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A beginner’s guide to hostas
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Hosta plants are some of the most popular low-maintenance plants. These shade-tolerant plants are well-known for being easy to grow. They’re a great way to bring a pop of color to a shady spot in your yard.
Hostas are shade-tolerant ornamental landscaping plants grown for their attractive foliage. The botanical genus Hosta is native to northeast Asia (especially Japan). Most species are clump-forming herbaceous perennials that grow fresh leaves each spring from their long-lived roots. There are now thousands of different hosta varieties available, from miniature plants to shrub-like giants. Other varieties have been bred for fantastic flowers, variegated foliage, and tolerance to different sunlight levels.
Check out this guide for everything you need to know about growing and caring for hostas.
An introduction to hostas
The genus Hosta is a group of flowering herbaceous perennials in the asparagus plant family Asparagaceae. Most hostas grow from a clump-forming central fibrous crown with white fleshy roots. The stalks of the leaves grow right from the base of the plant, giving most varieties a mounded leafy shape overall. Hostas also produce tall flower stalks with multiple flowers that are usually purple in color (but sometimes pale lavender or even white).
Hostas are perennial plants, meaning they live for many years and come back each spring. The aboveground portion of herbaceous perennials like hostas dies back to the ground in the winter in most climates. The roots undergo a dormant period of winter chilling before the plant grows back new leaves in the spring that sprout up from the roots.
Hosta plants can either be used for ground cover, or as individual feature plants throughout your garden and yard. While some hosta plants only grow to be around 1 foot tall and wide, there are certain hostas known as “giant hostas” which can grow up to 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide! When picking the specific hosta plant for your yard, check the size of the mature plant before planting.
Hosta care is quite simple in comparison to most landscaping plants. Most gardeners simply cut back the leaves in the fall after they’ve been killed by a hard frost and perhaps add some mulch to the garden area now and then. Enthusiasts tend to expend a bit more effort, routinely adding organic matter to the soil prior to planting and fertilizing the plant regularly. Most climates tend to receive less rainfall than their native climate, so most gardeners water their hostas regularly too.
Different types of hostas and popular varieties
The genus Hosta currently contains about 40-45 different species. Beyond the wild species plants, there are thousands of registered cultivars (garden varieties) discovered by gardeners or bred intentionally by ornamental horticulturalists. Many of the most popular named hosta cultivars are hybrids of naturally occurring wild species or even variegated sports of previously developed hybrid varieties.
Here are some of the most common species hostas to grow:
- Hosta plantaginea (Southern China)
- Hosta ventricosa (China, North Korea)
- Hosta sieboldiana (Honshu Island, Japan)
- Hosta longipes (Honshu Island, Japan)
- Hosta clausa (Korea)
- Hosta capitata (Shikoku Island, Japan, and South Korea)
- Hosta sieboldii (Japan)
- Hosta Montana (Japan)
Here are some of the most popular named hosta cultivars:
- Hosta ‘Empress Wu’ (hybrid developed from Hosta ‘Big John’)
- Hosta ‘Guacamole’ (sport of Hosta ‘Fragrant Bouquet’)
- Hosta ‘Patriot’ (sport of Hosta ‘Francee’)
- Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ (hybrid of Hosta montana heritage)
- Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’
- Hosta ‘June’ (sport of Hosta ‘Halcyon’)
- Hosta ‘August Moon’
- Hosta ‘Stained Glass’ (sport of Hosta ‘Guacamole’)
- Hosta ‘Fire and Ice’ (sport of Hosta ‘Patriot’)
- Hosta ‘Frances Williams’ (sport of Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’)
- Hosta ‘Big Daddy’ (sport of variegated form of Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’)
- Hosta ‘Halcyon’ (hybrid of Hosta ‘Tardiflora’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans Alba’)
- Hosta ‘Francee’ (sport of Hosta ‘Fortunei Albomarginata’)
- Hosta ‘Praying Hands’
- Hosta ‘First Frost’ (sport of Hosta ‘Halcyon’)
- Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ (sport of Hosta ‘Blue Cadet’)
- Hosta ‘Royal Standard’ (hybrid of Hosta plantaginea and Hosta sieboldii)
- Hosta ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’ (hybrid of Hosta ‘Tokudama’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’)
Sunlight levels for hostas
Most hostas are adapted to low light conditions and do best in shade. Originally, hostas naturally grew in the shaded loamy forests of Japan. Therefore, most common varieties do best in partial shade.
