Hollyhocks are a must for cottage gardens

Cottage gardens feature a dense mixture of colorful plants filling the spaces around fences, pergolas, and other features. Hollyhocks are a favorite for this type of garden layout, creating tall spikes of flowers as a striking backdrop.

You'll need to be patient when planting hollyhocks, or Alcea rosea. The Cornell University Cooperative Extension says flowers will not appear until the second year after planting. Once they arrive, the flowers can be a range of colors including red, pink, white, violet, and yellow.

Hollyhocks can grow up to eight feet tall. The single or double spiked flowers grow between two and four inches across. The Old Farmer's Almanac says they are usually grown against a fence or building, since this arrangement both screens a less visually appealing feature and protects the hollyhocks from strong winds.

The plant can live for several years, continuing to bloom in subsequent seasons after it is established. Sandra Mason, writing for the University of Illinois Extension, says flowers in later seasons won't be as colorful in older plants. However, hollyhocks will self-seed aggressively, providing an ample supply of new growth.

If you start hollyhocks indoors, you can grow them in trays in moist, warm conditions. The English gardening expert Sarah Raven says the plants can be transplanted outside after three or four weeks.

When transplanting, hollyhocks can be established in the garden during the summer. The seed company Burpee says sowing during the spring is ideal in areas with harsh winters, although outdoor planting can also be done in the autumn.

A site with full sunlight is ideal, but partially shaded spots can also work. The Old Farmer's Almanac says well-drained soil is essential, since standing water or wet winters can kill hollyhocks. The soil should have a pH level of 6 to 8.

The Cornell University Cooperative Extension says seeds should not be covered, since light will help with germination. Burpee recommends keeping seeds 18 inches apart, while rows should be separated by at least three feet.

Hollyhocks are drought-tolerant, but will require watering during hot, dry conditions. In windy areas, use stakes to help support the plants.

Deadheading is required to encourage hollyhocks to grow perennially. Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of the 2006 book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden," says spent blooms should be removed when the seed capsules on the bottom part of the plant outnumber the blossoms on the upper part. Once all flowering is completed, cut the plant at its base. Avoid deadheading if you want the plant to self-seed.

Several plants work well as companions to hollyhocks. The Old Farmer's Almanac says these include phlox, lilies, black-eyed Susans, and baby's-breath.

Rust is the most common problem to affect hollyhocks. Mason says this fungal disease will appear on leaves. Remove and destroy any affected leaves, and cut infected plants down to the soil line once flowering is concluded. Fungicides can also be effective in treating this problem.

Caterpillars, Japanese beetles, and spider mites can also damage hollyhocks. However, this damage is typically limited to the foliage rather than the flowers.

Hollyhocks will usually fare well over the winter, even if they are not cut back. DiSabato-Aust says any damaged leaves should be removed in the following spring.

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