Finding a cool spot in a garden during July and August can be challenging. Any sliver of shade provides a welcoming oasis during these sweltering months. Hostas, in my opinion, are the stars of the summer shade gardens in the Midlands. If a hosta is planted in the right spot, with the right amount of water and the perfect combination of morning sun and afternoon shade, it should look fresh and cool all summer long. Columbia’s high canopy tree-coverage creates ideal homes for these perennials.
Hostas are included in a genus of plants commonly known as hosta or plantain lily. Hostas are mainly cultivated for their lush and varied foliage, but many varieties have the added beauty of large, bell-shaped, fragrant flowers. Like many of the beloved ornamental plants that we so often include in our Southern gardens, hostas are native to Northeast Asia: China, Japan, and Korea. Hostas are herbaceous perennials that grow from rhizomes. Because they grow from rhizomes, they are very easy to divide, making it particularly convenient to add more plants to different areas of the garden. Some varieties are small and short, and some varieties can grow up to 5 to 6 feet wide with strong, thick leaves.
There are also a huge number of variegated varieties with different color combinations. They add texture and color and have the added benefit of flowers, some of which are delightfully fragrant. Hostas are mainly grown for their foliage, which can be quite dramatic. The leaves can be heart-shaped, lance-shaped, oval, or round. The leaf texture ranges from smooth and soft to ribbed and strong. Some leaves are even puckered. Some are glossy, and others are dull. The leaves come in a huge variety of colors ranging from light green, to chartreuse, to dark green, to even blue!
My favorites are the variegated varieties. I particularly gravitate towards the ones with pure white and green variegation. These are extremely effective in the evening garden, especially when accented by outdoor, low-voltage lighting. Cut hosta leaves last and add interesting texture and color in flower arrangements. Hosta leaves have also become very popular to use in wedding bouquets and boutonnieres.
We are so fortunate in Columbia to have such an abundance of high canopy trees, such as pines and oaks. It can be difficult (or practically impossible) to grow grass under the shade of these trees. One beautiful solution to this problem area is to design and plant a hosta garden that will act as a living skirt under the large shade tree. This type of high shade is exactly the kind of environment where hostas thrive.
If you amend the soil and provide adequate and consistent irrigation, they will mature and add beauty to that problem area. They can be used as a specimen, in large homogeneous groups, or as a ground cover. I have even selected them as a filler for a shady container planting. The hosta garden can be designed using only one variety of hosta or can be designed like a perennial garden using many different varieties for added interest and texture.
The only unfortunate side note about hostas is that they are greatly loved by rabbits, deer, voles, slugs, and snails. My theory is to plant so many of them that the devoured leaves from these hungry pests will not be noticed. While there are liquid and pelleted repellents available to keep deer and insects away, I have always been leery of using them around pets. Milorganite, which is a great fertilizer for grass and evergreen plants, may help discourage deer and rabbits at least for a little while.
Hostas are herbaceous perennials, so they are completely dormant in the winter. Evergreen ferns, such as autumn fern or holly fern, provide a perfect companion because they hide the hostas’ dormant leaves in the late fall and winter. I am always excited when I see the first torpedo-like eruption of hostas coming out of the soil in the spring. The leaves seem to unfurl before your eyes during the first really warm days.
Hostas truly are a versatile plant that, in my opinion, should be included in every garden. There are literally so many varieties of hostas that they could fill a small encyclopedia! Narrowing down the huge number of fabulous hostas to a manageable list is a difficult task, but the following varieties are the most readily available in our garden centers and nurseries and are also those with which I have had the most success and pleasure in planting and growing:
Albomarginata — This is a wonderful variegated hosta with light yellow and green variegation. It blooms later in the season and can grow 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. This variety is effective when used in a large group planted in front of a swath of evergreens, such as holly or pittosporum.
Blue Angel — This is a large, heavily veined variety with blue-green leaves that can grow to be 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It is a perfect choice to use as a specimen planting or to grow in a container such as a half-whiskey barrel for an informal setting or an urn in a more formal setting.
Francee — This old standby is hard to beat. Francee grows up to 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The heart-shaped leaves are bordered with a striking white edge. Large lavender blooms arrive in late summer to add another dimension, color, and fragrance to the shade garden.
