Perennial husband and dog, with biennial Digitalis purpurea in my first garden
I love the big, tall, outrageous old-fashioned biennials that seed themselves, such as hollyhocks and foxgloves. I’ve never tried Canterbury bells, but I love those, too, in theory. What spectacular, showy plants! And in some ways, they are more satisfying than perennials. Though each individual plant is ephemeral, a stand of them will continue on in perpetuity in the right place–quickly exploding from a few plants into an embarrassment of riches.
My experience with biennial hollyhocks and foxgloves is that they are a piece of cake, once you get them to seed themselves. They flower in their second summer, scatter their seed before disintegrating over the winter, and produce umpteen little plants apiece that will, if thinned, grow rapidly, overwinter, and make spectacular flowers the following summer.
The trick is getting them to the point of making seedlings, which the books all say is easy and I say is not. I have bought many dozens of packages of foxglove and hollyhock seeds in my tenure as a gardener and scattered them on top of the soil in spring and early summer as recommended. I’ve never gotten a single plant this way.
I’ve bought smallish greenhouse-started foxgloves and hollyhocks, too. I’ve found that these transplants tend to rot over their first winter before blooming–in the case of the foxgloves, leaving a rosette of mushy leaves that looks a lot like a snail-bitten head of escarole left too long in the August heat.
The only thing that has ever worked for me to get the cycle rolling is buying and planting big greenhouse-grown foxgloves and hollyhocks that were about to bloom. Two seasons ago, dying to get a stand of foxgloves going here in Saratoga Springs that would resemble the one I used to have just 25 miles away on the other side of the Hudson, I snapped up a bunch of foxgloves in Home Depot that had already made flowering stalks. But it was just early May.
Pushed too far, too fast, into a life too adult, they bloomed joylessly, died over the winter as expected, and produced no future generations. I suspect that despite the ease with which the seeds of these biennials germinate under the right conditions, they have some serious sensitivity to temperature and light in a short-season climate like mine–in other words, to the question of timing.
Last season, I paid $7 apiece for four really good-sized foxgloves at the Saratoga Farmer’s Market–not cheap, considering what a crapshoot they are. I was sure they’d flower last summer, but alas, no. As the snow has been retreating, I can see that at least one of them looks promising for survival into its flowering year. And the others? Like rotting lettuce.
As I consider the plight of the would-be biennial-grower, what first leaps to mind is William Faulkner’s towering Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
I believe that someday, I too will prevail over my foxglove-free condition, because I, too, have a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance–and credit cards that allow me to keep experimenting without end.