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Friday, April 18, 2014
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Published: 6/9/2012

COMMENTARY

Hollyhocks add some excitement to gardens

BY KELLY HEIDBREDER
BLADE COLUMNIST

Hollyhocks are Mother Nature's alternative to paper dolls.

Their huge blooms and seed heads can be made into pretty little dolls with big silky skirts. Pluck a large blossom before it blooms leaving the stem as long as you can. Break off a full blossom for the skirt, carefully removing the center of the flower. Slide the stem of the bud into the top of the blossom and, ta-dah! You have a tiny girl with a beautiful full skirt.

Easy to grow

Hollyhocks, or Alcea rosea, can more than over six feet tall and they bloom in many different colors, from purple, maroon, red, pink, white, and yellow. The Majorette Mixed variety will stay small. It has large pastel blooms and grows about 30 inches high.

They are biennials, which means their coarse huge leaves start to grow the first year and they start to put on some height and blossoms the second year. But these biennials act like a perennial because they just keep on tossing out more seeds.

Each plant will live through two seasons and then their hardy seeds are left behind. If you are just starting to play with hollyhocks, plant the seeds in the summer and protect the sprouts their first winter. The seeds don't need a whole lot of soil covering them to germinate. Keep them lightly watered until you start to see them sprout and they will bloom the second season. Hollyhocks will grow best in full sun and keeping them in the light also keeps the diseases away.

Hollyhocks can become aggressive in their old age. Since their seeds germinate so easily, you might see them popping up all over the place. To keep them contained, pull them out while they are young with just foliage. You can also cut them back right after they flower so they won't have a chance to go to seed. Cutting them back to the highest set of leaves will also make them concentrate on producing pretty flowers and not spend a lot of energy on making seeds.

Disease

One of the hollyhock's best features can also be one of its worst. It has big blooms and huge leaves. The leaves tend to hold moisture and that can also attract disease, especially rust. Their height will keep them planted in the back of the garden and it will also hide their speckled foliage. Pinching them back a couple of times in the spring will also help. The plants will be shorter with more branches and more branches means more buds.

The tall beauties do have their troubles. Hollyhocks are prone to rust, but you can get a jump on it by applying a fungicide early in the season. If they are growing in a moist part of your garden without a lot of air circulation, you may still struggle with fungus. Rust looks like little brown spots on the back of the leaf. The spots are bigger on the top of the leaf and are usually yellow or orange with a red center. Rust won't kill your plant, but too much of it weakens the plant and this fungus can spread to other nearby plants. Remove the rust-covered leaves and keep them cleaned up around the plant. Keep these leaves out of your compost pile to stop it from spreading.

Bugs

Do your hollyhocks have lacy leaves? Those big elephant ear leaves are great food for the hollyhock weevil, a relative of the boll weevil. Many different foliage-eating insects like mallow flea beetles, aphids, slugs, Japanese beetles and cut worms will also chew pretty patterns in the leaves. Potato leafhopper is the culprit if you see big brown patches on the leaves and curling toward the tip. Look for a light green, wedge shaped insect feeding under the leaf. If it is too much for you to bare, sprinkle the foliage with an insecticide.

They may have a few challenges, but hollyhocks are well worth the effort. Besides, you can spend time making a few dollies with the kids.

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at getgrowing#gmail.com.



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