Thursday 23 February 2017

Hello again to the hollyhock

Gerry Daly

For years these towering beauties were out of fashion, but hollyhocks are back in favour
For years these towering beauties were out of fashion, but hollyhocks are back in favour

Hollyhocks have been a quintessential cottage garden flower for centuries - who has not seen a picture or painting of these majestic plants? They carry a touch of a bygone age of slower pace, but there is nothing slow about hollyhocks. From a sowing made now or in the next few weeks, they can be two metres tall and in flower by late summer. They can also be sown later in spring, directly where they are to flower, but you need to watch for snails in the early stages.

They can be sown in mid-summer to flower in summer the following year, which is how to get the tallest flower spikes - not that great height is necessarily a good thing, but some people like tall hollyhocks and go to some trouble staking them. The plants generally do not need staking unless over-fed and too soft or they are in an exposed garden.

The tall stems carry a row of large, funnel-like flowers in a wide range of colours: purple, almost black, red, yellow, orange, pink, white and shades between - everything except blue. The flowers can be single with a broad, shallow funnel or, very often, double-flowered with a mass of frilly petals packed into a big ball.

The flowers open from the bottom of the stem up, some flowers being open as the buds swell for the next wave. Flowering goes on for many weeks.

During flowering, it is not uncommon for orange spots to appear on the leaves underneath. This is caused by hollyhock rust, a fungus disease that attacks the leaves, covering the back of the leaf with orange spots and reducing the vigour of the plant but the hollyhocks keep flowering, especially if the rust appears late.

Young plants raised in spring are usually not as badly affected because they do not carry the fungus over winter. After flowering, the stems should be cut down, chopped up with a spade and buried to destroy the fungus spores that can otherwise overwinter.

As it is such a fast grower, when preparing the ground, dig in some well-rotted manure and make a low mound on which to plant or sow. If sowing directly, sow a few seeds in groups about 50cm apart and thin out to the strongest seedlings, moving the surplus seedlings elsewhere if they are needed. The double-flowered kinds are more likely to need staking because the flowers are heavy when wet.

Hollyhocks are more prone to rust if the soil is too freely draining and dry in spring and summer, or too heavy or wet in winter, which leaves the plants weaker and more easily infected. Feeding with a high-potash tomato food a few times in late spring and early summer of the year of flowering can also help.

How to choose the best begonia

Q. I would be very grateful if you would advise me on which is the best variety of begonia to set in pots. Should I set double or single-head ones and what name?

M Gleeson, Co Kerry

A. The pendulous begonia types hang beautifully from pots and are available in a range of colours. Start the tubers under cover in March in a warm, bright place and pot them on as they need it, putting them outdoors in late May. Feed well for waves of colour.

Send your questions to gerrydaly@independent.ie. Questions can only be answered on this page.

Sunday Independent

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