Growing Hostas

Growing Hostas


It's amazing to me how many people ask for planting instructions.  All planting instructions I have ever seen say essentially the same thing:

1. Dig a hole (you should have known that).
2. Point the green part up (ditto).
3. Cover the stringy part with dirt (ditto again).
4. Keep it watered (the part some people tend to forget).

There really isn't much to it.  Just put the plants in the ground and give them some common sense care and your hostas will grow.  It couldn't be easier.



Well, maybe that's oversimplifying it a bit.  For those who need details, here is a bit of advice on hosta culture. 

Where Hostas Grow and Where They Don't

If it gets fairly cold where you live, like below 40 degrees at night, and it does it regularly for a month or more in the winter, then you can probably grow hostas.  There is a bit more to it than that, but in general, if you live in cold winter areas you can grow them, if you live where people retire to get away from cold winters, you may have a problem. 

What Kind of Fertilizer Do You Use

If you have a beautiful garden you may find that this is your most Frequently Asked Question.  "Wow, what a beautiful garden.  What kind of fertilizer do you use?"  It's like you don't really have to know anything or work at it, you just have to find someone who will clue you in about the secret fertilizer. 

Fertilizer gets a lot more credit than it deserves. I hear about all kinds of secret stuff you can throw around your hostas and guarantee a beautiful garden - green sand, sea weed, alfalfa pellets, fish emulsion (ugh), so on and so on. 

Unless carried to excess, I doubt that any of this stuff can do any harm, and it will probably do some good, so if it makes you feel better, go ahead. But it is not the secret of growing beautiful hostas.  The secret of growing beautiful hostas is - hold on now - water. 

Ok, so it's not much of a secret.  

Life is Complicated

Obviously, there is more to it than that, hostas are living things and you can't simply go out and dump a bucket of water on them every day and wait for people to ask you what kind of fertilizer you use.  The great thing about hostas is that they are very adaptable and can do just fine in most gardens  without any special care.  But if you really want to grow beautiful hostas you have to give them that little extra push, you should  provide them with good garden soil, plenty of water, and yes, even a bit of fertilizer.

More information can be found in The Bridgewood Gardens Hosta Book. If you don't feel like getting into it that deep, the basic thrust is water, water, water until it's time for them to go dormant, and fertilize a bit in the spring and early summer.

Preparing the Soil

Compost, compost, compost.  No matter what kind of soil you start with, adding compost is going to improve it.  And the better soil you have, the bigger your hostas will grow and the better they will look.  Compost makes organic soil, and organic soil holds water well, and as we have said once or twice before, water is the key to growing hostas. 

When we were in Annapolis, where we had our nursery for about 15 years, we had the world's biggest compost pile.  Fifteen years worth of dead and discarded plants makes a lot of compost.  And occasionally, plants that we thought were dead were really just  tired.  Every year I would drag someone over to the compost pile, point at a plant that had recovered and ask, "Did you know that thing got that big?"  We grew our best plants in the compost pile.

I'm perfectly aware that most people are going to get their plants, go out in the yard and dig a hole, plunk the plant in it and forget it.  And the great thing about hostas is that they will probably have beautiful, healthy plants year after year.  But if you want the biggest and most beautiful hostas, then compost, compost, compost.  Oh, and water, water, water.

If you need more information just Google "Organic garden soil".  Last time I looked, 1,150,000 pages came up, so you should be able to find something.

Where to Plant Hostas

Unless you prepare your soil with plenty of compost (and you know you're not really going to do that), if your soil doesn't have excellent drainage it may help to plant in raised beds or mound the plants up a bit.  Whatever you do, don't plant in a low area where water sits or the soil stays soggy in the winter.  Hosta roots do not seem to be bothered by staying wet, but the crowns will rot if the water doesn't drain away from them in the winter and early spring.

Ideally, hostas should be planted in an area with bright light, but little or no direct sun during the middle of the day. Dappled sun through high trees is usually considered perfect.  Blue varieties will keep their color longer if grown in open shade, with no direct sun. Green varieties can take more light, morning or dappled sun. Gold varieties and those with fragrant flowers (plantaginea, ‘Royal Standard’, ‘Summer Fragrance’ and several others) will often tolerate quite a bit more sun if adequate moisture is provided.

Hostas are frequently described as "shade loving" or "shade tolerant" and this may be the most misunderstood part of growing them.  I don't know how many times people have told me that they have a shady spot where nothing will grow, so they want to plant hostas there.  Well, unfortunately, hostas probably won't grow there either.  They will survive a while, because they build up a food supply in their rhizomes that may carry them through for a year, maybe more, but if they don't get a reasonable amount of light, they can't replenish the food and will slowly die out.

My rule of thumb is that if a plant doesn't produce flowers, it probably needs to be moved to a brighter location.  Flowering takes a bit of energy and if the plant can't produce flowers, it probably isn't getting enough light.  The tricky part is that the plant will probably flower the first year regardless of the light level, because the flower is actually formed in the bud the prior year. And of course, since life is complicated, there are other things that can also prevent flowering.  That's why it's a rule of thumb rather than a basic axiom of life.

In the other direction, too much sun will usually burn the plants, resulting in dry, brown, dead tissue on the leaves, especially on the edges.  Too much sun will also cause the colors to bleach out.  The more sun your plants receive, the more important it is to make sure they never dry out during the growing season.

Hostas are extremely hardy and do not generally need winter protection. In our area, where winters are not too severe, a winter mulch may do more harm than good because it may give cover to voles, one of the few pests that can do serious damage.