Hosta varieties thrive in some places where many plants don't

By DEAN FOSDICK For AP Weekly Features Published:

WASECA, Minn. (AP) Gordy Oslund is a botanical version of Mr. Goodwrench. He raises plants that do well in problem growing areas, particularly areas that are sun-deprived. Most of the perennials in his figurative tool kit are hosta, although he also sells several varieties of yucca, carex, brunnera and dicentra from his Shady Oaks Nursery in this south- central Minnesota community.

The business got its start because his father, Clayton, an author, nurseryman and former professor of plant biology, lived in a Waseca home shaded by oak trees. Too well shaded.

He had difficulty getting flowers to bloom there without steady sunlight so he started collecting different shade-tolerant plants from around the nation, Gordy Oslund said. He began specializing in shade loving plants. That evolved into ferns and hostas.

It also evolved into a sizable retail, catalog and wholesale operation selling specialty plants to gardeners and nurseries nationwide.

Hosta is a diverse plant, varying a great deal in size, color, shape and texture. Varieties range from ankle-high miniatures to flowering stalks more than 3 feet tall and 5 feet across. Plants can come with variegated foliage or in a flashy florescent. Some emerge with leaves that curl or fold. A few are fragrant. Most are fast growing.

Despite their shady reputations, many do well under a full sun. Hosta is a hardy plant, attractive in containers or when massed beneath needle-dropping conifers. They also show well in woodland and water gardens, providing depth and interest when growing against rocks, bordering streams or crowded around a split rail fence.

Hostas also can thrive along driveways where theyll shrug off salt, Oslund said. They can handle more water than people think, too.

Hosta varieties welcome spring or fall dividing, making them a good choice for gardeners seeking to build on their investment. Theyre tolerant of acid or alkaline locations although they perform best in good old-fashioned garden dirt.

Theyll likely need a little care in their first season but they can stand some neglect, Oslund said. Once established, they require little attention. Just see that they get water when they need it and some slow release fertilizer.

Hosta cultivars are more popular for their foliage than their flowers although a few are purchased for their multiple rows of blooms.

Some people like the flowers. Others just cut them off, Oslund said. It doesnt harm the plant.

Hostas are like having shrubs in your garden, said Bob Solberg, an owner of Green Hill Farm, Inc., in Chapel Hill, N.C. They take up a lot of space.

First-time hosta buyers often are people who have spots in their lawns where grass wont grow, he said. Hostas fill those right away, Solberg said. And then, once these people get a few hosta plants, they tend to get more. They start to collect them.

That isnt to say hosta collectors are just collectors of hostas, he said. Hosta fanciers tend to mix them with other shade tolerant plants like Virginia bluebells, anemone, ferns and woodland primrose. Plus, as you get older, hostas dont require all that much work. Thats a good combination: attractive and low maintenance.

A great many hosta will weather a full sun, making them choice border plants. If you live north of Interstate 80, which runs generally East-West along a line from Metro New York to San Francisco, you can safely plant hosta in direct sunlight, Solberg said.

Down South, though, like around here (North Carolina), you have to keep them in the shade, he said. You have to keep them cool.

Hostas dont make good houseplants, Solberg said. You can bring them in for a month or so. But they need high humidity. They also need to go dormant. You could put them in a refrigerator for a while but they do much better when left outside in the garden.

Hostas rank among the nations top-selling herbaceous perennials but that doesnt mean they come cheap, Solberg said.

They range anywhere from $4 to $400, he said. A lot are reasonably priced in the $15 or $20 range. New introductions routinely sell for $50 to $100 each.

Hosta grow on you for any number of reasons -- surviving problem growing areas, eye appeal, disease resistance and ease of maintenance, among others. It isnt uncommon to see 600 to 1,000 different hosta varieties while strolling through a collectors garden, Solberg said.

Hostas are about color, he said. Thats what catches your eye. They give good, solid perennial color through the entire summer. People collect all sizes, shapes and colors. Put them anywhere in a bed and they look good. Thats the magic of hosta.

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