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Dear Master Gardener: I spent hours playing with hollyhock blossom “dolls” when I was a child but don’t see them much any more. Are they difficult to grow or is there some problem with them now? I’d love to have some in my garden.

Answer: Hollyhocks (Alcea) are still a favorite with children and are not difficult to grow. They provide color—red, yellow, pink, purple, and white, add height to garden beds and screen unsightly structures such as garbage cans. Some will remember that old outhouses were often surrounded by cheerful hollyhocks. There are more than 60 varieties of this short-lived biennial, some of which have been known to grow up to 14 feet tall. One problem with them comes from not knowing what “biennial” means. A biennial plant has a two-year growth cycle. In the first year the seed germinates and forms a rosette of leaves but does not bloom. The second year it sends up a stalk, blooms and produces seeds. Hollyhocks purchased at a nursery are usually second-year plants, so they will bloom in the year purchased and will produce abundant seeds, which will germinate the next summer but will not bloom that year. Sometimes a few hollyhocks may rebloom a second year so that after a few years a patch will have blossoms every year. The button-like seed pods are attractive and interesting, too, and are also of interest to children. who like to pop or explode their abundant seeds. The blossoms appeal to hummingbirds and butterflies and make good cut flowers. Hollyhocks, like all plants, have some disease and insect problems. The main one is rust, which may be unsightly but is rarely fatal. Good air circulation, watering from below the leaves to keep them dry, and removing and destroying diseased leaves usually keep the problems under control. Full sun and regular moisture will help keep hollyhocks happy, too.

Dear Master Gardener: Can we grow wine-making or table grapes up in the Brainerd lakes area?

Answer: The University of Minnesota is recognized as one of the top wine grape research programs in the country for developing cold-hardy, disease resistant wine grape cultivars. Frontenac, which was introduced in 1996, is very disease resistant and almost completely immune to downy mildew. It is vigorous, a heavy producer and has borne a full crop with temperatures as low as 33 degrees below zero. Frontenac has a deep garnet color and flavors of cherry and plum. It can be made into red and rose wine or port. Frontenac gris, introduced in 2003, is the white wine version of Frontenac. It also is vigorous and very disease resistant with a characteristic peach flavor. Both Frontenac and Frontenac gris ripen in late mid-season.

La Crescent was introduced in 2002 and is very cold hardy, with trunks surviving 34 degrees below zero when well tended. It is moderately disease resistant and can have very productive harvests if grown in the proper conditions. La Crescent has flavors of apricot, citrus and tropical fruit, which lends itself to superior quality off-dry or sweet white wines.

Marquette, a cousin of Frontenac and grandson of Pinot Noir, was introduced in 2006. Its resistance to downy mildew, powdery mildew and black rot has been very good. It is cold hardy to 35 degrees below zero. This wine has complex notes of cherry, berry, black pepper and spice on both the nose and palate. Finished wines are complex, with a ruby color and pronounced tannins.

These grape vines can be purchased at a local nursery. Check for availability because some, such as Marquette, are in high demand and short supply. If you would like to propagate any of these grape vines, even one vine, you must get a license from the University of Minnesota.

The U of M has also developed table grapes that withstand our cold winters, are disease resistant and taste delicious fresh or as a juice or jelly. Researchers are currently working on developing a cold hardy seedless grape. Bluebell was introduced in 1944 and is an early ripening, disease-resistant cultivar that is hardy to 40 degrees below zero. It is a blue, seeded table grape with a mild Concord-like flavor. In collaboration with Elmer Swenson, a Wisconsin grape breeder who is considered the “Grandfather of Minnesota and Wisconsin cold-hardy grapes”, two cultivars were released in 1977, Edelweiss and Swenson Red. Edelweiss is a white, seeded table grape with a Concord-like flavor. It has been rated for 30 degrees below zero cold hardiness but may need winter protection. Swenson Red is a red, seeded table grape with refreshing flavor and crisp texture. It is rated for 25 degrees below zero to 30 degrees below zero cold hardiness and does need winter protection and a thorough spray program.

Dear Master Gardener: We have a steep slope going down the side of our house and had steps put in last fall. What plants do you recommend for our spring planting project of this steep slope?

Answer: Planting on steep slopes can be challenging. Plants are a good way to prevent soil erosion. Choose plants with strong root systems and those that are low-maintenance. Even though you may be tempted to buy larger plants for an immediate impact, small plants tend to transplant better. Arrange the plants in drifts, staggering rows to prevent water from running in a straight line downhill. An evergreen that would do well and spread nicely is Microbiota (Russian cypress), which has a sprawling habit, a height of 6-12 inches, and can grow in sun to part shade. Juniperus horizontalis (creeping juniper) gets 1-2 feet in height and creeps 8-10 feet and does better with part to full sun. Diervilla lonicera (bush honeysuckle) grows 2-4 feet and is a tough, native, low-growing shrub that does well in sun or partial shade. Chokeberry and Snowberry are also good choices for sunny areas. Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) is an excellent ornamental grass for slopes. A good perennial for a sunny slope is Hemerocallis (daylily), Hostas for a shady slope and Vinca (Periwinkle) for a shady groundcover.

After planting, apply a thick layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark or pine needles, to help keep the soil from being compacted and reduce runoff by slowing the flow of water.

Crow Wing County Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension Service. All information given in this column is based on research and information provided by the University. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1000, extension 4040 and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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