How to Grow Hollyhocks

For the last month an elderly neighbor and I keep initiating the same conversation, apparently. She’s one of those folks who has totally transformed her front lawn into dozens of perennial flowers, patchworked into loveliness that everyone who passes admires. There are always multiple flowers in bloom, and the landscape is always changing. And I have asked her more than once, “What about hollyhocks?” which I grow randomly and generously around my garden–primarily because they are self-seeding and abundant. And she always says the same thing, “I think they don’t like much water.” To which I respond, “I water my hollyhocks every day.” And we have had this dialogue several times with no resolve, really. So I finally took the time to get my facts straight and now I will share with you. And her.

Hollyhocks actually do like water, though they need to drain properly. And she most likely has this impression as they don’t like to get their leaves wet as they are prone to rusting and this means it’s much better to water them early in the morning when there’s plenty of time for water to evaporate by day’s end, lessening the likelihood of rust problems. So I’ve inadvertently been caring for them according to their needs and they have responded accordingly and most beautifully.

I knew, as you might also know, that once the seeds have fallen on the soil (or planted just below the surface if you are doing it yourself, which I’m imagining you most likely are) they will sprout, grow foliage lower to the ground the first year, and then the second year they will emerge tall and their flowers will blossom. So it takes some patience.

Bees love hollyhocks, and one of the most enchanting experiences is to find a bumblebee tucked inside fast asleep until morning, when it will awaken to the warmth of the sun and resume where it left off. Is anything more charming? I think not. And then one day this happened:

Hollyhocks that are happy in the sun, away from strong winds and watered properly can grow very tall. I love planting them along a side fence, which offers some support should they need it as the season progresses.

At season’s end, in fall, the petals will have fallen and the seeds become very apparent inside drying pods, all stacked next to each other in a circle.

I personally collect some seeds, which I share with other hollyhock lovers, and then I simply cut the dry stocks off and toss them along some patch of earth that I think might well benefit from their beauty. There is a community alley I’ve chosen to be the primary beneficiary of these stalks and each year there are more emerging, which is a secret delight.

Have you had success with hollyhocks in your garden? They are a nostalgic choice that seems to kindle fond memories of family.

Love and garden blessings,
Kathryn xoxo
Oops! Meant to mention! If you do spot any leaves with rust (usually ones near the bottom that get wet when you water them), remove them and conventional teaching is, get rid of them, so they don’t spread their rusty selves around! 😉

Book News: Watch for upcoming excerpt from Plant Whatever Brings You Joy in Western North Carolina Woman‘s November issue! Note that copies of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy can be purchased on Amazon. Ebook versions are available Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, and, most recently, Kobo, making it available in many new countries with Kobo sites! This includes Porrúa in Mexico. Also GreenPrints magazine features Plant Whatever Brings You Joy in their online bookstore!

Aim for Beauty

After three years of traveling and living in Europe, my daughter and I returned home to the States and I began my fledgling publicity business. I took a couple of offices in the county seat of Marin Co. in Northern California and put up a sign
announcing my intentions. My two offices were at the back of a building
on the main drag of the downtown. There was a metal stairwell at the
back end of the hall, for fire safety primarily, that led into a small and bare
concrete courtyard, fenced in by hurricane fencing, and a small private
parking area lay outside the fence. I would look out through my back
window into this barren area and cringe when on occasion a local vagrant
person would find a place to sit outside the fence nursing something in a
paper bag. This situation was not savory or attractive. What could I do?

I descended the fire staircase into the courtyard and surveyed it
carefully. Weeds jutted randomly in cracks in the cement. Clearly there
was not much to work with, but surely I could do something. Right?
I stepped through the heavy metal gate into the small parking lot outside
and poked futilely with my finger in the narrow margin of dirt along
the fenceline that had somehow escaped being covered with blacktop
and a teeny spark of hope and imagination kindled. A little smile crept
across my lips as I began to think of seeds.

Inspired, I went to the nursery and purchased morning glory seeds. I
developed a deep and abiding fondness for blue morning glories which
used to climb up on my deck when I lived for many years in Sausalito,
facing the San Francisco Bay. Who would not appreciate their charming
beauty and abundance? Suddenly I was envisioning a wall of morning
glories covering that back fence, creating a screen from the commercial
lot into which I looked and thinking what a boon (and surprise!) it would
be for anyone whose steps crossed that area.

Excited, I brought the seeds home and soon was out there poking
around with a gardening tool on the outside of the fence, in that narrow
ridge of hope. I pushed in the trowel. Thump. What was that? You
might imagine the deflating impact it had on me when I realized that
just under a couple of inches of dirt was the extended dreaded blacktop.
I was crushed, and I cursed a society that covered up every inch of possibility
with asphalt.

