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You can’t miss them. Drive by the Marblehead home of Pam and Paul Dougovito in July and you’ll notice the usual display of patriotic bunting, but that’s not what stops traffic. What causes the skid marks when passersby throw on the brakes is the megadose of hollyhocks beyond your wildest dreams. Imagine nine-foot spires touching the skies. Line those spikes with dozens of big, open-faced blooms in an otherworldly color range. And then multiply the whole shebang times 200 or more. Rumor has it that Marblehead was once rife with hollyhocks, but scant evidence remains except the wallop of towering blossom spires in the Dougovito front yard.

Pam admits that she didn’t see the hollyhocks coming. Sure, the house had the vestiges of some perennials in evidence when the realtor showed it off on Memorial Day of 1993. When they closed on the shoreline house in August, maybe seven or eight hollyhocks were in the picture. But coming from a hollyhock-deprived background, Pam didn’t really recognize the plants. Growing up in Ohio, she thought she’d been exposed to all aspects of gardening by the “sergeant general” of the local garden club (who came around to each home to perform white-gloved inspections and critiques), but hollyhocks were not part of the local agenda. For all those reasons, the hollyhocks took the Dougovitos by complete surprise when they began to spruce up and feed the front yard.

Of course, the stacks of stakes in the garage should have clued them in. But still, it wasn’t until Pam and Paul started tilling the soil, adding compost, and prepping the beds that the full potential of the hollyhock haven started to manifest. Suddenly, when treated well, the hollyhocks spiraled into multiplication frenzy. Their population doubled, tripled, and spun out from there. Pretty soon, not only could Pam identify hollyhocks at all their stages of development, but her summers morphed into a one-woman community service project. She became the unofficial steward of the Marblehead hollyhock brigade.

Amazingly, Pam never planted a single hollyhock seed. Instead, she just took the resident hollyhocks under her wing with generous doses of compost, strict disease control measures, and slavish staking. Apparently, the hollyhock seeds were just biding their time, slumbering under the soil, waiting for a gardener to rush to their rescue. The result is stupendous. One hollyhock is an impressive spectacle, with its flamboyant flowers on spires that look like nature’s rendition of a lighthouse. But 200 (and counting) hollyhocks marching down the sidewalk is as close as Marblehead comes to the Tournament of Roses Parade.

The Dougovitos’ hollyhocks are representatives of the historical single-flowering species Alcea rosea. The house was originally built in the 1920s, and the hollyhocks undoubtedly harken back to that era. Keeping the plants faithful to that time frame has always been a priority for Pam, and that’s one reason why she never interfered with the pageant she was given. Why mess with perfection? Her hollyhocks include the full gamut of the white, pink, lavender, peach, yellow, and red spectrum, with central stripes and a vast array of markings. The only color that is not in her repertoire is the nearly black version sometimes called ‘The Watchman.’ And frankly, that sober shade probably wouldn’t work with the bright, cheerful compendium along her road.

When the Dougovitos first bought the house, it was painted plain vanilla white with sea blue shutters. “But those colors really clashed with the hollyhocks,” Pam decided, once she realized what her mission in Marblehead would be. By 1996, the Dougovitos were busy changing their palette with the hollyhocks in mind. Now the house is a pale yellow—which does the inherited hollyhocks proud while also complementing the ‘New Dawn’ roses that twine over the entryway arbor at the only gap in the 80-foot-long chorus line of overachievers.

The duties inherent in maintaining the hollyhocks start in spring when the salt marsh hay mulch is removed. At that point, the earliest leaves are already showing promise just above ground. Given a breakfast of champions (generous compost), they start making headway immediately. By the Fourth of July, they are beginning to flower. That’s when the Dougovitos get out their arsenal of six-foot stakes and begin lashing the spires against the offshore winds. Without continual guidance up the supports, the hollyhocks would be a whole different (raggedly unkempt) story. Meanwhile, the plants receive constant watering thanks to an underground spring that the Dougovitos harnessed specifically for that purpose. Now, the thirsty plants are quenched regularly. Even Pam admits that, given their long span of performance, hollyhocks are a handful.

In Marblehead, the last blossom can be seen in November. But that’s not to say that the display remains prime. One reason why hollyhocks fell out of favor is their denouement. After the brouhaha is over, the stems still need to hang around making seeds. Because hollyhocks are biennials or short-lived perennials, letting seeds develop and fall to the ground is essential for keeping their momentum going. But that part of the picture isn’t particularly pretty. “By late summer,” Pam admits, “the garden has gone to seed.”

Hollyhocks have other issues, but Marblehead manages to sidestep many of their maladies and enemies. For example most gardeners must defend their hollyhocks against constant pilfering from deer. So far, Marblehead remains secluded from that browsing population of marauders. And sea breezes stave off the powdery mildew that notoriously blights hollyhocks. “It’s not a problem,” Pam has found. But the unsightly rust that mars hollyhock foliage (but does not shorten their life span) is a dilemma. She is working on it.

To keep the hollyhocks company, Pam planted catmint, lady’s mantle, roses, salvia, and snapdragons. To cover up during the hollyhocks’ less-than-gorgeous seed-setting stage, she grows Hydrangeas, Rudbeckia, white Cleome, and Russian sage. Basically, the display has something happening throughout the season, although midsummer is the highlight, without a doubt. Do people notice? Well, let’s just say that Pam Dougovito spends more time dodging compliments than gardening when the hollyhocks are happening.