Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hollyhock surprises

If you have been gardening for more than, say, a week or two, you have probably learned this one thing – plants have a mind of their own. Just as we raise our children to behave in a certain way and expect them to continue to exhibit this behavior into adulthood, they still surprise us now and then. And so it is in our garden – we read the label, plant in the right place at the right time, then comes the surprise.

Biennial plants are, perhaps, the most notorious for offering us surprises. Foxglove and parsley are both biennials, as is that other mallow, the Hollyhock.

As you know, a biennial plant is a flowering plant that takes two years to complete its lifecycle. First, it grows leaves, stems and roots, then enters a period of dormancy when the weather turns cold. It produces flowers the following spring.

Some of the first flowers I planted in the side bed were hollyhocks, given to me by my friend Judy, who is as knowledgeable and as patient a gardener as any I know. These hollyhocks behaved just as they were supposed to.

Judy had started the seeds in mid summer, given them proper protection and water, and the plants were six inches to a foot high by the fall when I planted them in full sun by the fence because I knew they would grow tall and need extra support. They bloomed beautifully the following June, reseeded, and bloomed again for several years.

The first surprise came with the second bloom. The flowers weren’t the same as the ones that had bloomed the year before. These hollyhocks, it seems, had cross pollinated, and had come up with a new look, attractive, but not what I’d expected.

Eventually, my garden got too crowded and the descendents of those first hollyhocks disappeared. I started more hollyhock seeds two years ago, following Judy’s example, and once they got big enough, I planted them against the fence where they’ve spent approximately a year and a half (a year longer than they were supposed to – surprise number two) doing their thing, producing lots of pretty round leaves and no flowers.

Finally, in the last few weeks, my hollyhocks have begun to bloom. Of course, I’ve lost the name of the variety, but the flowers are deep, deep purple, almost black, with bright yellow centers – strikingly beautiful. And they open, like the foxglove, a few at a time.

Hollyhocks come in a wide range of colors, but if there’s one you’re partial to, plant it alone, since you can expect them to cross pollinate. They grow three to six feet tall normally, but can grow even taller if they’re grown in rich, well drained soil with plenty of moisture.

Because it grows tall and because the leaves are susceptible to diseases, plant hollyhocks in the back of the bed with something to lean on. The double bloomers especially need support. Seed, either purchased or collected, can be planted any time between May and September. Young plants, grown from late season planting, need winter protection. The seed germinates in 2 to 3 weeks at 60 degrees.

I can’t attest to this, since I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read that after the hollyhocks finish blooming, I should cut them way back and they may bloom again in the fall.
Hollyhocks are wonderful, old fashioned flowers that remind us of impressionist paintings and grandmother’s garden. I found a letter recently that my grandmother wrote at least fifty years ago from her home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, back when Stone Mountain was still rural. She’d planted hollyhocks by the back door, she said, and promised they’d be blooming when my aunt came for her yearly visit.

Park Seed advertises Hollyhock seeds from varieties it promises will bloom the first summer if they’re planted in February. I’d love to hear if anyone has had success with these first year bloomers.