In my opinion, if you are going to have a cottage garden, you have to have three plants: roses, larkspur and hollyhocks. While many other plants will fit nicely into the cottage plan, these three are what I believe most people picture when they close their eyes and imagine a cottage garden.
Hollyhocks, with their tall upright stalks and big showy flowers, are the perfect plant for the back of a bed or border. They come in a variety of colors and flower types (singles, semi-doubles and doubles) and will grow in just about any type of soil. Some people say that the plants with deep colored flowers prefer sandy soils while the pinks, whites and other lighter colors prefer a clay soil. So, wherever you live, there is a variety of this flower for you.
Hollyhocks are members of the mallow family (Malvaceae). This family includes the shrub Althea (Rose of Sharon) and hibiscus. The flowers are edible and some folk remedies suggest making a tea out of them to treat “throat problems” and digestive issues (diarrhea). Hollyhocks have been popular with gardeners for centuries. They are believed to have originated in Asia but were brought to Europe by the 1400s. The English really took to them. In fact, the name hollyhock comes from the old English “Holyoke”. Maybe this is the reason that my grandmother grew them and I love them so. Since we are of good English stock I guess something in our genetics predisposes us to these lovely plants.
Not all in my family have wonderful hollyhock memories. My Aunt Sarah loves to tell the story of how my Uncle Bubba pulled up a hollyhock and used it to give her a whipping. She still cannot look at a hollyhock without remembering what her brother did to her 70 years ago. According to my Aunt Sara, hollyhocks were not just for corporal punishment at my grandparent’s house. Evidently, my grandmother grew hollyhocks to hide their outhouse. Their tall structure (some varieties can get 8’ tall) did a great job of camouflaging a very necessary but often maligned out building.
I don’t grow hollyhocks to hide anything or punish anyone. I grow them simply because I love big showy plants that are easy to grow. Hollyhocks are planted in the late fall or early winter. They prefer full sun but can tolerate some light shade. They can also survive temps in the teens for short periods. The plant takes about six months from the time it first appears until it blooms. It is also a good re-seeder so once you get it established you will have it forever.
Hollyhocks are pretty heavy feeders so they do best in a bed that is well worked with organic material. They are fairly drought tolerant but do require at least an inch of water per week to be fully productive. You should not overwater or water from above as they are extremely susceptible to rust. Rust is a very bad deal in the garden. If you see reddish, powdery spots on the leaves of your plants, you have rust. You can try and control it with a fungicide. However, this is not organic and not always effective. The best thing to do in my opinion is pull out the infected plants and burn them. It is also recommended that you not replant in the area where the rust infection was spotted for three years.
It is still not too late to plant hollyhocks from transplants. Many nurseries have them available now. Why not pick up a few this weekend and plant them in the back of your beds. These living antiques will instantly add charm to any bed and their tall form and beautiful flowers will delight you throughout the summer.