Hosta

A perennial favorite

Hosta in bloom

There are more than 2500 cultivars of hosta on the market of this delightful perennial. Hosta, also called plantain lilies, have edible flowers and buds, but why eat them when the foliage is so incredibly gorgeous. Easily cultivated, these shade tolerant plants come in a spectacular range of colors, sizes, shapes, and textures. Some are solid—almost blue—with deep veins, while others are smaller, almost dainty, with white, yellow, or chartreuse variegated leaves.

Hosta as are native to China, Japan, and Korea, but have been cultivated in the West for more than 200 years. Newer varieties are bred for size, color, shape, and fragrance. Flowers may vary from being fairly innocuous to rather showy.

They are easy to grow and demand little maintenance aside from regular watering in the summer and division every four years. This makes them a perfect addition to a the garden of a new gardener or one who keenly desires a beautiful yard and garden, but has little time to devote to it.

Cultivation

Hosta are hardy in Zones 3–8 in the continental US. They grow from rhizomes like iris. They leaf out in early spring, flower, and stay beautiful all spring, summer, and early fall. When the weather turns though and gets cold enough, you'll go out one morning and find that they've turned to mush. They decompose very quickly, so cleanup isn't really an issue.

Generally, most hostas prefer a little sun in the morning with good shade in the afternoon though some like the lighter variegated yellow and white varieties can tolerate more. The darker blue hostas typically prefer more shade. The new varieties that are most fragrant are like many other flowers and need at least 5–6 hours of sun per day. One of the keys to happy hosta is to place them so they get as much sun as they need, but make sure they get shade during the hottest hours of the afternoon from about 2–4 pm in much of the US. Too much light may result in leaf scorching, especially at the tips of the leaves.

When planting hosta, look for a location with rich, loamy soil and a slightly acidic pH. If your soil isn't particularly rich in organic matter, amend with organic compost. In very friable, rich, well-draining soil you can plant your hosta directly with minimal cultivation. Other less accommodating soils should be dug to about a foot, then mix in compost.

Hosta like their water so plant them where they can receive a minimum of one inch of water per week. Soil should drain well though; hosta don't want to be soggy. For luxuriant, rapid growth water more and as early in the day as possible. Several good deep waterings per week are preferable to light daily watering. Mulch well to conserve water and reduce water loss.

Hosta are not usually heavy feeders. If you fertilize, do so with a balanced, organic, slow-release fertilizer. A quality 10-10-10 applied with a light hand should do the trick.

Hosta are very easy to grow. That said, if your hosta is struggling to survive, it's probably not in the right location or getting enough water. Increase water allocation and the chances are pretty good you'll correct it's unhappy condition. If that doesn't work, move your hosta. When you get it right, it will take off and reward you with beautiful foliage all season long.

Propagation

Hosta reach maturity in about four or five years, so the easiest method of increasing your hosta collection is by dividing the plants you have and sharing with like minded gardeners. You can divide your plants in the early spring or in the summer ... your success depends on the variety.

Dividing hosta are fairly straightforward. When the clump no longer has new shoots in its center, it's time to divide. Dig up the whole clump, and cut it in half or thirds. Don't try to make too many small pieces and don't divide too often. The result is a small plant without optimum foliage size.

For many varieties, early spring is the easiest time because you won't be wrestling with leaves. When shoots are just being to pop out from February to April, divide the plant and transplant to their new locations. Note which type of hosta you want to divide as several varieties should not be divided in the spring.

Summer division, however, is preferable for many varieties. Warmer days and nights combine with higher humidity in many areas to promote root growth. Make sure you water the new divisions well for at least a month to prevent taxing the new divisions.

Planting and transplanting

The planting hole should be deep enough to accommodate the plant without burying the crown, but fairly wide. Read the plant label for a description of the plants mature size to plan for spacing.

If transplanting from a pot, loosen the root ball to tease the roots free. If tightly bound, cut the root ball vertically a couple times to free the roots so they can spread. Rough it up a bit ... if you have a good location and adequately amended soil, hosta can tolerate transplanting pretty well. Bare root plants should be soaked for a half hour in cool, but not cold, water. To plant, make a small mound in the bottom of the planting hole and spread the roots over the mound. Back fill the hole and water well.

Pests and diseases

Ymmmm. Munch, munch. That must be the sound ... if they made sounds ... of the voracious slug dining on your hosta. Young hosta leaves are one of their particular culinary delights so a "take no prisoners" approach is warranted. There are several good slug baits including Worry Free and Sluggo that make short work of these critters. Slugs are resourceful ... I swear they can jump. Show no mercy. The bluer hosta are more likely to be spurned by slugs, so if you have suitable digs for the blue varieties, you might avoid much of the damage.

Hosta are fairly tough plants with few enemies. However, other pests include such stellar representatives of the animal world as deer which will eat everything but the stalks and rabbits which will eat the spring shoots and flowers. If you have deer problems, good luck.

Choosing hosta

With so many beautiful plants to choose from it can seem daunting to make the right choice. If you are inclined to select bare root varieties from online stores, hold off until you tour some of the local nurseries. You'll often see the same varieties at garden stores and nurseries because they tend to do well locally. Another excellent source is contacting the Master Gardener program in your county for information about varieties that do well in your climate.

Companion planting with hosta

We particularly like hosta with bulbs in the early spring just as the young shoots are starting to leaf out and later in the spring and summer with other perennials like heuchera and various ferns. Other compatible plants include impatiens, begonias, and astilbes, pulmonarias, and tiarellas. Small hostas do well in containers.

Reading list

The Color Encyclopedia of Hostas by Diana Grenfell and Mike Shadrack. This book is the essential reference for all hosta lovers.

Taylor's 50 Best Perennials for Shade: Easy Plants for More Beautiful Gardens by Frances Tenenbaum. Read in depth description for many of the best-loved shade perennials.


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