However, there are some hybrids that are adapted to either morning, afternoon, or even full-day sun. Take into account though, hostas still like moist, sheltered, and gentle environments as they originate from forest conditions.
Therefore, even if you have a hosta that’s been bred for sun exposure, make sure you don’t place it in a dry, exposed area where the sun bakes down all day—as it probably won’t like this level of exposure. Hostas in direct sunlight should also be watered quite a bit more often than those in partial or full shade.
Lastly, if you have a variegated hosta variety, these tend to do best in dappled shade, as the additional sunlight helps to bring out their colors. Hostas grown in full shade without any direct sunlight may not exhibit much contrasting color variegation in the leaves. As with most shade-tolerant plants, the morning sun is preferable to the afternoon sun in terms of direct sunlight exposure.
Soil conditions for thriving hostas
When caring for hostas (or any other type of plant) one of the most important things to educate yourself on is what kind of soil they prefer. Hostas typically do best in loose, loamy, rich soil, full of organic matter. They like their soil to be water retentive, but not too heavy or clay-filled. If you have sandy or clay soil, you will need to amend this with lots of compost and organic matter to get it to a loose consistency, but still one that holds water.
When it comes to pH, hostas like soils with a pH of about six (slightly acidic). However, while this is their ideal pH point, it is still worth planting hostas in soils that are slightly more acidic or alkaline, as they will most likely do fine.
Watering hosta plants in the garden
Another important component of caring for hosta plants is giving them the right amount of water. Hostas like a fair amount of water, and tend to do well with a deep weekly watering routine. In their natural environment, these plants tend to receive about an inch of rainfall each week.
In the garden, deep weekly waterings will encourage them to establish a strong and sturdy root structure. You may need to increase watering frequency during heat waves, dry spells, and when the hosta is newly-planted or recently divided/transplanted.
As a rule of thumb, you can try giving your hosta about an inch of water at a time, and scale this up or down depending on how they respond. Check the soil beside the plant to check that the water is seeping down at least 6″-8″ into the soil. Hostas tend to be more sensitive to underwatering than overwatering, so err on the side of more water rather than less (unless growing your hostas in very heavy clay soil).
Fertilizer for well-fed hosta plants
Hostas are relatively easy to fertilize. You can either choose to apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer (usually in the spring), or you can apply a generous amount of compost to them each year.
Many fertilizers work well for hosta plants, including slow-release balanced organic fertilizers. Most fertilizers are granular and are easy to sprinkle on the ground around the base of the plant. Be sure to follow the instructions on your chosen fertilizer product.
When planting hostas, you will want to begin planting them in either the early spring or fall. Hosta plants bloom in June, which makes them the perfect plant to help fill your yard for the summer thriving months of the year. During the winter, hosta plants will wither.
Withering is the plant’s way of conserving energy during the cold months to survive the winter. Even indoor hosta plants will experience a season of dormancy during the winter months, replicating what they would be like if planted outside. Luckily, hostas are perennial which means they will come back bigger and stronger every year. This is a great benefit for those who do not want to have to replant each spring.
Hostas aren’t the only plant to come back year after year. Here’s a handy guide on plant types that do the same, and would make beautiful additions to your garden!
How to plant hostas
If you wondering how to plant hostas into the ground, start by examining the roots. If the roots or bulbs are very dry, it’s recommended that you soak them for up to an hour before planting.
Then dig a shallow and wide hole. Hostas don’t have very deep roots. Their roots mostly spread outwards and grow closer to the soil surface.
Thanks to their outward spreading root structure, it’s important that you make the hole wide enough that you don’t have to bend any roots against the side of it when planting.
Once you have placed the hostas into the hole, gently fan out the roots and fill in the soil, making sure the base of the plant is at ground level.
Add a generous layer of compost, taking care not to pile it against the stem of the plant. Lastly, give your newly planted hosta a good watering.
