When Good Plants Go Bad

– Posted in: Garden chores, Plant info

Just finished weeding it
It’s funny. What Rundy saw as futility, I see as preventing futility. There’s an old garden maxim, “One year’s seeding yields seven years’ weeding.” Well, the worst “weed” in this particular bed was one of the original flowers I planted here myself: Malva alcea ‘Fastigiata’, also known as hollyhock mallow. Wonderful pink flowers, and lots of them–and every blossom produces copious amounts of seed, all of which germinates, sooner or later.Mallow seedlings You might at first glance mistake the foliage pictured at left as a clump of coral bells. But these are mallow seedlings carpeting every available inch of soil. I was removing them from a good six feet of flower bed. In some places I could use a tool to cut them off just below the soil surface, but when they were growing close to the garden plants, I had to pull them out one by one. Where the ground had been recently cultivated I could grab them out by the handful with a sideways motion, but in areas that hadn’t been dug up and replanted in years I had to grip each tenacious seedling by its taproot and pull. It was an exercise in futility only if you forget that most of those seedlings would grow up, flower, and create an even worse problem if I didn’t pull them now.

In 1994, the hollyhock mallow was blooming vigorously--and making lots of seedGarden advice-givers will tell you it’s important to match the plant to the site, but it’s equally important to match the plant to the personality and lifestyle of the gardener. Most people think of hollyhock mallow as a low maintenance plant, because once you’ve planted it, you can pretty much forget about it, and it will happily grow and bloom. But, if you are (a) unaware of the need to cut it back before it sets seed (thanks for the tip, Zoey), or are (b) unwilling to cut down flower stalks that are still flowering abundantly, this plant becomes high maintenance by virtue of its many seedlings. In the beginning I met condition (a), but even after becoming aware of the problem condition (b) applied to me. I eventually realized I had to get this plant out of my garden, and leave it to the hedgerows where it bloomed just as well.

Mulch would cut down on the problem, but not eliminate it. Mallows have no difficulty seeding in mulch, though it is easier to pull them out. And they are vigorous enough to grow through it, though not in the same quantities as with unmulched soil. But if the gardener has no mulch on hand, or no time to apply the mulch that is available, it doesn’t solve the problem.

If you look carefully in the first photo, you will see that I still have other mallows growing in my garden. They are offspring of common mallow (Malva sylvestris), which seeds less prolifically in my garden. In the seedling stage, the leaves of the “good” and “bad” mallows are almost identical, but when the “bad” hollyhock mallow gets to a certain age, the leaves become much more deeply dissected. In the top right of the second photo you can see one of these deeply dissected leaves. The common mallows never get those deeply dissected leaves. It’s the only way to tell them apart (without a magnifying glass) before they bloom.

So don’t be afraid to look at your plants with a critical eye. Sure, they may be great plants–for somebody else. You may even like the looks of them, but if they wind up causing lots of trouble, you have to decide if they’re worth it, or if perhaps you can get the effect you want with a plant that’s easier to live with.

More on mallows here.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Tim August 12, 2006, 12:03 am

Whew! Thank you for the warning! We just narrowly missed being inundated by the Malva sylvestris “Zebra” that provided us with such lovely purple flowers. Sara, my better half, who does our flower gardening, thought it looked good in a catalogue, so she bought some seeds. Luckily, instead of planting it in one of her three flower beds, she planted it in a container on the back steps.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed the flowers, but I see what you mean. The stalk is nothing but seed, it’s so prolific. If that had been in a flower bed, come next season, we would have had an overwhelming growth of Malva. So thank you, this way we have a chance of controlling it, discarding most of the seeds, and enjoying it as a container plant!

My name is Tim, and Sara and I do our gardening even further north than you, on one of the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. The difference between us and Minnesota is that El Niño warms our Western shores, so our climate is like your Pacific Northwest, as opposed to Zone 4.

I think we’re more like Zone 7, if I’m not mistaken. Canada has a slightly different numbering system, so I always get confused. But we have mild winters and our Spring comes early, way ahead of the rest of this vast country.

Don’t let our 10-year-old daughter see you doing any major weeding, though. She firmly believes that all plants are sacred and that to pull and kill them, just because they don’t agree with your landscaping needs, is way uncool. She even has her very own corner of one of Sara’s beds. We call it Hedgehog’s “weed garden.” Hedgehog is her nickname.

If you’re interested how she got that name, you may visit our blogsite. We report on all the beautiful flowers grown by Sara, complete with sharp close-ups, taken by yours truly. Blooming currently are the round, pink Phlox blossoms, the Anemone Hybride “Krienhilde,” otherwise known as Windflower, and assorted Hybrid Tea roses, including the Purple Passion.

Kathy Purdy August 10, 2006, 6:53 pm

I used to have anise hyssop. It does smell wonderful, and it is a great addition to ice tea. It self sowed quite a bit for several years, but now it is all gone. I had it in a container by my front walk, and it is survival of the fittest there. Also I heard it was only borderline hardy in Zone 4.

cyndy August 10, 2006, 2:29 pm

I’m having the same thoughts about an herb I planted (Agastache anethiodorum) anise hyssop…I read all about how wonderful it smelled, and how it was a great plant to attract bees, so I brought some and planted it. Now I regret the day I ever heard about it…talk about high maintenance!! Also, in the winter it leaves tough stalks that need to be cut down, or they will still be standing next spring….
ps..this weather IS grand!