Hostas shine in the shade

With More than 2,500 different hostas to choose from - sporting leaves that are ribbed, wavy, seersuckered, heart-shaped, undulating, bluish, gold, variegated - how do you select the best ones for the shady spots in your yard?

Match the plants to the amount of sunlight an area receives, recommends Mary Chastain, of Lakeside Acres in Ooltewah, Tenn., whose hostas won best of show and eight other top awards at the American Hosta Society convention last month.

Is your shady spot bathed by sunlight all morning (the ideal situation for hostas), for a few hours in afternoon (which is considered full sun), or only dappled by sun peeking through tree leaves?

Generally, the greener a hosta's leaves, the less sun it needs. The corollary is that the more yellow and white in the leaf, the more sun it can take. Hostas with heavy "substance" (a term that describes a leaf's thickness) can usually tolerate extra sun; blue hostas can't.

Browning along the edges and washed-out color are signs that hostas are receiving too much sun or too little water - or both.

When buying hostas, pass over a tiny plant - no matter how enticing its small price - in favor of a larger, more mature one. "Beginners often lose small plants," Mrs. Chastain explains. Besides, they take much longer to reach an attractive size in the garden.

Ask how large the plants will be when mature and space them accordingly. Otherwise, you'll have to move or divide them, which Chastain doesn't recommend when it can be avoided. "Every time you divide a hosta, you hurt it," she says.

Hostas like rich, loose soil, "the looser the better," says Chastain, who incorporates up to one-third sand, plus Nature's Helper (composted pine bark) and Pro Mix (a potting soil) into her clay soil before planting.

In good soil, hostas may never need to be fertilized. But should they need a boost, the plants respond well to soybean meal.

Ample moisture is the secret to hosta success. How often you need to water depends on soil type (more often in sandy soil, less in clay), how much sun the plants receive, and the amount of weekly rainfall.

To achieve optimum growth, Chastain gives her hostas one-half inch of water every three days (so the soil is wet to about 10 to 12 inches deep).

An organic mulch - pine needles and cocoa hulls are good choices - spread two to three inches thick over the soil will help conserve moisture, but be sure to keep the mulch away from the plant's crown. And avoid mulching with shredded leaves, which can attract slugs.

When gardeners notice that something has been munching on hosta leaves, they often assume the culprit is slugs. But Chastain says that the damage is more often caused by cutworms.

"They only come out after dark," she says. "Go out with a flashlight around 10 or 11 p.m., and you'll see them. They can eat half a big leaf in one night."

For years, hosta flowers have been dismissed as insignificant or even ugly. But now they're becoming one of the plants' most sought-after features as breeders have come up with new flower colors and forms, many of which are fragrant. And since different cultivars flower at varying times, the scapes can add an interesting dimension to your garden from late spring until fall.

Asked to name two hostas that would be foolproof for beginners, Chastain mentions Blue Angel, "which grows big and grows easily," and Minuteman, which has a deep cream border that many gardeners admire. Lakeside Symphony, which she hybridized, is also excellent.

George Schmid of Atlanta recommends Honeybells for novices.

These books from Timber Press provide more hosta information:

*"The Gardener's Guide to Growing Hostas," by Diana Grenfel ($29.95)

*"The Hosta Book," by Paul Aden ($19.95)

*"The Genus Hosta," by W. George Schmid ($59.95)

You can also learn more on the Internet:

*The American Hosta Society, www.hosta.org

*Lakeside Acres, www.garden

sights.com/lakeside

*The Hosta Network, www.hosta.net

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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