Shade-Loving Hostas Offer Form & FoliageThe ultimate foliage plant for shade, hostas offer versatility, durability and a seemingly limitless variety of forms, sizes and shades of green
Hostas are popular shade plants for woodland gardens across much of the country. Sometimes called funkia or plantain lily, hostas are attractive, easy-to-please perennials providing garden interest from spring to fall. They offer a range of sizes, foliage colors and leaf shapes, as well as spikes of purple or white bell-like flowers that are sometimes fragrant.
3-9; Hostas are hardy from areas that are quite chilly to areas where frost is mild and does not linger.
Offering a continuum of size, hostas range from thumbnail small to as big as an umbrella. Miniature hosta plants stop growing at a mature height of 8 inches or less, and a spread of 2 feet or less. Giant hostas top out between 30 and 48 inches in height and may spread as wide as 6 feet. Of course there are also many sizes in between.
Dappled to partial shade is preferable, though they will tolerate moderately heavy shade. Hostas with more substantial foliage will accept full sun in cooler zones, provided they are given ample and constant moisture.
Hosta leaves are a sight to behold. Some are smooth, some are veined, some are waxy, some are cupped, some are heavily puckered, some are ruffled, and some are curled and twisted.
Choose from a wide variety of hosta leaf color, pattern and shape:
- Hues from apple green to dark spruce, sunny yellow and glaucous blue
- A diversity of variegations with white or golden edges or centers
- Leaf shapes from long and narrow to wide and heart shaped
When to plant:
Spring, as new shoots appear, is a good time to plant hostas or divide and transplant established clumps. However, fall is also an option, especially if you want your plants to look more established come spring. “Hostas planted in the fall will look a year older than the ones you buy next spring,” explains Bob Solberg, a leading hosta hybridizer at Green Hill Farm.
Where to plant:
Generally, hostas prefer to be planted out of direct sunlight. Most will tolerate morning sun, but need shade during the hottest part of the day to look their best. Blue, green and variegated hostas thrive in deep shade, while yellow and gold hostas need more light to bring out their colors. Hostas are often planted beneath trees, but keep in mind that they don’t like competition from shallow rooted trees.
How to plant:
“If your hostas arrive bare root they will probably appreciate being soaked in a bucket of water for several hours to rehydrate them before planting,” says Solberg. While they are soaking, dig a wide planting hole and amend your soil as necessary. Hosta roots can grow to one foot deep and two feet wide-this is a good size for your hole. Untangle the plant’s roots and rest them atop a mound of soil created in the center of the hole. Backfill and water thoroughly.
Hostas grown in a good loamy soil enriched with organic matter such as compost produce the most luxuriant foliage.
Even levels of moisture are preferred, and mulch helps reduce fluctuations. Avoid dry conditions. Most hosta growers recommend one inch of water per week during the growing season. Encourage the roots of your hosta plant to grow further down into the soil by watering deeply. Hostas exposed to more sun will require more water.
It often takes four to five years for hostas to mature and division is usually not necessary before this time. When dividing hostas in spring, wait for the eyes to pop out from the soil so you can distinguish how many there are and where to make a cut. If you wait to divide in fall, make sure you give the roots enough time to reestablish before cold weather arrives.
Deer devour hostas; regular use of different repellents can help, or install deer fencing.
Deter slugs and snails by using diatomaceous earth or slug bait; the best preventive maintenance is the removal of weeds and decaying leaves around hostas to keep the area clean.
When growing hosta plants in pots, drainage is crucial. Make sure the container has drainage holes and that the potting mix you use promotes drainage. Container grown plants will need to be watered more frequently than those grown in the garden. Bring your potted hostas into the garage or another protected place for the winter.
Hosta shoots emerge in early spring, with the leaves unfurling a few weeks later and reaching their mature size by late spring (the process takes 6-8 weeks in total).
- This is a good time to divide and transplant hostas
- Apply a slow release fertilizer
- Begin slug control and spray deer repellent
- Protect shoots from late freezes with cloth, pots, newspaper or extra mulch
- Examine hostas for signs of Hosta Virus X
Most hostas bloom in mid- to late-summer, for a period of about 3 weeks. After flowering, new buds begin forming at the base in preparation for next spring.
- Watch for leaf margins that are turning brown, a sign of hosta scorch
- Don’t allow your soil to dry out, which can cause heat dormancy or dry rot
- Cut back on watering at the end of summer to encourage dormancy
Hosta greenery begins to die back in response to frost, first turning gold, then drying out and drooping.
- Cut back leaves and flower scapes
- Clean up debris around plants and apply mulch
- Water well prior to the first freeze
Hostas enter a winter dormancy where the leaves drop and the plants appear lifeless. During this time, the roots are busy storing energy for spring.
