The hosta, also known as the plantain lily, is one of the most popular shade-tolerant plants; it thrives in areas where other plants would languish. Unlike other plants, hostas are chosen more for foliage than flowers; depending on the cultivar, their leaves can be yellow or green; dark, light or variegated; large or small. You could have a bed full of nothing but hostas and still have a lot of variety. Most nurseries and garden centers have hostas, but there are a number of specialty vendors and hosta farms out there.
A hosta can be planted just about any time, as long as the ground isn’t frozen. Although I can certainly understand the urge to go out and plant something — anything — do yourself and the hosta a favor and make sure the ground has thawed and the soil isn’t too wet to work. As I’ve said before, gardening teaches patience.
Hostas do best when they are spaced 2 to 4 feet apart; they need room to grow and are happier if they can stay put. The American Hosta Society cautions that not all hostas do best in full shade. Hostas are shade tolerant, but unless they’re hard-core shade lovers, chances are they wouldn’t mind a little sun. Four out of five hostas, when asked, indicated a preference for morning sun, though there are those renegade species that relish the hot afternoon rays.
The hostas in my north-facing front yard get a smidgen of sun but are in the shade most of the day, and they seem to appreciate that odd blend of light more than anything else I’ve tried to grow out there. All I give them is water and a sprinkle of slow-release fertilizer, and they do the rest. For optimum growth, the AHS recommends at least 1 inch of water per week and a balanced fertilizer (around 10-10-10) three or four times a year.
Although hostas hold up comparatively well against disease and pests, they are a favorite of slugs — the kind that take up residence in your garden beds and chomp holes in the leaves, that is. Although slugs are, by nature, hard to get rid of, they can be plied with beer — in a flat, open container buried up to its lip in the soil. No frosty mug necessary. They are attracted to the fermenting yeast, and their pursuit of it is often their undoing. While there is merit in the old beer-bait remedy, the trap needs to be checked, emptied and renewed frequently, so consider how much effort (and beer) you’re willing to contribute to slug eradication. Commercial slug baits (which do not require a photo ID to purchase) and repellents are available.
To find out more (and see a picture of hosta foliage in all its diverse beauty), check out the American Hosta Society’s Web site at www.hosta.org. You can also see a hosta collection, which has been certified by the AHS and accredited by the North American Plant Collection Consortium, at the Toledo Botanical Garden.
Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.