Michele and Clayton Oslund
Written & Photographed by Michele and Clayton Oslund
Hostas, the trendy but tough perennials, may well be the best friends that gardeners – with or without green thumbs – can find for the Lake Superior region.
Hostas are hardy; frigid temperatures seem to be no bother. They can thrive anywhere in our northern climate and grow in almost any degree of light. They flourish contentedly in shade, but bright light with a touch of morning sun is just fine, too.
Once up and showing green in their emerging spikes, most hostas will endure a frost, being stepped on by gardener, visitor or beast and even survive a whiff of herbicide.
We highly recommend hostas for northern gardeners looking for low-maintenance greenery within their landscapes.
These popular plants are native to Japan, Korea and China and were imported to Europe in the late 1700s, reaching the United States by the mid-1800s.
The genus name Hosta was assigned to the plant family in 1812, honoring Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host. The plants bear the common name “plantain lily.” They have been included with day lilies in the Hemerocallis genus and in the genus Funkia. Finally, in 1905 the International Botanical Congress conserved Hosta as the genus name, though occasionally, Funkia may still be found in nursery catalogs.
Hostas can be categorized into six groups according to leaf coloration: three solid colors – green, blue or gold (yellow) – and three variegated – gold-margined, white-margined or medio-variegated, indicating a green- or blue-margined leaf. Within these groups, mature hosta differ in leaf size, shape and texture. If that isn’t enough, flower color, size and fragrance toss even more interesting considerations into the mix.
Gardeners will notice changes in color and size when growing the same variety in different light conditions. If in a sunny location, expect blue hostas to have a greenish cast, green varieties to look lighter and gold varieties to be brighter.
Currently, more than 4,000 hosta varieties are named, with a thousand or so on the market. Garden centers, nurseries, mail order companies and trades with family and friends are all good sources to find plants suitable for any project.
Showing off their versatility, hostas can be mixed into a perennial or shrub border, used as backgrounds, put to work as ground cover, placed as edging plants that define a walk or driveway or simply set off as “showpieces.”
Putting woodland plants together with hostas makes for some terrific landscaping. Native or naturalized woodland plants are quite at home in shadowy spaces and bring a touch of the wild into home gardens and landscapes. Ferns and other woodland plants hold their own in a hosta garden, easily creating the essence of a walk in the woods.
Hosta clumps increase in size from year to year as the plants mature. Some varieties have slender stems growing horizontally (stoloniferous) to produce colonies of new plants. This characteristic makes them ideal as ground covers and edgings, especially on slopes and banks. Non-stoloniferous hosta clumps stay more compact.
A clump with multiple shoots can be divided, usually after three or more years. Early spring, just as the spike-like leaf shoots emerge, is the best time to dig and divide. Early September is another good dividing time. Dividing your hosta clumps is a great way to get more plants for your garden and to have some spare to share.
Hostas can be planted any time during the growing season between early spring and into September.
Proper garden site preparation – the “foundation” necessary for plant health and success – is always important. While preferring a slightly acid to neutral soil, hostas generally grow in any good garden soil.
Most gardens have a trouble spot or two, like a wet place in sun or shade or a too-dry spot. Wonderfully forgiving hostas can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, more than many other garden perennials. Amendments such as compost, peat moss and fertilizers worked into the site help to alleviate soil problems.
Generally hostas respond to a light application of fertilizer given early in the growing season. Avoid fertilizing after the end of July to give the plants a chance to slow their growth and get ready for winter dormancy.
For folks who don’t have an endless supply of time to spend in their gardens, the genus Hosta is most accommodating. Once established, mature hostas spread their leaves and shade the ground beneath them, quite effectively preventing many weeds from growing. One seasonal chore required to keep the setting looking smart is to clip the flower stalks after the flowers finish blooming. Flower stalks that detract from the overall garden design may be clipped before they bloom.
Hostas are vulnerable to two garden pests: slugs and browsing deer. Attempts to thwart hungry deer include using bars of soap, human hair, commercial repellents and fencing (standard or electric).
You likely will slug it out with slugs early in the season when the hosta leaves are young and succulent and slug damage could appear. To minimize damage, try growing hostas that have thick leaves (“substance” in hosta language). And avoid mulch. Wood chip mulch, for example, holds moisture, making a haven for slugs.
Hosta growers appear to be susceptible to just one other “problem.” Whether their first hosta is an exquisite tiny treasure or a big and bold, versatile plant with leaves of many colors … beware! Hostas can and do quickly become a passion.
Michele and Clayton are retired educators and perennial gardeners – Michele, a former music teacher, and Clayton, a former botany/ horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota-Waseca. They’ve written and had published two books, Hawaiian Gardens are to Go to and What’s Doin’ the Bloomin’?, a wildflower field guide for the northern woodlands.