored flowers with cream edges and darker veins on a 6-7' plant.

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