Hostas 101

So many colors, so many kinds, so many choices. These shade-loving perennials rule.

So many colors, so many kinds, so many choices. These shade-loving perennials rule. Photo: Joseph De Sciose, John O'Hagan, Allen Rokach

I thought I would be stronger. I thought I could resist. But now I know nothing can stave off the unquenchable hunger for hostas. I buy three or four kinds at a time, all distinctive and seductive, and then dream at night of the 5,000 other kinds I still crave. Time to stand up and admit the truth: My name is Steve, and I'm a hosta-holic.

I'm not alone. Sneak around, and you'll likely find closet hosta-holics on every street. What makes hostas so addictive? Simply put, no other hardy perennials offer such beautiful foliage in so many colors, shapes, and sizes.

Choose the Right Hosta

Depending on the selection, plants form clumps from 4 inches to 5 feet wide. Leaves range in size from as big as the ear of an elephant to as small as the ear of a cat. They may be blue, green, yellow, variegated, smooth, wavy, puckered, quilted, rounded, heart-shaped, or sword-shaped. Pretty summer flowers make the craving worse. And the blooms of some, such as 'Royal Standard,' drive us to madness with their sweet perfume.

Hostas are Made for Shade

Hostas love shade but don't want deep shade. The majority prefer light shade all day, but quite a few tolerate morning sun if the soil is moist. The farther south you live, the more water and shade hostas need. Sorry, but hostas won't grow in the Tropical South. Use peacock gingers instead. Those of you in the Coastal South should stick to heat-tolerant Hosta plantaginea.

Nothing trumps good soil in growing great hostas. Avoid planting them in thick woods; they hate root competition. Don't plant in clay either. Instead, provide loose, moist, well-drained soil that's jam-packed with organic matter, such as composted cow manure. Feed hostas in spring with a slow-release, organic fertilizer (such as cottonseed meal, blood meal, or fish meal) at the rate recommended on the bag.

Hostas Foil Most Pests

Hostas fend off most pests, but a few can create problems. The first is a mouselike rodent called a vole, which chews off the plant at ground level or below. If you have voles, don't mulch hostas, because voles burrow beneath the mulch to dine unseen. When you plant, mix either sharp gravel or a slate product called VoleBloc with the soil as you fill in around the roots. Voles don't like the jagged particles.

Slugs and snails, which eat holes in leaves, are another bane. The simple answer is to plant thick-leaved selections such as 'Halcyon' and 'Elegans.' Slugs and snails leave these alone.

Buy Hostas for Less

Hostas vary in price from less than $6 a plant for common types at home and garden centers to $25 or more for the latest and greatest from specialty catalogs. The latter prices seem steep at first. But as hosta expert Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina, points out, "We can sell a plant for 20 bucks that you can divide next spring into four or five. That's 4 bucks each. Is that too much?"

Not for us hosta-holics. See you at the next meeting.

Hostas For Beginners

These personal favorites are easy to find and grow.

  • 'August Moon'--chartreuse leaves; white blooms; 20 inches tall and 30 inches wide
  • 'Frances Williams'--puckered, blue-green leaves with yellow edges; lavender blooms; 3 feet tall and wide
  • 'Golden Tiara'--small, heart-shaped, green leaves with golden edges; purple flowers; 12 inches tall and 15 inches wide
  • 'Guacamole'--chartreuse leaves with green edges; fragrant, white blooms; 18 inches tall and 4 feet wide
  • 'Halcyon'--heart-shaped, powder blue leaves; blue flowers; 18 inches tall and 3 feet wide 'Royal Standard'--glossy, deeply veined, green leaves; fragrant, white flowers; 2 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide
  • 'Elegans' (H. sieboldiana 'Elegans')--large, puckered, blue-gray leaves; pale lilac blooms; 2 to 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide
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