Tips for Buying and Growing Hostas

Hostas are one of the most popular and versatile perennial plants you can have in your shade garden. As foliage plants, they offer an unmatched range of patterns, colors, and sizes and their leaves and delicate spiked flower stalked are stunning when mixed in with arrangements. Here are some tips for buying and growing hostas.

Buying Hostas

  • Look for vigorous plants with healthy, unblemished leaves.

  • When shopping for hosta roots, choose top-grade ones with 3 or more eyes.
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  • Lower-grade roots are younger, with fewer eyes, and take longer to grow into full-sized plants.

  • Bare root vs. Container: Both grow and transplant very well if handled properly.

  • In general, more care is required prior to planting bare root hostas.

  • You get what you pay for. Hostas are sold in different sized containers.

  • Typically the smaller the container, the smaller and younger the plant is.

  • Younger plants take longer to become established, but they are also less expensive.

  • Expect rare varieties and highly prized colors (some blues, for example) to demand higher prices.

If you're looking for a specific variety of hosta, well-established leafed-out plants are much easier to identify correctly, as immature plants often change dramatically in appearance by the time they grow into adults and are prone to mislabeling. A good resource for identifying varieties is at: www.hostalibrary.org

Two diseases to watch for when buying hostas are the Hosta X virus (HVX) and foliar nematodes. When unknowingly introducing infected plants, the first can kill off your entire hosta collection and the second can wreak havoc on your entire garden. Big box retailers tend not to be overly concerned about "trafficking" these types of diseases, so if you buy from them, proceed with caution and keep in mind that at least in the case of nematodes, the brown streaky leaves may not show up until later in the season.

Ideally, your retailer should be able to certify and guarantee that the hostas they are selling to you have been inspected for viruses and foliar nematodes. Find a reputable vendor and stick with them. For a list of vendors recommended by the American Hosta Society, visit: www.americanhostasociety.org

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For more information on HVX: www.extension.iastate.edu

Growing Hostas

There are hundreds of kinds of hostas from light green to dark green, blue, silver, gold, variegated, and even white. There are also different sizes (miniature to giant) and leaf shapes (round to narrow), some have shiny leaves, others are dull. Here are 6 popular varieties to try:

  • Francee: 12-15 inches tall/18-24 inches wide; dark green leaves with white edges; lilac colored flower stalks.

  • Frances Williams: 12-18 inches tall/22 inches wide; large, round, blue-green leaves with yellow margins; lilac flower stalks.

  • Ginko Craig: 6 inches tall/15-18 inches wide; narrow, dark green leaves with a white border; mauve flowers; good in rock gardens.

  • Gold Standard: 12-18 inches tall/20 inches wide; large bright green leaves with dark green margins; center of leaves turn gold in mid summer; lavender flower stalks; good ground cover.

  • Sum and Substance: 18-24 inches tall/20 inches wide; huge, round golden leaves; lavender flower stalks.

  • Elegans: 12-18 inches tall/24-30 inches wide; round, white flower stalks.

Uses: Accent plants, groundcovers, rock gardens, edgings, front borders.

Planting: Plant in the spring. The planting hole should be large enough to take all of the hosta roots and spread them out, with 12-24 inches between holes. Buds should be 1 inch below the soil. Pack the soil and moisten well.

Soil: Hostas are very tolerant of a wide range of soils, but grow best in rich, moist soil. Mulch around the base of plants to conserve moisture and prevent mud splashes during rainy weather.

Dividing: A hosta plant grows slowly and is one of the last perennials to peak through in the spring especially in deep shade. It can be allowed to spread without ever being divided, or once well-established, can be divided into two or more plants depending on the size. Large plants should be sliced and divided with a sharp spade. As long as there's an eye (crown) when you divide, it will grow. Use a sharp knife to divide smaller plants.

Growing Conditions: While most hostas prefer full to partial shade, many will also tolerate sun. Keep in mind that light conditions may have an influence the leaf color (cause them to fade). Light or dappled shade works well for most varieties.

Climate: Hostas need a dormancy period of somewhat colder weather. They grow best throughout the Mid-Atlantic, East Coast, Midwest, Northwest, and the Southeastern parts of the United States. Most hostas will not survive in tropical or subtropical climates.

Discouraging Slugs: Place shallow dishes of beer around your garden in areas that slugs tend to frequent. Slugs are attracted to the beer but they cannot get out again and drown. An alternative is to sprinkle crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth around the base of plants. Slugs won't cross sharp barriers that risk injury to their skin.

Winter care: If slugs have been a problem, trim the dead foliage back in the fall. If not, leave the foliage undisturbed going into winter. While the ground is still frozen, rake off all of last season's decayed leaves. In harsh winter climates the freeze/thaw cycle may cause hostas to heave, so cover plants with a couple of inches of compost (or peat moss) to protect them going into winter. In early spring before the leaves start to emerge, gently rake off the compost.

Ellen Brown is our Green Living and Gardening Expert. Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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