Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sowing Seeds in Summer

This is not my white picket fence, but I wish it was!

How pretty are these hollyhocks?

I've tried a few times to grow Hollyhocks from nursery-bought seedlings, but they have never done well. Who knows what's gone wrong? Perhaps it as simple as not having found the perfect spot for them to be happy and prosper. I haven't given up just yet. There is something about failure that brings out the stubborn in me.

I spotted this pretty display of tall, statuesque Hollyhocks when we drove through Uxbridge, Ontario recently. They have given me fresh inspiration to try, try again. This time I am going to grow my hollyhocks from seed. The single form of the flower are said to be more resistant to rust, so those are the seeds I am going to try growing.

Generally we think of spring as the time for sowing seeds, but I have found that summer is the perfect time for starting a range of flowers including. 

Foxgloves are a good example. They're a biennial flower that produce a rosette of green leaves the first summer and tall, stately flowers the following spring. Then they set seed and finish out their life cycle. 

Foxgloves grow naturally on the edge of woodlands, so the conditions they like best are part-shade and rich, well-drained soil. 

Foxglove in my herb garden.

Growing Foxgloves from Seed:

You can find Foxglove plants growing in pots at your local nursery, but the most cost effective way to grow them is from seed. Start Foxglove seeds from mid-May to as late as mid-July. Usually I sow them sometime in July in a small nursery bed. Then in late summer/early fall I move the young seedlings into their final positions in the main garden.

It always amazes me that tiny foxglove seeds produce such large flowers. The seeds are as fine as a grain of sand! If you are sowing your seeds in the garden, begin by turning your soil over and adding some compost. Rake it even. 

Foxglove seeds need light to germinate, so don't bury them! Instead scatter the seed as evenly as you can over the surface of the soil. Gently rake the seeds in making sure not to cover them. Finally water them with a very, very gentle spray. Be patient. Foxglove seeds will take 20-30 days to germinate.

Thin your seedlings as you would a vegetable crop. You'll have less Foxgloves, but they will be larger and stronger plants. In the second year, your Foxgloves will produce flowers, and trust me, they are well worth the wait! 

One caution: Foxgloves are poisonous, so if you have pets that like to nibble in the garden, growing foxgloves is probably not a good idea. (Read more about poisonous plants here.)

Growing Canterbury Bells from Seed:

Canterbury Bells are another biennial that I have successfully grown from seed. They like full sun with light afternoon shade and moist, well-drained soil. 

Sow them in late spring or early in summer (get started right away if you want to plant them this year). Like foxgloves, they need light to germinate, so sow them on the surface of the soil. Keep the soil moist until they germinate 14-21 days later. In the first year, they grow a rosette of leaves and in the following summer, they produce the pretty bells you see here. 

Canterbury Bells grow about 18-36 inches tall. The flowers range in color from pink to white to purple.

Growing Sweet William from Seed from Seed:

Sweet William is a biennial I've admired in other gardens, but haven't grown them myself from seed. I must see if I can remedy that this summer. They like sun, and rich, well-drained soil. (Note: There are also perennial forms of Sweet William as well.)

As with Foxgloves and Canterbury Bells, sow biennial Sweet William in the spring or summer if you want flowers the following year. Prepare the ground by adding some compost and then sow the seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover lightly with soil (about 1/8 inch) and gently give them a good soak. Seeds should take 10-14 days to germinate. If you want to transplant your seedlings, do it in early fall.

Sweet William bloom in late spring/early summer. Colors include white, pink, maroon, purple and bi-colors. The plant grows a low mound of green leaves with flowers on tall, upright stems. In flower they reach a height of about 12-14". 

Hollyhocks at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, ON

Hollyhocks are actually a short-lived perennial, but they act as a biennial. They grow leaves the first year and flower in the second. On average hollyhocks live for two years, but if you deadhead the flowers, the plant may store enough energy to last as long as three years. Cutting them back to the ground in the fall and mulching around the crown may also help extend their life.

Some varieties grow 2'-3', while others can reach a height of as much as 6'. Hollyhocks come in an array of colors that include white, pink, yellow, red, maroon and black. As well as the classic single form that I have shown here, the flowers come in many petaled forms as well.

