If you haven’t tried growing hostas yet, now is the time. If you’ve got a few plants in your garden, you ought to have a few more. Trust me. Millions of gardeners can’t be wrong, either.
Among the best-selling perennials in North America, hostas range from miniatures less than two inches tall to many with extra-large leaves the size of horses’ heads and flower scapes more than five feet tall. Planted as single specimens, as companions to other plants or as entire hosta gardens, these plants draw attention and don’t ask much in return.
Where else can you find a plant that can enhance your garden architecture as well as carry so many different and interesting leaf descriptions? They come seersuckered, leathery, oval, puckered, irregularly margined, heart-shaped, abruptly tipped, crinkled, highly corrugated and ruffled. They range from dark green to almost white, and from yellow to rich gold. Though not known for their flowers, many push out blooms that rival the beauty of almost any other plant.
The two best attributes of hostas — and the reasons they’re so widely planted — are their shade tolerance and ease of care. Just remember these planting tips and you’ll be on your way to a nice hosta collection of your own:
Here in Vermont, when the snows have melted we clean up any leftover debris from autumn before any sign of new growth. As the first leaves begin to unfurl, we fertilize with Epsom salts at a rate of five ounces to five gallons of water. We mulch our hosta gardens with an inch of shredded maple leaves from the previous fall. This helps maintain moisture during the summer and over time adds to the organic makeup of the soil. Throughout the summer, we provide supplemental water mixed with fish emulsion.
Growing great hostas is not without challenges. Deer and slugs prefer to eat hostas, not admire them as we do. For deer control, we use a latex foliar spray called Tree Guard that is applied during the growing season. It contains a very bitter-tasting agent and a reminder scent. It is available online and at larger nurseries and garden centers. Areas with higher densities of deer require control efforts to the point of strong fencing. The Summer 2004 issue of PPP does a great job covering the continuum of deer-control methods.
When dealing with slugs, controls range from organic to chemical. We have used coarse sand, ground oyster shells, diatomaceous earth and coffee grounds under our hostas, with varying success. Any control program should begin early in the spring before the first signs of growth.
As for hosta varieties, the sky really is the limit. Our personal hosta collection exceeds 400 varieties, but like many gardeners our obsession has become lost in the numbers. We’re often asked to name our favorites, and it’s virtually impossible — it usually depends on which hosta I’ve looked at most recently. Here are five great selections, though, that offer a range of appearances and usefulness in the garden:
1) ‘Halcyon’ — A medium-sized blue hosta to remember, it will hold its great color even in more sun than it cares for. In time, this hosta will clump to 30 inches wide with near-white flower scapes to 22 inches. Planted just within a border or at points where visitors stop to gaze, it’s an eye-catcher.
2) ‘Tokudama Flavocircinalis’ — The down- side of this plant is its reluctance to in-crease in size, but within four years the wait obviously will have been worth it. This plant’s slightly cupped leaves are medium blue with a wide, irregular yellow margin that streaks back into the blue. The flower scape cluster is held just above the leaves. Plant it in light shade and the colors become stronger.
3) ‘Regal Splendor’ — Although many in-credible new hostas are registered each year, some of the older varieties have qualities not to be forgotten. ‘Regal Splendor’ is a tissue-culture sport of ‘Krossa Regal.’ The leaves of ‘Splendor’ add creamy-white edges to an otherwise blue-gray ‘Krossa Regal’ look. It’s the vase shape and the tall flower scapes that make it so useful in broadening the dimensions of your landscape.
4) ‘Little Sunspot’ — This is a small sport of ‘Little Aurora,’ and it shares the ability to look great planted close to a border. The leaves of ‘Little Sunspot’ have rich yellow centers with dark green margins and a subtle mix from the yellow to green. As the season progresses, the yellow fades to chartreuse and the seersuckering becomes more obvious. It looks bigger and more sophisticated than it actually is.
5) H. montana ‘Aureomarginata’ — Large and spectacular, this cascading hosta be-comes more magnificent each year. The dark green leaves have irregular golden yellow-creamy white margins and streaks to mid- leaf. A glossy finish entices you to get closer. Here in Vermont, it is early to rise out of the ground in the spring and guaranteed to be hit by frost a couple of times. But when that time passes, it grows strongly upward.
George Africa and his wife, Gail, own Vermont Flower Farm in Marshfield, Vt., which is profiled on Page 80. They offer more than 140 hosta varieties for sale and are available to answer questions by phone at 802- 426-3505, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or online at http://www.VermontFlowerFarm.com. They also recommend http://www.hostalibrary.org as the best hosta web site and photo gallery.
• Hostas are shade-tolerant, but as with many plants, different varieties require different amounts of sun and shade to do well.
• Hostas grow best in rich, friable soil with a pH of about 6.
• With good reason, successful hosta growers say the best fertilizer is water, so keep the soil somewhat moist from spring until fall frosts approach. This is especially true with young plantings.
• Be patient! The attractive leaves and flower scapes require a well-developed root system. You’ll get a jump-start by purchasing field-grown plants with adult root systems, but even if you buy young seedlings in containers, you should be smiling by year three.