The next morning I gazed dejectedly out the small office window at
the wretched fence and courtyard and relayed my story to a friend on
the phone.

“Yes. That’s right. Blacktop. Do you believe it? And I was so excited.
My morning glories would have been so pretty. And the only thing I
can think of is to find someone with a jackhammer to get through that
stuff, unlikely as that is. I can’t do it on my own.”

Just at that very moment my gaze moved a little further beyond the
fence to the opposite side of the private parking lot. Along the edge
of the lot were four men, four strong men doing some kind of repair
work — with jackhammers!

Immediately my spirits soared as I realized the opportunity that the
Universe was placing directly before me!
“Justine? I have to go. You won’t believe this, but there are a bunch
of guys out there working on the lot with jackhammers!”

I flung open the back door and rushed down the stairs, all smiles. I
knew without a doubt they were my heroes!

I approached one of the men, smiling.

“Hi! Is your boss here?”

“My boss?” the man answered, confused.

“Yeah, your boss. Is he here by any chance?”

The man indicated a man off to the side, whom I had not seen, and
I immediately moved toward him, grinning.

“Hi. I know this is going to sound crazy, but do you have a minute?
Can I show you something?”

Reluctantly the man followed me to the fence. I poured out my story
with all the passion I felt.

“See?” I concluded, poking my finger in the ground and looking up at
him imploringly. “Is there any possibility your men could open this up
for me? Just an inch here and there? Just enough to get in a seed? Please?”

The blessed man heard my plea. To my utter delight, without another
word to me he walked back to his crew and spoke with the men, pointing
in my direction. I was thrilled! I went back upstairs to ring Justine and tell
her of my good fortune, watching the men from the window with their
marvelous jackhammers, opening up the field of possibility and hope. I
was witnessing a miracle for which I gave hearty thanks and I ran back
down and beamed at the men with appreciation as they obligingly dug
my holes. Five minutes of work; a summer’s pleasure.

Over the next weeks my morning glories sprouted and wound their
faithful way up the cyclone fence, lending inch by inch the grace of their
steadfast beauty. I fussed over them daily, training their tendrils upward.
I took the greatest pleasure in beginning my workday out there within my
new and unexpected garden, taking note of any new growth, as I sprayed
a gentle stream of glistening water onto their lovely emerging faces.

Spring into summer I would grin and nod at passersby who witnessed
the slow and steady transformation, acknowledging with them “what a
difference it was going to make”. By summer’s end the sweet morning
glories bursting from their lovely green vines had fully covered the cyclone
fence from one end to the other. Their precious splendor spilled over
the top and back down again, filling in the vapid unimaginative space of
practicality with the blessing promised in a bit of creativity, determination
and the goodheartedness of a few good men willing to indulge in a vision.
Dear ones, regardless of your situation, aim for beauty.

This story is an excerpt from my book Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden. I hope you enjoyed reading it. The illustration by Linda Cook Devona is courtesy of GreenPrints magazine. I’m posting this favorite story in honor of this blog’s ten year anniversary. My first post was in September 2007! My deepest thanks to longtime loyal followers and the many subscribers of this blog, and to all those who have purchased copies of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy and a special kiss on the cheek to folks who have posted reviews of my book on Amazon! XOXO

Love and garden blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

Book News: The very beautiful Maine publication Still Points Arts Quarterly has included an excerpt from Plant Whatever Brings You Joy in their fall issue for which I am most grateful.

Note that copies of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy can be purchased on Amazon. Ebook versions are available Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, and, most recently, Kobo! Also GreenPrints magazine features Plant Whatever Brings You Joy in their online bookstore!

Never Pull Up and Discard What You Cannot Identify

Readers of my book Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden will recognize that the title of this post is one of the 52 lessons upon which my book is built. And the Universe has kindly offered me a kick in the pants refresher course in that vital maxim.

As many of you know northern California was hit recently with a major heatwave. Not much actual gardening got done, other than to make sure plants were watered and that roses were cut and brought inside in the early morning rather than to wither in the harsh sun. But finally the fog came in, the heat receded and early morning gardening was very happily resumed. Let’s get out the clippers and do something about that rangy butterfly bush, shall we?

