Growing Hollyhocks: A Country Charmer

Growing hollyhocks is easy.  Tall and stately, hollyhocks have graced gardens for hundreds of years. Although not as popular now as they used to be, hollyhocks are for gardeners who admire the cottage garden look or who are nostalgic for the old-fashioned flowers that Grandma grew.  No country garden should be without a few hollyhocks in the back of the border or against the barn wall.

Hollyhocks are biannuals, which means that they make a rosette of foliage the first year and then send up a long flower spike to bloom in the second year. There are some varieties of hollyhocks that will bloom the first year, especially if started early indoors. Some gardeners believe that if you deadhead the flowers, the plants will come back to bloom in the third year. Hollyhocks reseed quite freely, and once established in the garden you should have some in bloom every year. Hollyhocks will grow in Zones 3 to 9.

Hollyhocks have large, rounded, rough-looking and -feeling leaves that may have three to five lobes. The first year the leaves form a large clump up to two feet across and two feet high. In the second year hollyhocks send up one or more flower stalks. These have smaller leaves on them and may shoot up to 9 feet high. Along the flower stalk, buds develop which open starting from the bottom. As the season goes on, the hollyhock bloom stalk gets longer, producing more flowers near the top. Hollyhock flowers open up like colorful saucers, up to five inches across. There are also some doubl- flowered varieties that look like large pompoms. Colors range from nearly black to white. Although there is no scent to hollyhock flowers, bees and hummingbirds like to visit them. Hollyhock seedpods look like a fat button, with a neat circle of flat seeds inside.

Growing hollyhocks
Hollyhock seed can be sown where it is to grow up to two months before your first frost in the fall. Or you can start the seed indoors about six weeks before your last frost in the spring for flowers the second summer. Some varieties will flower the first year if started inside about 10 weeks before your last frost. Plants are often available in garden stores. If you are going to transplant seedlings from a friend's garden, choose smaller, first-year plants. These seem to establish easier. Pot-grown plants can be transplanted even in bloom, although they may need a little extra attention.

Hollyhocks like full sun and deep, rich soil, but they will grow in less-accommodating environments. In windy areas, the tall flower stalks may need to be staked or the plants can be grown against a wall or fence that supports them. In the second year, to promote good flowering, fertilize hollyhocks with a slow-release flower fertilizer in early spring.

If rainfall is less than one inch a week, hollyhocks should be watered. Try to water at the base of the plant and avoid wetting the leaves since hollyhocks are prone to fungal disease.

The major disease problem that hollyhocks face is rust, a fungal disease. It starts as orange, powdery looking spots on the bottom leaves. These spots turn into holes on the leaves. The plants continue blooming but begin to look very ugly. Using a floral fungicide beginning as soon as the weather gets warm in your area can control rust. Some newer varieties of hollyhocks are being bred to be rust-resistant. Keep hollyhocks thinned out so that there is good airflow around them and water at the base of the plant if possible.

Choosing varieties
Single-flowered hollyhocks are often sold as Old Fashioned Mix or Barnyard Mix. Sometimes single colors are offered, but after a few years you will find your reseeded plants will be a variety of colors.

Indian Spring is a single variety that will bloom the first year if started indoors. Happy Lights is a hybrid variety with single flowers about three inches across that is rust resistant and will bloom the first year if started inside. Creme de Cassis has single and semi-double flowers of rich plum red in the center that shade to pink on the edges. Summer Carnival has semi-double to double blooms in a variety of colors and it will bloom the first year if started indoors. Peaches and Dreams has lovely, huge double flowers in a blend of yellow, peach and pink. Queeny Purple is a dwarf hollyhock with huge flowers of rich purple.

Using hollyhocks
Hollyhocks are best used at the back of beds, as they are so tall. They are often used as a screen to hide undesirable views. Indeed, hollyhocks are sometimes called outhouse flowers because they were often planted to hide outhouses. A polite lady didn't need to ask where the outhouse was--she looked for hollyhocks. Hollyhocks could be planted around children's playhouses to make them a little more secluded. If you never made dolls from hollyhock flowers, you missed out on a wonderful childhood experience. The fully opened flowers are the skirts, half-opened flowers the torsos and buds are the heads. They are all held together with a little stick.

If you don't spray your hollyhocks with fungicides, the flowers make edible decorations for salads and baked goods.

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