If your grandmother was from North Carolina and she enjoyed gardening, chances are she grew hollyhocks. An old-fashioned Southern favorite, hollyhocks, or Alcea rosea, can be striking, colorful additions to any garden.
Sadly, we don’t see them in many gardens these days. Pests and diseases love hollyhocks. Leaf miners, weevils, Japanese beetles, spider mites, sawflies, and slugs stand in line for a chance at these plants, while rust and powdery mildew are constant threats. And then there’s the fact that many hollyhocks are biennial, a weird plant-growing state that not all gardeners understand. A biennial is simply a plant that is started from seed one year and matures the next.
But hollyhocks are so beautiful, with eight-foot bloom spikes that make a dramatic statement in the landscape, they’re worth the trouble. Many bugs can be held in check by periodic insecticidal soap sprays, while rust-resistant varieties and fungicides are available. And if the hollyhocks do become overwhelmed with problems, it’s usually after their cheerful flower show is on the wane, so you simply cut down the plants and toss them away.
When to plant
Being biennial, hollyhocks are best seeded in our state in the late summer, which means now is the prime planting time. Plant seeds in a sunny location in soil that’s well worked and heavily amended with organic material. The seeds only need to be set about a quarter-inch below the soil surface, but they should be spaced about 18 inches apart. Small rosettes will soon form and overwinter in the garden.
Come spring, hollyhocks will grow rapidly, and you can encourage this growth with applications of liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks. The beautiful flower spikes will then begin their glorious show — and you’ll know why granny always saved room for hollyhocks in her garden.
Editor, writer, and lecturer L.A. Jackson lives in Apex. Visit his website at southeastgardening.com.