The Biennials Don’t Endure, But The Human Spirit Does



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.


  1. Michele,
    put down the credit card and get ’em going for free.
    Foxgloves are a piece of cake (seriously!) if you use the wintersown milk jug technique ( Do it that way 2 years in a row – reseeders will take another year to catch up (Obviously, as they’re biennials), and who wants to wait that long for blooms?

  2. I have had this same experience with delphiniums. The gardener is ever optimistic and I will keep at it! Foxgloves are on that list also and I see no signs of life in the foxglove bed this year! Drats!

  3. The foxgloves still confound me. Outhouse Hollyhocks however now come back every year in my garden after some wonderful seeds from Seed Savers (or did I just jinx myself?).

  4. I loved this post and William Faulkner’s speech was part of it. The most endearing part, however, is showing that we all have struggles with plants. I had one year of gorgeous foxgloves. Just one. They were plants bought to bloom. The did not reseed. I too have seeded the same area, and nothing. Ah well, maybe I’ll try that milk jug method. Maybe, I’ll just plant something else instead.~~Dee

  5. Hooray! For years I have thought that I was a failure in some way as a gardener since I have been completely unable to get the “easy” foxgloves or hollyhocks to “take root” in my garden. I have tried seeds. I have tried plants. I have tried various locations. Nothing ever comes back, ever. No seedlings ever. I thought everyone else in the world could grow these two plants into huge lovely drifts with no problem. Thank you very much for this post. I feel better.

  6. Foxgloves I’ve got in the hundreds here, I even pull them as weeds. Hollyhocks though? Not a one. This year I’m determined to grow Hollyhocks from seeds, hopefully they will bloom next year. Just in case, I’ll also get some started plants so I have two different cycles going.

  7. I’ve managed beautiful d. purpurea precisely twice from overwintered plants in a spot with scrupulous drainage. Reseeding? Ha. They may grow like weeds in England, but they do not care for the Mid-Atlantic.

    On the other hand, I have success to the point of weediness with d. lutea and d. grandiflora. They both overwinter and reseed readily — and are very nice garden plants, if, alas, just not as showily show-stopping as d. purpurea.

  8. Cool site – that Winter sowing one – thanks Tina! And thanks, Michele, for your candor about your ‘failings’. You have some company, you see, and now we have that winter sowing idea to check out, which sounds promising for next winter.

    Hello, foxglovey’s!

  9. Oh, Michelle, I so hear you on the hollyhocks. Foxgloves aren’t such a problem for me, though I don’t ever have nearly enough. I do cast the seeds around when I think of it, but I probably inadvertantly mulch them or dig the seedlings up when they’re tiny or something, so there are always some foxgloves, but never nearly enough.
    But hollyhocks are the bane of my gardening existence. I can grow them the first year, no problem. The winter wet, however, takes them out quite often, and when they do come to flower, they’re NEVER yellow, (which is what I want and what I seeded)–they’re pink, or white, or weirdly, once ‘orange’–probably apricot, but not yellow. They thumb their noses at me, but I fixed ’em last year by buying a 4 foot tall sculpture, made from recycled oil tanks, of a plant with five yellow flowers. Hah hah hah. Wanna bet this year I’ll have gazillions of hollyhocks, now that I’ve stopped worrying?

  10. It isn’t as showy, but I like digitalis grandiflora ‘carillon’ which grows in the shade and is perennial where I live. It is light yellow and shorter, but it looks great in the shade.
    I worked out a system for delphinium that started with a gorgeous second year plant. At the same time my local garden center sells four packs of seedlings, so i put them in. Now each year I add couple of the seedlings, and the ones I planted the year before put on the big show. Delphinium seems to be a bit better though. I just treat digitalis purpurea as an annual.

  11. Hey, don’t give up on those foxgloves just yet! (Especially if there, like here, the snow has just melted.) Mine always look like shit for a while after a snowmelt, but then they rebound. They look really good after a little deadleafing (at the base, beneath the good leaves) later in the spring.

  12. In all my years of gardening and trying Hollyhocks and Foxglove I have had none reseed. I am glad to know I am not the only one with this problem. A friend of mine says I am “too nice” to them. Hmmmm.

  13. I have never had luck with either plant, right now I have three Hollyhocks that I planted last fall which have survived a very mild winter so I am crossing my fingers and hoping they flower. Maybe I should knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, ….. The biennial I have the best luck with is Lunaria annua (money plant).


  14. I have never had luck with either plant, right now I have three Hollyhocks that I planted last fall which have survived a very mild winter so I am crossing my fingers and hoping they flower. Maybe I should knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, ….. The biennial I have the best luck with is Lunaria annua (money plant).


  15. I have had fairly decent success–or is it luck? with foxgloves in my wildflower garden, which I neglect, for the most part. I am in northern Virginia, in a rural area. But I have to say, some years are better than others, not sure why. Since I have deer and other varmints, I try to stick with native plants.

  16. I had to do a double-take when I saw that you were talking about foxgloves being hard to grow. Since the first plant that I bought at Agway bloomed and spread seed, I have never been without foxgloves. Never planted another plant either.

    Ok, I did plant another one, but of a different color – that too has reseeded and given me several generations.

    However, I have problems growing other plants that people say are easy and carefree, so I can understand your frustration.

  17. The only way I was ever able to get Foxgloves to reseed (never a routine experience) was to grow them in poor gravely soil and keep the fallen leaves and mulch off of them. They liked being completely exposed to winter light. Wet winters will do them in, but usually a few of them come back.

  18. I can’t grow foxglove either! Hollyhocks and Canterbury Bells, on the other hand, are a piece of cake. Unfortunately, the hollyhocks always get rust and the Caterbury Bells look really ugly and take up too much space after they finish blooming and are busily making seeds.

  19. Hollyhocks have reseeded themselves where I want and where I do not want – so I often dig and share those along with the abundant seeds. I’d say for the winter-rot you need better drainage for where you plant them – they are not picky about soil – growing for me in harsh clay, but I have set them pretty high and along a fence line for easy support.

  20. A neighbor in North Salem, New York, gave me a “daughter” hollyhock last fall from her large plant after I admired her beautiful plant. It wintered over and now is a large mound of vigorous green leaves. It has full sun and lots of composted soil. I don’t know if it will bloom, but it is beautiful just all leafed out. My neighbor is a master gardener, so I have some well-founded, I think, hopes for this plant. I am a former Southern California gardener, so I am enthralled by perennials and now a biennial. I have my fingers crossed!

Comments are closed.