Flowers of all kinds are bright spots in any landscape, but to really bring a garden to life, you need rich foliage texture. Hostas, hardy perennial plants grown for their foliage rather than for their flowers, produce opulent mounds of beautifully textured leaves that bring magical stateliness to a flower bed.
Luxuriously leafy hostas transform bare spots under trees into cool tableaus, add drama along a front walk and emphasize the transition to a garden gate. They are also striking and distinguished specimens in pots. They are the champions of shade gardens -- and they're surprisingly adaptable in sunny places, too.
"We are getting better hostas all the time," says Bob Olson, who grows about 200 different hostas in his garden near Minneapolis. Olson is a past president of the American Hosta Society and has been the editor of the AHS Journal for almost 20 years. Hostas with red stems (also called petioles) are one of the latest developments in the world of hostas, Olson says, but hybridizers are also introducing more giant hostas, which may grow 40 inches tall or more and up to 5 feet across, and there is great interest in tiny hostas no more than 6 inches tall, too.
Olson planted his first hostas as problem solvers, to dress up a garden bed around the base of a tree on his property. "Then I heard about a guy in another city -- he had 450 varieties of hosta for sale. I was stunned, and I was captivated," Olson says. He fell for a big hosta priced at $40 but couldn't bring himself to make the investment. His wife talked him into it, and the hosta (H. montana Aureomarginata), remains one of his favorites.
There are about 8,000 different named hostas today, and some gardeners take that as a challenge. Most cost $15 or less. At one time, Olson's hosta collection included close to 400 hostas. "But my garden looked like a row crop. My wife said it looked like a stamp collection," Olson says. That's when he made a decision. "I realized that the best gardens I had seen were where people displayed their hostas well." Every beautiful plant benefits by handsome companion plants, and every garden needs variety.
Olson now grows peonies, lilies and lots of annual flowers side by side with his hostas in a carefully designed garden that seems to embrace his backyard. "I had to put a lot of hostas out for adoption," he says, "but my garden was much better once I did that."
Interest in miniature hostas has skyrocketed in the past few years. It took off when a sweet little hosta with cupped leaves called Blue Mouse Ears came on the market. The 8-inch hosta launched a wave of hybridizing that has led to the introduction of dozens of different "mouse" hostas, including Frosted Mouse Ears, Mighty Mouse and Mouse Trap.
Mini hostas have correspondingly small root systems, and it's best to grow them in small pots for a year or so, Olson says. "Then you might put them in the ground," he suggests. Some gardeners grow their mini hostas in planters, to show them off together, like miniature gardens. One of the hottest new minis, Olson says, is Miniskirt, which has a ruffled-edged leaf.
Choosing among the great variety of hostas is part of the fun. When you're shopping -- hostas are widely available at garden shops, big-box stores, and through mail-order specialists -- look for something distinctive, Olson suggests. "A great hosta is one you can look at from across the garden and identify it. There are too many that nobody can tell apart."
Hostas are hardy perennial plants that live for years. It's important to allow them room to grow. Big specimens such as Great Expectations or Blue Hawaii are at their best after about three years. Some gardeners like to divide plants after that, but unless conditions change in your garden, you really don't need to go to all that trouble. You can just stand back and admire them.
Hostas are terrific shade garden plants, but don't expect them to flourish in the very darkest corners of the garden. They tolerate shade well, but they flourish in morning light, dappled light or bright, indirect light. Many hostas look great in sunny spots, especially if they are planted in soil enhanced with compost and are watered consistently throughout the growing season.
-- Plant hostas in well-drained soil, firm the soil around them and water well. Mulch around your plants with compost or leaf mold to help reduce evaporation from the soil. As your hostas grow, they will shade the soil, and weeds should not be a problem.
-- Fertilize hostas with an all-purpose fertilizer once a year, in spring. Water well after fertilizing.
-- Established hostas planted in light shade are surprisingly drought-tolerant, but regular watering will encourage growth. Large-leaf hostas, in particular, lose a lot of moisture through normal transpiration and need extra moisture. During dry spells, hostas may develop brown leaf tips, but this does no harm.
-- Hosta leaves will be killed back by frost at the end of the growing season. Many hosta growers allow the leaves to remain through the winter -- some never remove the leaves, which form a natural mulch for the plants. In the spring, new leaves emerge from the crown of the plant. Every year, you'll have more leaves than the year before.
-- Hosta flowers rise from the base of the plants on tall stalks. The blooms are usually white, light pink or pale purple, and they attract hummingbirds. After the flowers fade, many hostas develop attractive seed pods.
-- Every year, the American Hosta Society publishes a list of the most popular hostas. The top five hostas in the AHS 2018 poll are: June, Sagae, Liberty, Victory and Blue Angel. The top five miniature hostas are: Blue Mouse Ears, Pandora's Box, Frosted Mouse Ears, Cameo and Cracker Crumbs.
-- American Hosta Society, americanhostasociety.org, lists many mail-order hosta specialists on its website, along with information about growing hostas, hosta display gardens and hosta clubs.