- Water occasionally if you live in a dry winter climate
- Recover hostas with mulch if exposed by frost heave
- Wait for your hostas to return in spring
DESIGNING WITH HOSTAS
The diversity of size among hostas inspires a variety of uses, from striking specimen or focal point to edging or ground cover. Hostas contribute the all-important element of texture to a garden, and a collection with varying foliage colors and shapes is visually interesting even without flowers.
Ideas for using hosta plants in your garden:
- Bold-leaved hostas provide contrast to lacy plants such as ferns and astilbe or linear foliage such as sedges or liriope. Keep things in proportion—supersized ‘Sum and Substance’ will overshadow a small fern.
- Pair hostas with summer-dormant plants such as Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica). The hostas continue to provide interest after the bluebells have died back.
- Hosta leaves are great additions to a bouquet or foliage arrangements. Use larger hosta leaves as placemats for alfresco meals.
- Hostas with white-variegated leaves or white flowers make great additions to a moonlight garden.
Hosta companion plants:
- Spring bulbs
- Golden hakone grass
- Bleeding heart
HOSTA VARIETIES TO TRY
Hostas, native to Japan, Korea and China, were first grown in the United States in the mid-1800’s and soared to popularity in the 1960s, with the American Hosta Society being established in 1968.
Today there are numerous species, cultivars and hybrids available to the home gardener. Check out some of our favorites below, many of which have appeared on the American Hosta Society’s Popularity Poll or won Hosta of the Year from the American Hosta Growers Association.
The bright gray-blue leaves of this hosta are known for retaining their color well. Lavender-gray flowers add interest in summer. Grows 24 inches tall and 36 inches wide.
A sport of ‘Halcyon’, this popular hosta has heart-shaped, gray-blue leaves with yellow and yellow-green variegation. Plus, its foliage is less likely to incur slug damage. Grows to 12 inches tall and 30 inches wide.
Also a sport of ‘Halcyon’, this hosta leaves look great from spring until first frost. It has blue-green leaves with gold margins that fade to white and light lavender flowers. Grows to 16 inches tall and 36 inches wide.
An outstanding hosta with chartreuse-gold leaves, dark margins and distinctive veining. The golden leaf color becomes brighter if grown in more light. The white flowers of ‘Guacamole’ are highly fragrant. Grows to 18 inches tall and 48 inches wide.
‘BLUE MOUSE EARS’
This miniature hosta has thick, curled leaves that look like mouse ears, at least until they send up their lavender flowers. A good choice for containers or rock gardens. Grows to 12 inches tall and 12 inches wide.
Called August lily for the sweet fragrance of its waxy white flowers in late summer. Leaves in Granny Smith apple green allow it to thrive in shade, but it is also sun-tolerant. Forms a mound 2 feet by 2 feet.
‘NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS’
Clumps 18 inches tall and 30 inches wide have a crisp appearance, with lavender flowers on 30-inch stalks. Medium green leaves are ruffled along the margins and narrow to a point, accentuated by a clean, white central stripe.
‘FIRE AND ICE’
A hosta with panache: heavy leaves with good substance, somewhat curled and twisted, embellished by a broad, irregular cream white blotch and a dark green margin. Forms mounds 12 inches wide by 8 inches high, with pale lavender flowers.
Often confused with ‘Patriot’. Both have irregular, wide white margins on dark green leaves. Seen side by side, ‘Minuteman’ is darker green and has more substance. Makes a dense clump 3 feet wide and 2 feet high, with lavender flowers in early summer.
COMMON HOSTA PROBLEMS
Hosta Virus X causes mottled leaf coloring and is spread through sap transferred from one plant to another via contaminated tools or hands. Other symptoms include leaves that appear lumpy, have brown spots or are twisted oddly. Always clean and sterilize tools used on hostas that may have the virus. A cure for the virus has yet to be found, so the best course of action is to remove and destroy infected plants-do not compost.
Hosta scorch is like getting a sunburn-leaves turn yellow and crispy at the edges. Plants grown in full sun and soil lacking organic matter are more susceptible. Just as you would put on sunscreen or wear a hat when at the beach, protect your hostas from intense sunlight, especially during the heat of midday. Watering early in the day may help prevent scorching. If you have a hosta that has been damaged, remove the scorched leaves and consider transplanting to a shadier location in your garden.
Frost damage can affect hosta plants during early spring. A hosta with frost damage will appear limp and crinkled. Frost is the biggest threat to plants with leaves completely unfurled, those in the bud stage or with leaves that are still tightly rolled, fair cold snaps much better. If frost is in the forecast, you should cover your hostas and make sure they are well watered. If you have a plant that has already been damaged, remove the damaged foliage as it is susceptible to diseases. Hostas often go one to produce a second flush of leaves after frost damage.
Foliar nematodes are tiny roundworms that invade the tissue of hosta leaves, creating yellow and brown discoloration between leaf veins. Foliar nematodes spread primarily via water, but can also be transferred from plant to plant on unsterilized garden tools. To prevent their spread in your garden, avoid overhead watering and sanitize your tools after every cut. Infected plants should be removed and destroyed-do not compost.