Being six feet-four inches tall, I have an affinity for tall flowers. I’m used to looking down at my flowers, but every now and then a good tall spike with flowers atop is refreshing. Foxgloves, delphiniums and hollyhocks provide perfect punctuation points for flowering beds and borders; their candles of flowers accenting many of our coastal gardens. But of all the spiky cottage garden favorites, it is the foxglove that stands alone at the top of the class in local gardens.
A row of delphiniums in full spring bloom is stunning. But in our garden, all too often the reality is a short-lived, spindly and sparse plant; a far cry from the image that most of us carry in our imaginations of what delphiniums “should” look like. The reasons for this divergence, poor seed genetics, clay soil, lack of a rest season, etc., are of little consolation.
The thought of blooming hollyhocks may recall fond memories of earlier gardens. Fond memories are the visions of tall spires of glorious flowers, each an individual masterpiece of design. In our gardens though, hollyhock nostalgia often gives way to disease infested, top heavy plants, awkwardly positioned and seemingly out of place.
Foxgloves, the queen of many flower gardens, can be nearly effortless.
Plant foxglove transplants now, while green and flowerless, at the rear of a bed, where they’ll make colorful backdrops for shorter plants. Group them in irregular clusters in the middle of other beds where they’ll anchor lower-growing plantings. For traditional garden drama, plant an entire bed with a forest of foxgloves, ready to erupt in spring and summer blooms.
For spring bloom, fall is the time to plant foxgloves from seed. But most local gardeners don’t have the patience to grow plants from seed anymore. No worries . . . in my experience, right now is the perfect time to set out small bedding plant size foxglove plants. As spring unfolds, so too will your foxgloves; the flower spikes growing taller each day with the warming weather.
When selecting plants for your garden it is essential to choose the right hybrid. If the next couple of weeks find you too adding some foxglove to your garden, be sure they are the variety ‘Foxy’. Other varieties will take an extra year to bloom. Not ‘Foxy’, which blooms the first year. Often plants in nurseries and home centers are simply labeled “Foxglove”. If you want flowers this spring, be sure the label says ‘Foxy’, if it doesn’t, keep looking.
Most foxgloves are biennials or short-lived perennials, producing lush foliage the first year and flowering in subsequent years. In the case of ‘Foxy’, hybridizing has led to a breakthrough, a variety that blooms the first year. If you’ve planted foxglove before, only to have a lush mound of green foliage, you didn’t plant ‘Foxy’.
‘Foxy’ foxgloves are easy to grow. Set young, green plants from four-inch pots into soil amended with plenty of organic compost or planting mix. Along the coast of Orange County foxgloves thrive in a variety of exposures, from full sun to moderately heavy shade. Be sure to keep them well watered. I have found that flooding the soil under your foxgloves, rather than overhead watering, will deliver water to the roots more effectively. Like an umbrella, the big, lush mound of leaves that foxglove produce often deflects needed water away from the roots of the plant.
Fertilize as you would for most other garden flowers, being careful not to allow errant nutrients to wash out of the garden and into gutters or storm drains. The flower spikes on ‘Foxy’ are usually short enough to not require any staking, but if in an exposed or windy location, small bamboo stakes are usually adequate.
Cut the bloom stalks off foxgloves as soon as the last flowers on the spike are spent, but before they set seed. Foxglove planted now will reward you with flower stalks over a long period, each with two or three dozen flowers.
Foxglove sometimes gets a rap as “poison” to children and pets. Foxglove is poisonous, although recorded poisonings from this plant are very rare. Even though Foxglove (Digitalis) is toxic, fresh foxglove leaves have an acrid, bitter and disagreeable taste, making it unlikely to be consumed by people or pets. Nonetheless, young children should be taught never to put plant parts into their mouths.
Foxglove flowers come in a range of colors, but plants are never sold by specific color, instead always appearing in a blend of pastel colors, each flower painted uniquely. Shades of pink, rose and lavender always dominate the mix, following by cream, white and the occasional soft yellow.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar