If You Can’t See the Problem, There is No Problem!

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Hollyhocks have beautiful flowers on top, yellowing foliage below. Photo: Pinsdaddy

If you have a minor gardening problem, it’s probably going to be much easier to hide it than to cure it.

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By planting hollyhocks behind other plants, you can ignore the diseased leaves. Photo: Sissinghurst Garden

For example, the hollyhock (Alcea rosea), a beautiful plant with magnificent flowers, is unfortunately very prone to hollyhock rust (Puccinia malvacearum), a disease where the lower leaves become spotted with orange and later turn brown and die, yet this doesn’t keep the plant from flowering. So the simplest solution is simply to plant hollyhocks at the back of the flowerbed or behind other plants, a fence, a bench, a sculpture, etc., so that you can enjoy the flowers without ever seeing the foliage. Problem solved!

Develop a Laidback Attitude

But wait a minute! Shouldn’t you treat the plant, cure its disease or at least cut off the diseased foliage? If that’s your attitude, you haven’t yet developed a healthy laidback attitude towards gardening!

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Hollyhock rust is pretty much harmless to the plant: it’s the gardener it upsets. Photo: UMass Extension

Think of it this way: rust doesn’t kill hollyhocks. They’ll grow back annually, always with yellowing leaves at the base and beautifully flowers on top. For a hollyhock, being lightly infected with rust is just part of day-to-day life. Spraying fungicides to prevent rust or cutting off the offending leaves when rust does appear is a lot of effort on your part and in no way reducing the disease level the following year. But if you plant your hollyhocks at the back of the flowerbed where you can’t see the diseased leaves, the plant will simply live out its normal life, like a hollyhock would in the wild, and therefore you don’t have to intervene. And you still geet to enjoy the flowers! Less work, just as much beauty: it’ a win-win situation!

(Of course, you could avoid hollyhock rust altogether by planting rust-resistant varieties… but that, as they say, is another story!)

Other Examples

Obviously, it’s not only hollyhocks that have minor defects you might want to hide.

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Drumstick alliums: just plant them so their yellowing foliage doesn’t show. Photo: laidbackgardener@wordpress.com

There are all sorts of drumstick alliums (Allium spp.), bulbs that you plant in the fall, that produce spectacular globes of flowers on tall stems in early summer … but their leaves, borne at the base of the plant, are already turning yellow by then. Planted out in the open, they look more than a bit fatigued. Their place is in the middle of a flower border where their leaves’ decline will go completely unnoticed, yet their flowers are there for all to see.

Your hedge is thinning out at the base? That happens over time to many hedge plants and you can spend a lot of time pruning trying to fix the problem, but… what if you simply hide the flaw instead? The problem is going to be very noticeable if the hedge lines a lawn or a driveway, but you can make it totally disappear by planting things in front of it: a flower bed, shrubs, tall grasses, etc.

Let’s say rabbits have decimated your begonias, chewing them to the ground, but the rest of the flowerbed is still very attractive. Rather than look at a bare spot all summer, place a pot or two of annuals or a houseplant you’re summering outdoors where the munched-on begonias used to be. You’ll hide the problem instantly … now keep your fingers crossed in the hopes the local fox does its job and naturally controls the rabbit population.

Practice to Deceive

You can do the same sort of thing with all sorts of other plants that would otherwise be problem plants: there are many, many plants that have a stunning shape or beautiful flowers, but whose base is barren, yellowed or otherwise unsightly. Simply place them towards of the middle or back of a flower bed, surround them with a groundcover high enough to hide the problem or stick them behind a shrub or a garden bench.

Remember: if you can’t see the problem, there is no problem!20170619A Sissinghurst Garden

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Rust-Resistant Hollyhocks

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The fig-leaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia) is rust-resistant.

Who says all hollyhocks (Alcea spp.) are infested with rust (Puccinia malvacearum), a disease that burns up the lower leaves before the end of the summer? True enough, there are no rust-resistant varieties of the species most often sold, the common hollyhock (Alcea rosea), but there are more than other 60 species of Alcea. Surely among that many species, there must be at least a few that are just as ornamental as the common hollyhock, but without rust problems?

Lots of Choice

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Russian hollyhock (Alcea rugosa)

And indeed, if you just do a little research, you’ll discover that there are in fact many hollyhock species that are rust-resistant, including the following: fig-leaf or Antwerp hollyhock (A. ficifolia), Russian hollyhock (A. rugosa), Kurd hollyhock (A. kurdica), and Turkish hollyhock (A. pallida).

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Fig-leaf hollyhock ‘Happy Lights’ (Alcea ficifolia ‘Happy Lights’)

Note that the fig-leaf hollyhock, especially, looks almost exactly like the common hollyhock except that its leaves are hand-shaped rather than rounded. Although the species has pale yellow flowers, some varieties, such as ‘Antwerp Mix’, ‘Happy Lights’, ‘Las Vegas’, and ‘Old Fashioned Mix’, come in the same color range as the common hollyhock: red, pink, yellow, white, purple, and almost black, have flowers just as big and attractive, and flower just as long, that is, almost all summer. I simply don’t understand why the fig-leaf hollyhock did not replace its disease-ridden cousin, the common hollyhock, long ago.

That said, I must admit that as far as I know, there are no fig-leaf hollyhocks with double flowers. If you want double blooms, you have little choice but to turn to the common hollyhock… and its rust problems.

Diseased Plants on Sale In a Garden Center Near You!

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Hollyhock rust at a fairly advanced stage. Photo: Rutgers University.

Sadly, most garden centers still sell only hollyhock plants infested with rust. And I’m not exaggerating. Go into the average garden center, look for their stock of hollyhocks (most only sell common hollyhock) and turn over a leaf or two. You’ll already see the first orange pustules that will soon spread all over the leaves! They’re offering you a pre-diseased plant!

Fortunately, even if plants of rust-resistant hollyhocks are rarely seen in garden centers, seeds of the “good hollyhocks” are commonly available in seed catalogs, both printed and virtual. I suggest checking your favorite seed catalog to see.

Generations of gardeners know that hollyhocks are easy to grow from seed. Either sow them indoors in March or April or directly outdoors in May. They’ll bloom the following year.

Note that all the species discussed here are are hardy to zone 3.