Frances Williams — Frances Williams is another tried and true variety that can be found in most garden centers. It grows to 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide and has round, puckered leaves. The leaves are strong with an uneven, irregular yellow border edge. Frances Williams blooms in early summer and fills the garden with pale, lavender flowers.
Gold Standard — Gold Standard is wider than it is tall. It grows to 2 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. It also has heart-shaped leaves that are a bright golden color edged with a darker green margin. It is more sun tolerant than the hostas listed above.
Guacamole — Who doesn’t love guacamole? This hosta is just as popular as the appetizer! Guacamole grows to 1 foot tall and 4 feet wide. It is a great choice to use on a slope or incline or around a garden that includes boulders. It has pure white flowers that bloom mid-season and bathe the garden with a soft fragrance.
Patriot — This is one of my favorites, and I include it in most of the shade gardens I design. It is a tough variety that grows 15 inches tall and 3 feet wide. It is beautiful if planted in a large grouping under a small tree. If lighted properly at night, it can be a dramatic focal point in an evening garden.
Royal Standard — This variety lives up to its name. This is also a strong variety that is extremely easy to grow and very dramatic in the garden. It grows to 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It has glossy, light-green leaves and fragrant white flowers that bloom mid-season and are long lasting.
Sum and Substance — This is my favorite hosta. A hosta with presence, it is a requirement in any shade garden that I design. Sum and Substance can grow to 3 feet high and 5 feet wide. It is slug resistant with leaves that can grow up to 20 inches long. It has large lavender flowers that are a beautiful companion to the chartreuse leaves. I cannot say enough good things about this variety. And, to make it even better, it is sun tolerant. If you are going to grow only one hosta, let this one be it! They are beautiful planted as a single specimen, in a container, or in a large group under a tree.
Plantaginea — These are the most fragrant hosta varieties. This variety has simple, bright green leaves that grow to 10 inches long with long, oval leaves. They grow from 2 to 3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. Unfortunately, this variety seems to be like caviar to slugs, so it can be susceptible to pest damage. I like to plant it among other larger hostas mainly for the fragrant flowers that appear in mid summer. They are heat tolerant, and the fragrance becomes more intense during the warmest part of the day. I grow these less for foliage and mainly for fragrance.
Hostas are a great plant for the beginning gardener to try. They really are easy to grow and so rewarding. Make sure the soil is fluffy and loamy, then add plenty of organic matter such as ERTH Food® or mushroom compost. Work the compost into the soil and plant the hosta no deeper than it is growing in the nursery container. Water it in and monitor closely to make sure it never completely dries out. You will be so proud when it doubles in size and shoots off little babies that you can transplant to other shady areas of the garden. Give it a try. You will be so glad that you did!
Garden Chores for the July and August Gardener
Go ahead and brave the heat and spend some quality time in the garden!
• Plant another crop of zinnias. Scratch the soil in a sunny spot with a rake. Sow the seeds and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Water and watch for the seeds to sprout in eight to 10 days. In about five weeks you should have a fresh crop of zinnias to harvest for flower arrangements.
• Plant a second crop of tomatoes and squash to have fresh vegetables well into the fall.
• Prune day lilies after they bloom. Cut off the seed pods so they don’t waste energy-producing seed.
• Deadhead annuals and perennials to keep the garden looking tidy.
• Cut back herbs if they “bolt.” New, fresh leaves will appear in a matter of days.
• Prune summer flowering shrubs after they bloom to maintain the desired shape and to keep the garden neat and tidy.
• Fertilize annuals with a weak dose of liquid fertilizer. I like to do this in the morning before the sun beats down on the plants.
• Fertilize your lawn with Milorganite®. Water in immediately.
• Weed as needed; water as needed.
• Monitor irrigation systems to find any breaks. Repair immediately so you don’t lose any shrubbery or grass.
• Edge the garden beds so grass doesn’t take over.
• Keep your fig vine pruned. It grows fast this time of year.
• Add a light layer of hardwood mulch, soil conditioner, or pine straw to help maintain moisture in the garden beds.
Salvia, cleome, cosmos, dahlia, day lily, hosta, impatiens, lantana, marigold, moon vine, petunia, phlox, plumbago, portulaca, rudbeckia, stokesia, sunflower, vinca, yarrow and zinnia, Buddleia (butterfly bush), crape myrtle, and oleander.