There is something missing in my garden. Actually, there’s lots missing. In Spring it was filled with tulips, narcissi and hyacinths from all the bulbs I planted last autumn. In early summer there were alliums and peonies. But now it is looking a bit bare and what I crave to fill it most of all is hollyhocks.
It seems cruel that these statuesque cottage garden favourites are everywhere I turn. As I walk along the streets they seem to be growing like beautiful weeds in other peoples’ gardens, but not in my own.
Alcea rosea, or ‘rose of Spain’, was said to have been introduced to Britain by Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward 1, who created a garden at Winchester Castle in the late 13th century. Given the right conditions – fertile, well-draining soil – they can grow to 2m or more and come in a painter’s palette of colours ranging from pale yellow and apricot to pink, white, red and maroon. It is little wonder they were a favourite of the artist Vanessa Bell in her garden at Charleston.
It is too late for me to grow flowering hollyhocks in my garden this year, but I can start planning ahead to next year by sowing the seeds now and growing them as biennials. They can be sown direct outside in June and July, but to get them off to a good start, I am going to try sowing them in pots and planting them into position in the autumn. If they make it through the winter, they should grow taller next year than if they had been planted as annuals. (They are actually short-lived perennials.)
Once hollyhocks have become established, they produce plentiful seed. As the late Christopher Lloyd wrote in The Cottage Garden: “No garden should be without the stately hollyhock… often planted next to the front door. Although perennial it is best replaced every year and will provide more than enough seed, usually obliging by self-sowing.”
For now I will just carry on gazing into other people’s gardens green with envy. With a bit of luck next year I will have a fairytale parade of hollyhocks of my own.