So there I am, clippers in hand, tackling the cutting, cutting, cutting back of the largest of my three butterfly bushes. Butterflies tend to come in the warmth of afternoon sun, so morning is a time when they will remain undisturbed. And suddenly I encounter a branch with desiccated, curled up leaves, entombed in webbing. Ick. My mind flashed first to spiders and then immediately to tent caterpillars I’d seen in my two years in North Carolina. As I cut off the offending branch I noticed some movement inside the webbie mass, so I took the time to take a quick pic of what looked like maybe caterpillars. I knew that butterfly bush is notoriously held as strictly a nectar plant, never a host plant, so I did not consider for a moment I might be looking at butterfly larvae, so I blithely tossed them into the recycling bin. Done. Moments later I was unpleasantly surprised by two more such branches, though these had far less damage. And I continued my trimming of the buddleia without much more thought to the spidery branches.

Until later, when I took the time to post the pic to FB asking if anyone might ID, and a bug expert in Davis posted a comment that “they look like mourning cloak larvae.” WHAT???

By now it was late afternoon, still hot from a burning sun, and, plagued with guilt I fretted until I went out into the garden, tipped the full recycling bin on its side and foraged through a mound of cuttings looking for the three webby ones I’d dumped that morning, acting against all hope. What could possibly survive? Amazingly I found the first and largest of the three upon which two or three tiny caterpillars appeared to still have life within them. And I placed the branch gently back into the safety of the butterfly bush where I’d found it. Eventually I found the other two branches, though there was no sign of life. I took small comfort that perhaps I’d saved one or two butterflies and went inside, still feeling bereft, as well as angry with myself that I was not following my own teachings! “Never pull up and discard what you cannot identify,” Kathryn!

The next morning I went out into the garden upon arising and I did see a couple of caterpillars on the one branch and tried to console myself again. Given that it was now Monday morning I dragged the recycling bin to the street for collection the next morning. As I settled it into place I saw an amazing thing. One tiny caterpillar, no bigger than half an inch long, on the top lip of the recycling bin. What? How could this be? I immediately maneuvered him into my hand, no small feat, and took him into the back garden to join his siblings. Wow. Could there be more? I popped the top of the bin open and looked inside. Indeed, I found another making his way to the top, to light, to air, out of the bin. Astounded, I rescued him and carried him to the butterfly bush. (No, I am not used to carrying a caterpillar in my hand!)

By now I was fully engaged and spent the next four hours going in and out of the house, checking for more babies. By the heat of the day I had watched and relocated fourteen of them, as one by one, over the hours, they found their way up to the top. Simply astounding. And so redeeming, as you might imagine. Whew! Not a total disaster then.

By now I am questioning how it was that butterfly larvae were using my butterfly bush as a host plant, completely against everything I’d ever heard. How was this possible? I emailed Art Shapiro, a very well known butterfly expert and author, sending him a pic. He wrote back to confirm they were butterfly larvae, but added, “These are not mourning cloak butterflies. They are checkerspots. And the only time I’m aware this has happened [like, ever, except one in a lab in 1940…] is in Mariposa County. The fad must be catching on.” Now my mind is completely blown.

Checkerspot butterfly

I have just rescued checkerspot larvae I’d tossed in a bin, and replaced them on a buddleia to continue on their path, and it’s an unknown phenomenon outside of one known such occurrence in Mariposa County, over 300 miles away?? Turns out that event was such a big deal Art and the woman who reported it, Katie, co-authored an article about the experience. I immediately wrote to her. And learned she’s a gardening blogger! And she had written up the experience on her blog! As you can imagine this was getting more and more exciting and, frankly, amazing.

So now I check on these babies every morning and a couple of times a day. They bunch up together at night. They are spreading out to new branches and munching down their small territory. They are getting bigger. And, yes, I’m posting to YouTube.

Some of them are leaving the core group. And some of them are encasing themselves inside little web tents. I just love it. Every minute of it.

Art says they will eventually drop to the ground, where they will live amongst the ground litter, and then they will finally walk off way away from the butterfly bush, and encase themselves in their chrysalides. Apparently it’s unlikely I will ever see this part. (Boo hoo.) But I’m feeling profoundly blessed they chose my garden to live in one of my butterfly bushes (sorry for the rough welcome) demonstrating that buddleia does indeed, serve as a host plant, turning conventional scientific knowledge on its ear. Nature, ever adapting. How lovely and special and please help me spread the word that butterfly bushes can serve for some species as both a host and nectar plant, ensuring its place in butterfly history.

Love and gardening blessings,
Kathryn xoxo

Footnote, learned on Katie’s blog: Not all buddleia, apparently, are super fertile. If you are worried about their spreading, perhaps research ones that will not. I personally have never seen a buddleia moving about in my garden.

Book News: Recently I have uploaded the latest iteration of Plant Whatever Brings You Joy: Blessed Wisdom from the Garden to both Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. If you do read I would be incredibly happy if you were to rate the book in either of these venues. Thank you so much in advance. Very kind. It makes such a difference to author sales–also to our hearts.
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