Two weekends ago, I went on a Garden Conservancy Open Days visit to a garden in the heart of the city of Poughkeepsie. It was tucked behind (and around) a house in a nice, but unassuming neighborhood. I’m so used to Open Days taking me down dirt roads to properties where parking is an act of courage. This garden was in an unexpected site for such a meticulously cared for idyll. This was not the weekend home of someone trying to impress. This was a man with a life, who simple loved to garden.
Winding about the property are beds layered in a mix of shade plants, but predominantly Hosta. There were several years where I could not abide the sight of another Hosta. The idea that moving the variegation from the center to the sides, or making the leaves longer and more pointed, was a plant breeding quantum leap eluded me. Why would I pay $30 or more for yet another Hosta?
I’ve come to appreciate them more as I visit the sunlight challenged gardens of folks who don’t look at them as collectors items, but as textures and splotches of color used to cross stitch a garden in shade. Although I am a sun worshiper, I actually find myself envying shade gardeners. While there are myriad shade plants available these days, the best shade gardens seem to use a minimal palette and rely on sweeping repetition – to great effect. It is at once both basic and grand.
Even the sunnier area of the property showcased Hosta’s charm. Hosta ‘Sun Power’ was an extraordinary sight in the clearing by the house. It’s gold color is strongest when grown in at least partial sun. I’ve seen them listed as growing 2 ft. tall x 4 ft. wide, but this one seemed easily 3 ft. in height. It’s was like a beacon, guiding us back up to the house.
So I have to give Hosta its due and thank this particular gardener for showing me how cooling and classic it can be. This is why I love Open Days. It clears my mind of plant bias and renews my desire to experiment in my own garden. My favorite gardens to visit are the ones where you can really see the hand print of the gardener, rather than their pocketbook – and this was one.
I still don’t care what cultivar name a Hosta goes by and I still think regular old ‘Variegata’ is far prettier than some of the highfalutin new comers, but I wouldn’t mind a larger area of shade, to create my own cool paradise.
Some of the Best Hosta (in my judgmental opinion)
❦ ‘Elegans’ – You can’t beat its puckered, blue leaves that can measure 12 in. across. Height: 30 in. Spread: 3 – 4 ft.
❦ ‘Guardian Angel’ – Creamy white centers with puckered blue edges. Height: 2 ft. Spread: 3 – 4 ft.
❦ Hosta plantaginea – Known as the fragrant hosta, this one is actually grown for its trumpet shaped white flowers that give off a surprisingly strong honey scent. Height: 30 in. Spread: 2 ft.
❦ ‘Orange Marmalade’ – There’s a hint of tangerine in the yellow centers of the spring leaves. Unfortunately they fade as the season goes on, but still… Height: 20 in. Spread: 3 ft.
❦ ‘Sum and Substance’ – A winner when introduced and still a stunner. The puckered leaves need several hours of sun to be truly gold. Height: 3 ft. Spread: 5 – 6 ft.
Note: It helps to see Hostas in their mature glory. When they are in small pots, you need a lot of imagination to get a good picture of what they will look like in 5 years. You don’t have to buy a large plant, but keep your eye out for mature plants that appeal to you and get their names, for reference.
Hosta Growing Tips
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 – 9
Light Exposure: Most prefer partial shade, although the yellow and variegated varieties can handle 4 – 5 hours of sun. Blue-leaved hostas have a waxy coating and are the first to burn in direct sunlight.
Soil: Rich, but well-raining
Propagation: By division, in spring or fall.
A Few More Shade Plants I Covet
❦ Astilbe – Astilbe plants don’t actually need to be grown in shade, but they do great there. Since they don’t need deadheading, they make another low maintenance excuse to shade garden.
❦ Black Snakeroot or Black Cohash (Cimicifuga, now classified as Actaea racemosa, but who listens to botanists?) – This is a plant I have never successfully grown. It needs moist soil, which I do not have. If you can make it happy, it is an imposing site, growing 6 – 8 ft. tall, with long spikes of white flowers that stay in bloom for 6 weeks at a time. <sigh>
❦ Ferns – Any ferns. I especially like Maiden Hair (Adiantum), with their pinwheel fronds, and any Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum), the ghostlier the better.
❦ Lungwort (Polmonaria) – Can their be too many frothy blue flowers in spring? Many varieties are splotched and speckled with white and silver and remain good looking long after flowering. Some have rather plain green leaves (although with spectacular blue flowers) and you have to watch that you don’t weed them out after flowering. At least I do.
❦ Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera) – I have a soft spot for the sprays of purple-blue flowers that float above the leaves in early spring. The foliage may need some grooming after flowering, but the heart-shaped leaves fill back in and remain attractive all season.
❦ Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) – Once again, the variegated form brings light to shade, but the arching stems of all varieties are enough to make them welcome additions.