Hostas add color, texture, density and a hint of the exotic to this peaceful shade garden. Photo by Aceshot1.

Hostas come in endless varieties, colors and sizes

By Mary Lynn Bruny

Come blistering summer months, nothing is as inviting as a calm, cool shade garden—especially one with a nice bench. One favorite shade perennial is the glorious hosta. Also called plantain lilies, hostas are herbaceous perennials that typically have shiny, heart-shaped veined leaves. Though their real beauty is in their mounded, tropical-looking foliage, they also grow soft-colored trumpet-shaped flowers atop spikes in late summer.

Photos: top row by; garden by Mary Lynn Bruny.
Photos: top row by; garden by Mary Lynn Bruny.

Hostas have been a shade-garden staple for centuries. But if you look at a few gardening sites (Monrovia, Green Mountain Hosta Nursery, The Hosta Farm), you’ll discover today’s varieties aren’t your grandmother’s hostas. Growers have been busy producing hundreds of varieties and hostas now come in all sizes, from miniature (6-inches wide) to gigantic (5-feet wide), with leaves in white, cream, green, lime-green, gold, blue and gray—and variegated versions of all of these. There are even striking red-stemmed varieties like ‘Fire Island’ and textured foliage like the wavy, ribbon-like leaves of ‘Curly Fries’.

Photos: Curly Fries and Fire Island courtesy Monrovia; path by Mary Lynn Bruny
Photos: Curly Fries and Fire Island courtesy Monrovia; path by Mary Lynn Bruny

Despite their exotic look, hostas are relatively easy to grow in Colorado. First, they need to have the right light. “They’ll tolerate morning sun, but they won’t tolerate afternoon sun,” says Carolyn Toole, garden center plant buyer at Sturtz & Copeland Florists & Garden Center and a master gardener. “The morning sun is usually pretty good on them and makes for a slightly bigger plant. Generally the less hybridized they are—meaning less variegation, less yellow and lime-green color, and more solid green—the better they’ll do in the sun.”

Hostas require regular watering, but not an excessive amount. “Once hostas are planted correctly—and I highly recommend drip systems and a good mulching—you’ll be surprised at how little water you can get away with,” Toole says.

Hostas are full, dense plants that come in many sizes and colors. Large varieties make interesting specimen and background plants. Medium and small sizes make wonderful border and edging plants in perennial beds and along walkways. Photo by Mary Lynn Bruny

Drip-system watering also helps hostas avoid fungal diseases, which are caused by insufficient air circulation. “If you tightly plant hostas together and then spray them overhead with a hose or sprinkler, they won’t get proper air circulation. This becomes a breeding ground for fungus,” Toole explains.

That same situation is a magnet for slugs. But even with a drip system slugs may appear after periods of heavy rain to munch on the thinner-leaved varieties. They don’t seem to be as attracted to the thicker-leaved blue-colored hostas. A little slug bait or beer in a shallow container quickly takes care of the problem. The slugs slither in to drink the beer and drown (happily, one would assume).

If you have good, rich soil, you probably don’t need to fertilize hostas. But if your soil is a bit lacking, one application of a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in spring will help produce splendid new leaves. Toole recommends an organic fertilizer so it won’t burn the foliage.

Easy-Peasy Plants

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Hostas are low-maintenance plants. “You don’t have to deadhead hostas. After they bloom you can cut the stalks, but there’s nothing you constantly have to be out there doing during the growing season,” Toole says.

In late fall and winter, hostas die to the ground. “So you don’t have foliage that’s above the ground that can get damaged by our arid winter climate or infrequent watering during dry winters. Anything that dies down to the ground has better protection. And then in the spring they just pop back up and they’re gorgeous the next year.”

Another wonderful thing about hostas is you can divide them. “If you have a favorite one, you can buy one and in three years you can have three,” Toole says. Depending on the variety and the plant’s age, you can even divide one plant into quarters. They’re pretty hardy but it’s best to divide hostas in the spring and the fall. An application of SUPERthrive afterward helps them handle the transition and keeps them perky.

As hostas are full, dense plants of many sizes and colors, gardeners can use them in a multitude of ways. Large varieties make interesting specimen and background plants. Medium and small sizes make wonderful border and edging plants in perennial beds and along walkways. They’re also lovely tucked under small trees, like red or maroon-leaved Japanese maples. Small varieties en masse make a stunning ground cover, though not one that can be walked upon.

Hostas are natural companions to a whole host of perennials with complementary foliage, including ferns and saxifrages. When choosing companion plants, look for ones with contrasting foliage and heights. “With hostas, I like Solomon’s seal for height and also heucheras or coral bells,” Toole suggests. The orange-red-maroon varieties of heucheras provide striking contrasting foliage, especially against gold and lime-green hostas.

But don’t plant them beneath a conifer. “Everybody tries to plant under a pine tree,” Toole says. “You can’t grow underneath a pine tree, but you can grow around its edges. Tuck some hostas along those edges with a few heucheras and a little sweet woodruff, and you have a really beautiful, low-maintenance shade garden.”

The perfect place to sit on a bench, sip an iced tea and enjoy a few minutes of summer.