Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sizing A New Hosta Garden

 Sunday, January 11, 2015

The past three weeks have presented us with an interesting mix of weather. We would not have thought that almost two weeks of weather in the 40's and once even to 50° would have been our Christmas and post Christmas greeting. Rain and snow arrived and the wet snow clung to trees here on Peacham Pond Road for over two weeks. This morning as I write, the temperature has climbed from zero degrees to +9° but the gray sky convinces us that another storm will arrive soon.

I rely on the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St Johnsbury, Vermont for my weather forecast and they confirm 2"-5" of snow possible by tomorrow afternoon. Although the temperature will rise as it usually does with impending storms, we will not return to 40° for some time to come.

I used to be very good about getting out into the woods in the winter when gardening ended. The past three years, however,  have offered up lots of cold and wind after Thanksgiving and I have just not felt safe working where there is the possibility that trees will fall on me instead of the ground. My knees are not as strong as I wish and walking through snow of various depths has presented more of a challenge than I care for. We have a logger doing some work for us this winter and I make it a point to stay on the skid trails and wander off with care as we discuss different work. 

With safety in mind, I spend time planning new flower gardens and enhancing some that are already under way. This seems like good winter work and presents a different type of satisfaction.  This fall a customer asked if I would write something about planning a hosta garden after I suggested to her that "sizing" was the word I would probably choose.  Let me give it a try and you make the decision if it is helpful or not.

Hostas seem to be one of those "you love 'em or you don't" plants. When customers arrive at the flower farm and ask for suggestions, they are almost split 50-50 on their love affair. My opinion is that in Vermont there are few large hosta gardens to see and retail opportunities are slim so folks don't get an accurate idea on the gardening opportunities hosta offer. At Vermont Flower Farm we have always maintained a hosta display garden and we are finally finding the time to bring it to the level that it can be a place that generates ideas and confidence that hostas really are a plant to add to your gardens.

Hosta are no different than most plants. They come in sizes from miniature plants that are 2" tall to giants that have leaves 28" across and form 5 foot tall plants with 7 foot scapes. Each year the number of hostas available to gardeners increases and although probably over 6500 are now registered with the American Hosta Society there are hundreds and hundreds of new hosta someplace along the supply chain either waiting to be registered and propagated and distributed.  If you have not studied hosta, your appreciation for what is available may be limited to what you see at your local garden center. That may lead you to believe there aren't many hostas available beyond the basic green, blue or variegated you have seen. That's just not accurate.

If you have decided to give hosta a try you might find them to be more exciting and architecturally useful within your garden space than you first thought.  That's where the problem comes because that hosta you just bought in the gallon (or smaller) pot might  grow to 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall....or bigger....or smaller.  Then comes the question of how long does it take a hosta to mature and how will it/they look in your garden growing along for 4-5-6 years to maturity.

Designing a new garden requires some knowledge of the mature size of the hosta you want to use. I recommend referring to the Hosta Library to gather that information. It's easy to use and the pictures make your job easier.

Look up top and you'll see a picture of how our shade garden started at the flower farm. In it's previous life it was a staging area for sand and gravel for the local town. After that assignment ended it became a patch of alders, Japanese knotweed, wild eupatorium, goldenrod and various swamp grasses. When we started the eventual conversion it required removing all the unwanted plants, trees and shrubs and accepting the box elder trees as the shade producers to get us started. We trenched the lower area to drain off excess water and we planted a long border of Japanese fantail willows and curly golden willows to take up as much water as possible. Then we rototilled with the tractor and we rototilled and we rototilled. We pulled out roots and stones and debris and then we rototilled some more. A year later the area was ready to amend and plant. 

Soon after I began planting, a gardener stopped by late one afternoon and wandered down to see what I was doing. She was quiet at first and then told me she had been watching my progress when she drove by the flower farm. She shared her gardening credentials and then told me I was spacing everything too far apart. Some hostas were 4 feet apart, some were six feet apart, some even 8 feet apart.  There was a method to my spacing and the method included knowledge of the mature diameter of what I was planting. Gardening requires patience.

Take a look at the second picture and you can discern a pathway stretching diagonally across the picture from lower right to the upper left corner. In the background is a fence and some box elder trees and interplanted in the front is a blue cedar and above and to the left a linden tree or two. Some of the hosta were transplanted from gallon pots and others came from one of my gardens at our house. 

Does this planting look odd with so much space in between each plant? Perhaps the day it was started. My next step was to lay down landscape fabric and 6" of  maple leaves and bark mulch. The following year I interplanted with various annuals. I let the wild forget-me-knot flowers naturalize and I took small and miniature hostas such as Lemon Lime, Lemon Delight, Golden Scepter Chartreuse Wiggles, Little Sunspot, and Ice Cream and planted them here and there in between the larger plants. 

By 2010 I had the entire garden planted . Probably the last one third was planted with new-to-us 2 year old hostas. In May of 2011 spring brought us rain, lots and lots of rain and most of the recent plantings were washed down the river. What remained prospered and the next two pictures show the garden in July of 2014.  

The spacing that was in question in the beginning has worked out quite well although 6 foot spacing for a plant that will mature to 5 or 6 feet in diameter is not appropriate, especially if you want the opportunity to walk between the specimens during the growing season, hybridize, trim, fertilize or rearrange the signs. Blue hostas tend to be slower growing and they will take a little longer to reach full size so even now this garden doesn't completely represent maturity. Because room is now at a premium the annual flower plantings are no longer needed to fill in and the annual flowering of the forget me nots is a nuisance to keep cleaned up. 

Over the past couple years I have added four varieties of trollius because they add color in June and into July and then again just after Labor Day. There are Brunneras, European Gingers, a few pulmonarias, Nugget and Diabolo Ninebarks,  3 varieties of hybrid maple, some actaeas, hellebores, darmeras, winterberry, clethra and forsythia. The sizing is working. Patience was the key. Come visit! Come see!!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where occasional puffs of snowflakes drift from the southeast sky. Two runners just passed the house causing Karl the Wonder Dog to issue a strict warning. As for me, I have to go feed the birds. Be well. Enjoy today!

George Africa
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