Monday, February 05, 2007


Monday, February 5, 2007

Gail is in the kitchen putting together a turkey pot pie, Karl is snoozing in front of the wood stove like only a wonder dog can, and the only birds left on the feeder at 4:30 PM are Juncos. The wind is blowing so hard that even their little feathers are heading every which way as they peck at the millet seed. The sun is sinking and so is the temperature which is now at 3 below. No idea how low it will go tonight but the wind today was just brutal. I'm sure the wind chill was below zero all day.

This time of year I make myself go through thousands of pictures taken during the summer. I'm learning to take pictures and have a long way to go so I take lots of pictures. I try to give a self critique during winter when there's no one to hear my comments but me. At work today, someone asked me if we grew hollyhocks. I gave my stock answer "Buy a pack of seeds." which no one believes, and then I did the obligatory explanation which no one wants to hear. I explained that these plants have a fibrous root system, are susceptible to years like this one with lots of freeze-thaw-freeze, wet,wet,wet, frozen. When the person got to the "Maybe I can find some plants at WalMart next spring" I brought the conversation to a quick stop and got on with other things. I didn't want to share my thoughts and mumbles about Wal-Mart with someone I didn't know very well.

Hollyhocks have been with us for a long time. Every farmhouse back door, barn milking parlor entrance, outhouse in New England probably had hollyhocks in close proximity at some time in the past. People in my generation and older remember these beauties and if they see any in our display gardens, they want some. Our problem is we don't grow them to sell and don't plan to start because the root system is typically frail for the size of the plant which develops over time. If you can find a place that grows them in deep, narrow pots such as tree band pots used to grow tree seedlings, you might stand a chance. In contrast, a package of seeds in fairly plain ground will do very well. Being a biennial it will take this season into the next to see some flowers but if they like your soil enough to dig their feet in, you'll have them for some time. They self seed nicely and produce enough new plants from seed that even bad winters/springs don't knock them all out.

Years ago I got into this dried flower thing and I decided to give hollyhocks a try. I gathered flat boxes and mixed borax and cornmeal with a little fine sand and used that as a drying agent. It worked very well and the flowers stood up nicely when completely dried. I can't recall the proportions but 50-50 on the Borateem/cornmeal will do just fine. The borax leaves the flowers with a residual insect chaser which is kind of nice.

Hollyhocks are part of the "bones" of many gardens because they grow tall and bloom for a long period of time. We intend to plant them in the new gardens along the fence lines so the masses of color help paint a backdrop of color visible from Route 2. This plant has a couple less than desirable traits which make planting as a backdrop a more sensible idea. Hollyhocks lure Japanese Beetles from near and far. In short order the beetles eat holes into the large leaves and make a mess of the plant. The flowers still stand out but in a close garden setting they just aren't pretty anymore. Hollyhocks also get a rust which stains the leaves before they begin to brown, blacken and curl up. Cornell University has a good fact sheet Hollyhock Rust: Puccinia malvacearum. It describes the rust and treatments. Neem is an organic product which apparently is helpful but you have to tap your savings account before buying any.

Despite a couple shortcomings, these are a nice flower that will stimulate lots of conversation. They are widely used as the subject of paintings. Georgia O'Keeffe painted a black hollyhock over 70 years ago, long, long before Alcea niger became popular on the American market. About eight years ago I purchased a couple hollyhock prints at the Laudholm Craft Festival in Wells, Maine. I'm vague on the artists names now and over time the prints have faded a bit, hung in too much light. Schott and Gallant are coming back to me but I'm not as clear on the names as I am clear on the beauty of these flowers. During what's left of Winter 2006-7, maybe you will want to research the varieties and purchase some seeds for spring planting. If you do, they'll look really nice in 2008.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where 24/7 cold has grabbed tightly to Vermont for the next 4-5 days to come. Warm drinks, comfortable chair, toasty fire, and garden catalogs will get you through. Hollyhock......Alcea.........Nice.

George Africa