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Hardy Hollyhocks

Have you ever noticed that some plants just never give up? Ten years ago when we moved into our home in Louisville, there was no garden to speak of, just a few plants here and there.

That first summer there were so many projects at hand that we ignored the planting space in our alley. Thank goodness we did because I discovered that it was filled with old-fashioned hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks are a biennial flower, which means they germinate from seed and only the foliage grows that first year. The second year the plants will bloom and produce seed, then the main plant dies. So if you’re planting hollyhocks for the first time, you won’t get flowers until the following year.

Patience is the key to letting the hollyhocks establish naturally, and you have to leave the flowers on even when the plants begin to look bad in order to produce seed. Once a planting gets established you will have plants in all stages each year—some just foliage and others blooming and producing seed. It is hard to imagine that they are not perennials.

Typical problems
If you’ve ever grown hollyhocks, you know they can be quite beautiful when they are in bloom throughout June, but by July or August you are asking yourself why you didn’t pull them out earlier. They are always covered with spider mite and flea beetle damage, not to mention the hollyhock leaf rust that will leave them shredded beyond recognition. There are controls available, but still, it is always a battle. Whether you spray or not, the problems return every year.

I guess I wasn’t very patient back then. After seeing how bad they eventually looked, I began my quest to weed them out of the alley. My neighbors and I replaced those old-fashioned hollyhocks with a fancier garden, and slowly a portion of that space evolved into a tomato and pepper garden, which I just can’t live without.

Hollyhock varieties
Alcea rosea, or old-fashioned hollyhocks, have a large single flower that is usually red or pink and borne on a tall stalk. The plants germinate easily from seed, and when in flower the plants can reach 4 to 6 feet in height. You often see them growing along walls and fences, where they receive some protection from the wind and can be tied up if necessary. Full sun is a must for flower production.

Today you can find hollyhocks in all kinds of colors and with double flowers. Nigra is often requested because it has single black flowers that are really a dark, deep purple. Chaters Double Hybrids are most commonly found in garden centers today, and come in double pink, scarlet, white, violet, and yellow.

Hollyhocks are very hardy, and they seem to find ways to keep reproducing in nooks and crannies. After 10 years I am easing up a bit. I let a few old-fashioned, single, red flowering hollyhocks go to flower in my alley this year. They never gave up trying to grow where they lived for so many years. As long as they stay out of my tomato garden, I think we will be okay.

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