Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Yard & Garden Planning

Hostas: Ultimate Shade Perennials

by Jack Ruttle

For three years in a row, hostas have been the best-selling perennial in North America, and they aren't likely to relinquish their number-one status any time soon. The main reason for their rapid rise to the top is that many American gardens are getting shadier, as street and yard trees mature. And there is no better way to put bright colors in a shady spot season after season than by planting hostas. The bold leaves come in a striking range of both solid hues and bicolors ("variegated" is the preferred term). In summer come the tall spikes of white or lavender flowers, but with hostas it's the season-long show of leaves that counts most.

It takes more than good looks, however, to make a plant a world-class winner. Very few perennials are carefree plants, but hostas come close. They never need dividing. Once established, they shade the ground so thoroughly that they reliably crowd out most weeds. Their only problem is slugs, a pest that can usually be controlled with diligent cleanup. Hostas are not fussy about soils and many cultivars even do quite well with considerable sun. It's no wonder that gardeners are planting them in record numbers.

Early to midsummer is the ideal time to shop for hostas. In midsummer, container-grown plants in local nurseries will be in full leaf so you can get a good idea of what the different varieties will look like. Liberated from the pot, however, and growing in good garden soils, the leaves will get up to twice as large.

Hosta leaves come in a broad range of solid colors, from blue-gray to deep green to light green or gold. Blue hostas often have a soft, waxy bloom, especially early in the season. Some green leaves are very shiny. Variegation can be white, cream or yellow and can occur on the edges of the leaves, in the centers of others or else be streaked throughout the leaf. The most common leaf shape is heartlike, but some cultivars have narrow, straplike leaves. The largest hostas are three to four feet tall; the smallest are under eight inches. Mix all these factors together and you get an idea of why plant breeders are having such fun with this group of plants.

Today, nurseries grow and sell selections from about 10 different species and their hybrids. There are about 400 cultivars in the trade and the number is growing rapidly. You can plant container-grown hostas from early spring to fall. If you want to buy hostas by mail, you should order right away. Some mail-order nurseries will ship your hostas within weeks; others will wait until autumn. Plants may be shipped in containers or bare root. Either way will be fine for your garden; hostas are very tough plants. Spring planting is fine, too.

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