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So many shady garden spots are home to hosta plants! Hosta is an herbaceous perennial plant, meaning that the leaves die back to the ground in the winter. But when should hostas be cut back?
Hostas should be cut back in late fall. Healthy hosta leaves can be left on the plant in early fall to capture much-needed energy, but all leaves should be trimmed off after the first frost to deter slugs and other pests from making your hosta their winter home. You can also just cut off leaves if they look old and tired! Use a clean, sharp pair of pruners and try to have the leaves removed before snowfall. Here’s a video showing how to cut hostas back.
There are a few factors to consider when scheduling fall hosta pruning. Here’s what I’ve found with my hostas.
Cut back hosta plants each year in late fall. In years with an early first frost, the leaves go brown quickly and die back to the ground in October. Hosta leaves don’t survive frost well. When the first frost arrives quickly, all the spent plant material above the ground can be removed at once.
In years with a late start to winter, I sometimes remove hosta leaves while they’re still upright and green. By October, my hosta leaves have generally been attacked by the odd pest and had become damaged. I thought it was just my hostas for a few years, but now I’ve noticed that hostas (and some other popular shade-tolerant plants) in many different gardens seem to be a treat for pests! Once the frost has hit them, it’s time to think about winterizing them.
I like to remove any dead, damaged, or diseased foliage as soon as possible, and hostas are no exception. Pest-damaged or diseased leaves should be removed and discarded as soon as possible. Hosta leaves can also be damaged by harsh weather like wind or hail. The plant can channel its energy into the healthy parts of the plant once the damaged leaves are gone.
Pruning off dead, damaged, or diseased foliage can happen any time of year. While it’s nice to leave some foliage over winter for beneficial insect habitat, I’ve found hostas are not the right candidate for overwintering. The wet foliage is simply too attractive as a shelter for common garden pests.
Hosta plants are particularly susceptible to damage from slugs and snails, which love their big shady leaves. I think hostas must be a delicacy for slugs! Removing any less-than-healthy foliage makes the hosta plants less attractive to slugs (and more attractive to look at in your garden).
Hosta leaves turn yellow in the fall and fade to brown as the plants enter winter dormancy. The roots of the plant are still healthy and happy below ground, but the hosta won’t have any leaves until next spring.
Dead leaves are pest-friendly, so you’ll do well to start pruning hosta plants as the foliage fades. Trim back all the leaves and foliage at ground level, then back it up and dispose of it. That helps things look neat in the garden and keeps bugs from overwintering snugly in the dead leaves.
Different-sized hostas have different-sized leaves. There are tiny groundcover-type hostas and giant tropical-looking ones. Here are some mini hosta varieties and here are some giant hosta varieties to try in your garden.
So how do you trim hostas for winter? Gather the leaves up together with a gloved hand so that the leaf stems are visible. Cut each hosta leaf off at the bottom of the stem using a pair of pruning shears. It’s often easier to remove hosta leaves that have already been killed by frost. Leaves that are still standing take slightly more work to snip off.
Cutting back hostas is easiest with a pair of handheld pruning shears. I like to leave a few inches of stem on the plant above the soil when trimming off hosta leaves. The garden looks neat and tidy, AND I know where my plants are!
Other than pest habitat issues, the other reasons to prune hostas back to the ground before winter are mainly aesthetic. Dead hosta leaves aren’t the most attractive way to add winter interest in your garden. They get flattened on the ground and remain wilted for the entire winter. I’d prefer to leave pretty seed heads from other perennials up over the winter.
Winter is an important time for hostas, as they are dormant in this season. The cold temperatures let the hostas rest and prepare to grow fantastic foliage during the spring growing season.
If you do choose to leave the hosta leaves on the plant over winter, it’s totally fine just to remove the spent foliage in early spring. Try to trim off the dead leaves before the new shoots appear to minimize damage to the baby hosta leaves. By this point, you can usually just gently pull each hosta leaf off the root base instead of using pruners to remove them.
What about the flowers? When should the blooms be removed from the hostas? Remove the flower stalks as soon as they appear if the hosta is only about pretty foliage. If you would like to enjoy the flowers, it’s also totally fine to let them bloom and fade on the plant. Flower stalks will die back to the ground in the fall with the foliage.
So when are wilted flowers removed from hosta plants? Spent flower blooms can be removed in the fall, along with other faded foliage. You may wish to leave the seed head on the plant for a while as a food source for birds. It’s not strictly necessary to rush and trim them off as soon as they wilt. Let them do their thing!
Do remember that any energy the plant is putting into growing flowers (and then seed heads), is energy that’s not going into the foliage and roots. I usually remove new flower shoots on new hosta plants to encourage healthy root establishment.
Hostas usually only put on one round of blooms, so flower removal only has to be done once a year. Like with pruning hosta leaves, remove the flower stems near the base. Pruning the stem low keeps the visual focus on the foliage.
Fall hosta care is mainly about preventing cozy conditions for unwanted garden pests. Use clean tools to minimize opportunities for germs to spread. Remove dead or damaged foliage that could provide winter shelter for critters. Seed heads can be left for the birds, or removed along with the foliage.
Hostas need a good cool winter of dormancy to thrive during the summer months. They do better in the ground during the winter than in container gardens. The ground temperature isn’t susceptible to the same extreme swings that container plants may experience. Like many plants, hostas don’t appreciate repeated freezing and thawing cycles.
If your hostas are already in the ground, keep them there. Any container-planted hostas can be planted out in the ground in early fall or otherwise protected from the temperature extremes of winter.
A layer of shredded leaf mulch will provide a bit of cold-weather insulation if it’s really required. Any mulch touching (or nearly touching) the base of the hosta should be removed in early spring to avoid creating the same “wet blanket” mess that the broad hosta leaves would have left.
Both hosta leaves and shredded fall leaves can be added to your compost pile, as long as they’re not diseased. Here’s how to compost leaves at the end of the season (hint….there’s coffee involved!).
Further Reading: How to Winterize Perennials – A Complete Guide