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The little and little-known hollyhock: it's compact, easy, fast.

For small gardens in moderate climates, a little-known perennial deserves wider recognition: miniature hollyhock, or checker-bloom. It's easy, fast, and compact, with 1- to 3-foot stalks that bloom two months or more. Plants grow best in coastal or hillside gardens (in the central valleys and desert, where nights as well as days are warm, foliage tends to brown in summer). Two types are beginning to appear in small quantities in well-stocked nurseries: hybrids "improved" by selection and crossing, and natives.

How the two kinds differ

Hybrids are easier to find. Light pink forms are best; buying named selections in single colors is the only way to be sure you're getting best color and form. Two favorites are silvery pink |Elsie Heugh' and, a hint darker, |Sussex Beauty'. Hybrids bloom July through September, sending up a dozen or more 2- to 3-foot spikes at a time once plants mature. Evergreen foliage stays low, mounding to a height of only 6 to 10 inches. In time it spreads 1 to 1 1/2 feet wide. Taller hybrids may need staking, especially if overfed or overwatered. Native kinds are scarcer. Sidalcea malviflora, with rosy scarlet flowers, is the most common; like most of the other native kinds available, it's a spring bloomer. Compared to hybrids, natives tend to have shorter flower stalks (10 inches to 2 feet), with blossoms that aren't as full or densely packed. Stems may be prostate, rising only at the tips. Nurseries tend to sell natives during peak bloom in April and May; look for them anytime at native plant sales.

Care can vary, depending on the kind

Plant 12 to 15 inches apart in full sun or bright shade in well-drained soil. Hybrids need average garden watering year-round. For native types, keep plants moist winter through end of bloom; continue watering to keep plants green, or let them dry up and go dormant. (Most native kinds grow naturally in seeps; there, water is plentiful during the growing season but may or may not be available in summer.) For maximum bloom on all kinds, cut stalks to the ground as soon as flowers fade (or pick fresh stems for bouquets). Seldom troubled with disease or other insects, foliage is sometimes attacked by spider mites; spray with insecticidal soap or buy natural predators. After several years, divide any crowded plants in winter or early spring before growth resumes.

Tracking down plants

Ask nurseries that carry unusual perennials or natives if they can order plants for you. Mail-order plants, always a bit more expensive, are sold by Bluestone Perennials, 7211 Middle Ridge Rd., Madison, Ohio 44057 (free catalog; six mixed hybrids for $7.30); Busse Gardens, Route 2, Box 238, Cokato, Minn. 55321 (catalog $2, deductible from order; five colors of hybrids, $4.50 to $6.50 each); Wayside Gardens, Hodges, S.C. 29695 (catalog $1; |Elsie Heugh' is $6 per plant).
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Date:May 1, 1990
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