Gardening: Hostas and other wonderful shade plants

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It took me a long time to appreciate hostas. When I was a young gardener, I wanted bright flowers with lots of pizazz. Roses. Daffodils. Peonies. But over time I have come to appreciate the subtle colors of green, the soothing textures, the dependable nature of hostas. Let's look at a few.

I took a walk around my gardens and counted about a dozen different kinds of hostas. The smallest, 'Blue Mouse Ears' has little leaves just 2 inches long. My largest hosta is probably Hosta montana, 'Stephen Parish' from Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, VT (www.ciderhillgardens.com). It stands 3 feet tall in a clump 5 wide - even though I divided it in half three years ago. I have to admit I don't know the names of many of my hostas, having gotten divisions from friends, or just plain lost the tags.

Some basics: hostas do well in shade and thrive in rich, dark well-drained soil that never dries out. That's a tough demand. But they will grow and survive even in shade with dry, poor soil. They just won't get as big or look as impressive.

I have my biggest hosta growing in 2 different locations. The first is the ideal soil described above, the second place is in shade with dry soil and plenty of tree roots competing. The difference is remarkable. The plants in ideal soil are a full foot taller, and much more vigorous. One might even think they are different species.

I shudder when I drive past a house with hostas growing in full sun. It's like tying up your dog in full sun, in August, with no water bowl. Inhumane. The hosta leaves bleach out, develop brown edges and practically scream at their owners. Some morning sun is fine for many hostas, but afternoon sun is brutal for most. That said, it's almost impossible to kill a hosta, so they survive.

Most hostas are hardy to Zone 3 (minus 40 in winter) or Zone 4 (minus 30). So unless you live in the arctic, you can grow hostas. Having selected a nice spot with gentle sun, enrich the soil with plenty of compost and a little organic bagged fertilizer mixed in. Always water right after planting, and once a week or so until the plant is well established.

Problems? Slugs love hostas, and so do deer. When the leaves come up in the spring, rolled up like cigars, squirrels and chipmunks will eat them like asparagus. I once spayed liquid fish fertilizer on those early rodent treats, and was rewarded with the sounds of a squirrel screaming after taking just one bite! I was working in a public garden, and got a serious glare from a patron who thought I'd poisoned the poor thing.

As to slugs, some years are worse than others. There are chemical slug remedies, but I'm not sure even the so called organic one, which uses iron phosphate, is safe. According to one report I read, the "inert ingredients" which are not listed, may actually be toxic to the slugs - and us. I say pick off the slugs and put them in soapy water, or let them munch your hostas. Saucers of beer are attractive to slugs, too, and will drown them. But that might be too good a demise for slugs.

I recently went to see Gary and Sarah Milek of Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor, Vermont because I have gotten many of my favorite hostas from them, and they have splendid display gardens. Here are a few of the hostas I liked:

Gold Regal. Large leaves, all of a yellow-green.

Gold Standard. Large yellow-gold leaves with green edges.

Sagea. Large, dark green leaves with white or yellow edges

Brother Stephan. Yellow/chartreuse leaves with dark green edges

Curly Fries. This name is worthy of a giggle. The leaves are very narrow and long, green and white, with scalloped edges.

Empress Wu. Nice rich green leaves. Gary says it is the largest of all hosta plants, sometimes standing 5 feet tall!

Hosta leaves will shade out most weeds, so they can be used as ground covers. Jewell weed will grow up through hostas, however. I like to plant daffodils between clumps of hostas as I don't need to cut back the daffodil leaves - the hostas will obscure them by the time they are getting old.

While at Cider Hill I also got a chartreuse spikenard (Aralia cordata) that really looks great in shade. It's a variety called 'Sun King' and I also got one last year. This year it is a nice large plant that does not attract slugs, and has maintained its color all summer.

I also got a nice creeping sedge for a shady groundcover while at Cider Hill. It has leaves 8 to 12 inches long, green with white edges. It's a variegated Carex. I'm hoping it will out-compete the spotted deadnettle (Lamium spp.) that is currently taking over empty places in my shade garden.

So don't ignore those shady places. Hostas and plenty of other plants will grow just fine there.

Reach Henry Homeyer by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by writing him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish a mailed response. See his multi-weekly short blogs about gardening at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningguy

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