Hostas

Hostas

The hosta, commonly called plantain lily, has become established as a garden favourite. They are best known for their sumptuous, sculptural leaves ranging in colour from the cool silver blues to the vibrant yellows and greens. They can be a single colour, such as H. sieboldiana 'Elegans' with its plainly elegant, almost blue leaves. Or brightly patterned like H. fortunei var 'Albopicta' with striking pale yellow leaves edged and splashed with greens. Hostas also vary in leaf shape; anything from the pointed, lance-like 'Ginko Craig' through to the softy curving heart-shapes of 'Sum & Substance'. These fabulous leaves provide interest from when they first unfurl in early spring right through to the winter frosts when many take on attractive hues as they die back. Tall, arching stems of trumpet-shaped flowers, coloured from white through pale lilacs and mauves, are produced in mid-summer, although they never quite outshine the boldness of the leaves. Add to all this the fact that there is nothing better for a damp, shady spot and hostas cannot fail to win over even the most hard-hearted critics.

Variety guide

As well as being gorgeous, hostas are incredibly versatile. They range in size from impressive clumps that reach 1m tall, to plants that grow to less than 20cm and can be grown at the front of a border, in pots or as groundcover.

In a border

'Gold Standard' is a stunner growing up to 1x1m with heart-shaped yellowish-green leaves fading to cream with a bright, narrow edging of white. 'Sum & Substance' has plain, soft green leaves which are huge and being slightly shiny are said to be the most slug and snail resistant of all hostas. Plant these with Zantedeschia which produces whorls of pure white flowers to accentuate the curls and curves of the hosta leaves. If it is contrast you're after then the sharp blade-like leaves of the flag Iris pseudacorus are perfect - and they will thrive in the same moist conditions adored by hostas. Perhaps the most beautiful blue border hosta is 'Big Daddy'. Growing to 60cm it is ideal for siting at the front or beside a pond where, being fairly low-growing, it doesn't obstruct the eye. Lady's mantle, Alchemilla mollis, is a lovely partner in these positions, softening the scheme with its soft-green leaves and gentle shape.

As groundcover

'Big Daddy' is also ideal as a groundcover plant because it is not only low-growing but tends to spread forming a clump some 1m wide. Use it in those damp inhospitable places to create an undulating underplanting to more structural plants above. For example, the large fingered leaves of Fatsia japonica makes an ideal partner where the green of the Fatsia is set off against a blue-leaved hosta. 'Patriot' is another vigorous, lower growing hosta which reaches 55cm high and can spread to almost twice this. The unusual and long, olive green leaves are slightly puckered with irregular white margins and grey-green splashes. Another popular variety is H. fortunei 'Aureomarginata' which grows to 55x80cm and has perfectly heart-shaped leaves with deep, distinctive veins and an almost leathery quality. As the name suggests, the green leaves are marked with a golden yellow. This is a very tough, free-flowering variety.

In containers

A hosta in a pot can look superb. There are several smaller growing hostas which are perfectly suited to be containerised. If you have a huge container, a larger hosta can look very dramatic. However, in general, the smaller ones are more manageable. ‘Blue Wedgewood' has beautiful grey-blue leaves with pale, lavender-blue flowers. It looks wonderful against terracotta, stone or the steely galvanized pots now quite popular. It grows 25x55cm and can be squeezed to have a spot in even the smallest patio garden. By contrast, 'Gold Edger' has bright lime-green leaves. Again it is a neat compact hosta reaching 30x45cm ideal for a container in a dark corner where it will brighten the scene with its vibrant colour. To help keep the soil in the pots moist enough for a hosta, water retaining granules can be added - these look like crystals but swell up and turn to jelly when full of water. Also use a heavier compost like John Innes No3 which tends to hold water much better than many others.

Growing guide

Hostas originate from Japan, China and Korea, although there are now over 1500 registered varieties grown worldwide. As a general rule, they like moist soil and light to full shade, although the yellow leaved varieties will colour better with a little more sun. They cannot stand dry conditions and should be mulched well in the spring to maintain good levels of moisture in the soil. The larger hostas can grow well in a heavy clay soil although they will take a while to establish. The smaller varieties will need a more free-draining soil. When planting, it is best to dig in some well-rotted garden compost or manure which will help the hostas establish quickly. They also need some protection from cold, drying winds which can split and scorch the leaves. There are few more heatbreaking sights in the garden, than perfect hosta foliage ruined.

Propagation

Hostas can be easily grown from seed, although they do not come true - so you never know quite what you'll be getting! Sow the seeds in a coldframe in spring. The best way to produce more plants is to divide hosta clumps in late summer or early spring.

Pest alert

The main problem pests are slugs and snails which can demolish the fabulously juicy leaves. This can kill a young plant if the new shoots are eaten as they emerge in spring. A cut-down plastic bottle can be placed over the emerging shoots for the first few weeks when they are most vulnerable. Also, a collar of sharp grit or crushed eggshells is said to be quite effective because slugs and snails don't like crawling over the sharpness. If you have a hosta growing in a pot you can smear the rim with Vaseline and salt – which is quite clever and thoroughly mean!

Plants in pots are also vulnerable to vine weevil. There is a nematode biological control that can be watered into the soil to control the grubs. The nematodes work in an effective but gruesome way, laying eggs in the grubs and as the grubs hatch the newborn nematodes eat the grub for food. Nature is a cruel place.

Crocus Tip

Make the most of hostas in flower arrangements indoors. Cut flower-spikes when the bottom two or three buds have started to open. To get long-lasting cut flowers, split the bottom of the stem while submerging all but the flowering portion in cold water and leave them standing in the water overnight. The leaves can be dried by hanging in a dry, dark place until they develop autumn tints, and even the seedpods are attractive when dried.