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Hostas - Workhorses Of The Shade Garden

Hostas - Workhorses Of The Shade Garden

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Got shade? There’s a plant for that. One that has great architectural structure, looks good in and out of bloom, covers lots of ground, suppresses weeds, and is undemanding and easy to care for. You’ve probably already guessed: Hostas. All these reasons are why I’m a huge hosta fan. They are tough, resilient, beautiful, and the go-to foundational plant of my shade garden. It’s hard to think of another perennial that has so much variety in size, color, and shape.

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Hostas run the gamut in size, from petite “mouse eared” varieties only inches tall and wide to massive, prehistoric-looking behemoths. Among the largest are Empress Wu, 4’ high and wide, with blue leaves edged in green. ‘Sum and Substance’ is a huge yellow-leaved hosta that can get to 6’ across. ‘Frances Williams’ has fabulous blue leaves with chartreuse margins that reaches 5’ wide. Slow-growers, the largest varieties can take up to five years to reach their potential.

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Hostas come in shades of green, blue, yellow, chartreuse, ivory and combinations of those colors. Leaves can be one solid color, edged in contrasting colors, or have “flames” of a different color down the leaf. Leaf shape varies; from broad, rounded, or pointed, to long and thin, like the yellow cultivar ‘Curly Fries’ which almost doesn’t look like a hosta at all. And the leaf texture can be thick or thin, and range from smooth, to slightly ribbed, all the way to wrinkled and crinkled. With that much range, a garden of nothing but hostas would still be varied, interesting, and beautiful.

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Some Of My Favorites

Autumn Frost (photo above): Thick yellow leaves streaked with blue swirls that slugs don’t touch.

Whee!: Flirty, wavy green and yellow striped leaves.

Halcyon: Slow-growing and slug-resistant, with medium-sized, blue-green leaves.

Wishing Well: Large, corrugated blue-green leaves that hold their color through the summer.

Wu-la-la: Big, icy blue leaves edged in bright green, with an elegant habit.

Hostas don’t need direct sun, but that doesn’t mean you can plant them in the darkest corner of your garden. They do need a few hours of bright light a day, but that can be indirect or dappled light. It can even be sunshine, as long as the plant doesn’t sit in sun for hours. Some hostas can take more sun than others, but morning light is preferable to strong afternoon light. Hosta leaves that get too much sun will scorch and turn brown along the edges.

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Hostas are thought of as resilient, fairly care-free plants. But a bit of attention will keep them looking lush and vibrant.

Light: Hostas thrive in partly to mostly shady conditions. Blue-leaved varieties need more shade or the waxy bloom on the leaves will disappear, resulting in a green, not blue, plant. Yellow varieties need more sun to bring out their color and keep the glow going.

Soil: Should be moist yet well-drained, and rich in organic matter, with a neutral pH of 6.5 to 7.6. Adding compost or aged manure to the soil every year will go a long way to keeping your hostas healthy and vigorous.

Water: Hostas love water, needing about an inch a week. Mulching around the plants helps hold moisture in the soil.

Fertilizer: You can sprinkle a granular, slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer on the soil in the spring. If your soil is high in organic matter, you may not need to fertilize much if at all. Don’t fertilize after midsummer or use a fertilizer with too much nitrogen, which can burn the leaves.

Care: Hostas don’t need dividing, unless they are overtaking neighboring plants, or you want divisions to replant elsewhere or give away. Divide hostas in the spring, just as the “noses” of the leaves are poking up from the crown. Once they’ve leafed out, they are unwieldy and it’s easy to tear the leaves as you divide the plant.

Problems: Slugs and snails are the biggest enemies of hostas, and their feeding can really do a number on the leaves. They chew holes and leave ugly slime trails. Thicker-leaved varieties are less appealing to slugs. Deer are also great fans of hostas. Repellents work so long as they are applied frequently.

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Hostas have an impressive water delivery system. A model of efficiency, each leaf has a groove at the petiole, where the leaf meets the crown of the plant. Water that hits the large part of the leaf surface funnels down through the groove and to the ground.

I like to cut hosta leaves and add them to flower arrangements as filler. One perfect hosta leaf in a simple vase is instant chic. They last a long time in water, too.

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