The Grumpy Gardener's Guide to Hostas
For the Love of Hostas
I have been taken. I have been claimed. I thought I wasn’t vulnerable to this addiction, but I was wrong. At first, I tried to hide it, but the signs were obvious. Everyone around me knew. Now, so must you. I am a hosta junkie, and my name is Grumpy.
My only solace is that I am far from alone. Millions of people around the world—many still in hiding—live in the grips of a passion called “hostaphilia” that shows absolutely no hint of abating.
It’s easy to understand how victims can fall. Hostas, you see, are simply the best perennials for temperate shade. Species of hosta and their selections interbreed so readily that myriad forms abound in a mind-boggling array of sizes and shapes. Rounded, heart-shaped, lance-shaped, or oval leaves can be blue, green, chartreuse, or golden with stripes of yellow, cream, or white running down the centers or hugging the edges. Plus, many selections sport showy blue, purple, lavender, or white blossoms that may be highly fragrant.
So many distinct hostas exist that I imagine their growers must fill margarita blenders with the plant’s chromosomes. They hit the “pulse” button for a few seconds and then pour the genetic goop onto seed flats to see what they get. A new hosta is introduced every 12 hours, is awarded a catchy name like ‘Poke Salad Annie,’ and is priced at a mere $225. Fortunately, you don’t need to pay that much. Go to your local independent garden center or big-box store; look for the selections I recommend on page 20; and scarf up some nice, quart-size plants ranging from $7 to $8 each to start your own hosta addiction.
How to Grow Hostas
Hostas thrive from Canada to the Gulf Coast (USDA Zones 3 through 9). Based on my observations, though, the plants enjoy a good, cold winter. They grow bigger from Zone 7 north, but you can plant heat-tolerant hostas like ‘Royal Standard’ as far south as northern Florida. Spring and fall are the best times to plant. Summer is okay if you water regularly. Those with bluish foliage require shade. Those with yellowish leaves can take some sun. Good soil is key. Plant hostas in moist, fertile, well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter and isn’t choked by any competing roots from nearby trees and shrubs. Fertilize them in spring (just after new growth begins) using an organic product such as Espoma Plant-tone. Feed them again in summer.
Divide and Conquer
New, prizewinning hosta selections from mail-order specialists can be pricey, but don’t sweat it. Within a couple of years, individual plants form nice-size clumps that you can divide into four or five plants, providing you with some freebies. Do this in spring when plants send up clusters of spiky shoots. Lift the entire clump from the ground, and wash the soil from the roots. Use a sharp knife or spade to cut completely between the shoots so you’re left with individual shoots with roots attached. Replant them all, and water them. Or wait until fall when the leaves have withered but are still visible. Lift and wash the clumps as before, cut between the dry leaves, separate the clumps into pieces, and replant.
Hosta’s Best Friends
Though a hosta plant can be beautiful by itself, it’s even more stunning accompanied by other plants that prefer similar growing conditions. Combine coarse, big-leaved hostas with perennials that offer narrow, long, or finely cut foliage, such as astilbes, ferns, wild columbines, and toad lilies. To create color echoes in the garden, marry hostas with other plants that display yellow, chartreuse, or cream in their leaves—like variegated Solomon’s seal, golden Japanese forest grass, ‘Ogon’ sweet flag, ‘Evergold’ and ‘Everillo’ Japanese sedge, and ‘Mrs. Moon’ lungwort. Some of hosta’s other best buds include heucheras, hellebores, wild ginger, and lily-of-the-valley.
Hosta’s Mortal Enemies
Let’s start with deer. Hosta leaves make a tasty salad for does. They will eat to the ground all that they can find. Regular applications of deer repellent are the only defense. The other archfoe is a mouselike critter called a vole. It munches through hosta stems at or just below the soil line, leaving wilted, dying leaves in its wake. I have tried chemical vole repellents and found their results so-so. Here’s my best piece of advice: Because voles like to hide under mulch and leaves to avoid predators while they feast, pull away all of the mulch, leaves, and other debris from around your hosta plants. Then pray.
Golden leaves with blue-green edges; 12 inches tall, 24 to 30 inches wide
Shiny gold leaves with dark green margins; 18 inches high, 3 to 4 feet wide
Deeply veined, apple green leaves with blue-green edges; 1 to 2 feet tall, 2 to 4 feet wide
Compact clumps of small, deep green leaves with bright yellow edges; 12 to 16 inches high, 24 to 30 inches wide
Blue-green leaves with creamy edges; 16 inches tall, 2 to 3 feet wide
Unique waxy, blue, quilted leaves shaped like cups; 18 to 24 inches high, 2 to 3 feet wide
'Blue Mouse Ears'
Miniature plant with leaves that look like its name; 8 to 12 inches tall and wide
Large, bright yellow, heart-shaped leaves; grows 1 to 3 feet tall and wide