If you would like a set-by-step cheat sheet for the process, check out my guide on how to plant hosta bulbs.
When to plant hostas
Hostas are best planted in early spring or early autumn. Keep newly-planted hostas well-watered, especially if they’re planted in the spring.
Hostas can be moved from one area to another. You may need to transplant your hostas if sunlight conditions change (for instance, if a large shade tree is removed), or simply as part of redesigning your landscape. Whatever the reason, hostas can easily be dug up and replanted in a new spot. Many gardeners also take the opportunity to divide hostas into a few separate pieces while transplanting them.
Hosta plants are commonly divided into smaller pieces. Dividing hostas is not usually done to control their size, but is more commonly used to create more separate plants. Propagation by division is quite easy and can be done by beginner gardeners. The best time to divide hostas is in early spring, but you can also divide them in late summer or the fall (or any time the ground is not frozen).
How to divide hostas
To divide a hosta, first, start by digging up the existing plant. Try to keep as much of this mother plant intact as possible by digging a wide ring around the base of the plant. Hosta roots tend to extend just beyond the diameter of the leaves when the plant is in full leaf. Mini hostas may only need a 1-foot wide hole, while established giant hosta varieties may have roots that span up to 6-feet wide!
Mulching hostas in the landscape
One of the best gardening tips for hostas is to keep them nicely mulched. Hostas like moist soils, and mulching helps to prevent soil evaporation. It also mimics the debris that is naturally found on forest floors, provides an ongoing source of nutrition and encourages the proliferation of beneficial soil microbes.
That said, when mulching hosta plants, make sure you aren’t packing the mulching up against the plant stems. If you do, this can trigger mold and other issues in the stems.
Growing hostas indoors
If you love having plants in your indoor spaces, then you’ll be happy to know what growing hostas is possible indoors. Now that you know how to care for hostas outdoors, let’s take a quick look at what it takes to make them happy as indoor plants.
Because hostas can tolerate low light conditions, this makes them relatively well suited for indoor living. What’s more, forest floors typically don’t get a lot of air movement, making hosta plants more likely to thrive indoors than species that are adapted to lots of air movement.
If you are wondering how to grow hostas indoors, the answer is very similar to growing hostas outdoors.
Just make sure you pick a spot with the right amount of light and select a pot that is wide enough for the roots of your hosta plants.
Caring for hostas indoors isn’t hard, so give it a try if you feel like seeing that lush foliage gracing your living space.
Growing hostas in pots
While commonly planted directly in the ground, hostas can also be grown in containers. Miniature hosta varieties are very popular for container planting, but even medium-large varieties can be planted in a large planter as long as they are watered and fertilized regularly.
Companion plants for hostas
Hostas are wonderful perennials for companion planting. There are quite a few trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers that pair nicely with Hostas in shady or partial shade areas of the garden.
Hostas are very commonly planted under trees. They work well under small-medium trees like Honey Locust, Japanese Maple, or Magnolia. If planting under a larger tree, be sure to choose one with deep roots like an Oak rather than a shallow-rooted tree like a Willow. You can also plant hostas under ornamental shrubs like Hydrangeas, Smoke Bush, Rhododendron, or Azalea. Depending on the variety of hosta, there may also be room for other perennials like Ferns or Columbines behind them.
You can also combine Hostas with other low-growing perennials that thrive in partial shade. This includes Sweet Woodruff, Pachysandra, Coral Bells, or Brunnera.
Common pests of hosta plants include slugs, snails, deer, squirrels, and other rodents.
While caring for hostas in your yard, you want to make sure that your plant does not get infected by Hosta Virus X. It is a virus that hostas get that, while not fatal to the plant, makes the plant look sickly and infected. The biggest danger of the Hosta Virus X is its ability to spread quickly to other hostas.
If one of your hosta plants has this infection, you should dig it up immediately and throw it out. Ensure that your tools are all properly cleaned to remove any possible chance of cross-contamination with the other plants. When purchasing hosta plants, you want to make sure none of the leaves on your plant or any surrounding plant have symptoms of Hosta Virus X.