Hollyhocks at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, ON

How to Plant Hollyhocks Outdoors:

Hollyhocks need full sun and moist, rich well-drained soil. Begin by preparing the planting area by adding some compost or aged animal manure to improve your soil. 

Hollyhocks have large round seeds that should be planted just below the surface of the soil (about 1/4 inch). This best mimics their habit of self-seeding by dropping their seeds to the ground. Keep the soil moist to encourage the seeds to germinate, which usually occurs in 1-2 weeks

Hollyhocks naturally re-seed themselves in the late summer, so I figure that would be the best time to think about planting my seeds. From everything I have read, Hollyhock seedlings don't like to be moved, so I plan to sow them directly along my picket fence. 

Trail garden at the university of Guelph.
Pests & Diseases:

The bad news is that hollyhocks can fall pray to a number of insect pests including Japanese Beetles, sawflies and spider mites.

Hollyhocks are also susceptible to rust and powdery mildew. Usually fungal problems first appear on lower leaves and spreads upward. To avoid issues with rust, plant hollyhocks in an open spot that offers good air circulation. It is also a good idea to avoid splashing the leaves, so water them at ground level.

Lupins in my back garden.

I should also mention that summer is a good time to think about collecting seeds.

The Lupins in my garden have set seed, so I also hope to gather and sow them into a new position in the front garden. Like Hollyhocks, Lupins are a short-lived perennial. I have a feeling the flower would be fuller and more generous if I had moist conditions, but I am happy enough just to have them in my dry garden.

Lupins need a period of cold which mimics winter to germinate. I'll prepare an area in the front garden and sow them sometime in August.

Wish we luck with my latest attempt at growing Hollyhocks! 
(If you've had more success than I have, I'd love to hear any of your tips and tricks!)


  1. Nothing is more charming than hollyhocks along a white picket fence. I'll plant some for next year, too.

  2. Great post--lots of good advice.
    I tried for years to grow Foxglove and last year--FINALLY--they "took".
    The deer just devour the hollyhocks in my yard. Hope you have great luck with them.

  3. Thanks for advice, I love Foxgloves and Hollyhocks, but, here in Australia, we have to be careful with water so I have resisted them in recent years. However, we've had good rain this winter, so I'm inspired to grow them again.

  4. So very very beautiful the white Hollyhocks along the white fence. I have sown biennials many times. Foxgloves are selfseeding, I have them all over the garden, Sweet Williams are also still there, I love their old fashioned appearance, Canterbury bells are still in pots. With Hollyhocks I have like you changing success. This year it's a disaster, rabbits have eaten all their leaves.
    At last we have warm sunny summerdays, I hope your summer is good too!
    Regards, Janneke

  5. I have been collecting seeds all summer and I have been lucky enough to have extra seeds for friends. This is going to be the first year that I plant flowers from seed. Thank you for all of the good advice.

  6. What a beautiful display of summer here, Jennifer!

    I have tried to grow hollyhocks too (I've heard that hummingbirds LOVE them), but I have not had much luck with them, as in I have never gotten them to bloom. I have however had really good luck with lupines. The plants grew to be huge this year, and what a beautiful display of flowers. Just today, I began collecting the seeds for next year. :-)

    Have a wonderful evening, and as always, thank you for all of the wonderful information here.

  7. Gorgeous photos! I've never tried to grow hollyhocks;I'm afraid I'm not quite patient enough (when it comes to the garden) for biennial plants. They are absolutely beautiful, though. Good luck with your next attempt! Fingers crossed for you!

  8. Oooh, that’s a nice fence – with very nice hollyhocks! I haven’t tried growing them yet and feel I am kind of missing out – I really should be giving them a try here in my new garden, although my clay soil is probably not ideal. Some plum, pink and white coloured ones will look lovely. Thanks for a great post with stunning photos as always :-)

  9. I love hollyhocks! I have such fond memories of them as a child, and they are still growing all around my parents' farmstead. I used to have quite a few here, some that I transplanted from my parents and some that my husband's grandfather planted here. But it recent years their numbers have really dwindled, and they have been plagued with rust. I wish I knew the solution to getting rid of that rust! But I keep trying and scatter a few more seeds each year. Usually my biggest and prettiest hollyhock grows out of my compost pile:)

  10. You have featured some of my favorite flowers. I especially like the hollyhocks growing against the picket fence, my vision of the quintessential cottage garden.


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