Hostas, Supreme Choice for Shady Gardens

Ilona Erwin

Hosta,the Garden Stalwart

Not just for the shade garden, the many varieties of hosta plants and their season long beauty make
this a staple of the garden. Usually, it is recommended for shade positions and in foliage combinations, but hosta plants
can take a partly sunny area and the blossoms (often fragrant) are not to be neglected.

Description of Typical Hostas

Hostas come in many sizes, foliage shapes and colors, and with both lavendar and white blooms. They all, however, have a mounding form of growth; looking like a bell shaped fountain of water.

They keep their beautiful leaves throughout the growing season provided that they are given moisture and not overun with slugs. Yes, slugs like these plants. (Deer, too, consider them to be like candy).

The blooms come at varying times from July through August, on graceful upright stalks. They are of differing showiness with lavender or a beautiful white lily-like (thus the old name: plantain lily) shape and sweet fragrance.

Hosta 'Autumn Frost'

Hosta ‘Autumn Frost’, available online at Nature Hills Nursery

How to Grow Them

Part sun to shade, good soil, and moisture are important, although I have some doing quite well under the dryness of trees (they just need to get established). It is a good idea to incorporate amendments such as peat moss or compost into the soil.

One thing you might want to be aware of: hostas take time to get accustomed, or settle into, their place in the garden. Like many of the more long-lived plants of the garden, the first two years or so of new plants are root-growing, settling-in time. The plants are much smaller than their advertised mature size, and the color may not be what you hoped; but once at home, the hosta can surprise you with the grandeur of their girth. Be sure to check the name and projected size of your variety. They range from a “minima” which is a very petite plant, to a very large specimen covering some feet in diameter. The color may dictate the amount of sunshine they should be exposed to, with some of the variegated and blue types needing protection from too much sun.

When Should Hosta be Divided?

When you want more of them, they can be divided, but they don’t like to often be disturbed. They should be divided in early spring as plants emerge. Dig the entire clump and separate into plants with a little root. These rounded plants do not widely spread (unless you take the direct action of division), so are perfect companions in foundation plantings and over bulb beds. I especially like them with spring blooming bulbs because they are somewhat late in appearance, giving bulbs time to finish their performance and replenish strength through their leaves.

Frances Williams hosta

Taking many years to mature, sometimes as many as four to five years to grow to full stature. You can count the eyes, or points of growth, to check on your plants progress. Be patient.

Trivia Facts and Interesting Tidbits

Hardy in Zone 3 to 9, Hostas originated in the Asian countries of Japan, China, and Korea.

My own personal preference is for the solid green leaves and pure white blooms of the “Royal Standard” variety. It has great beauty and stands out at a distance. Besides, it is fragrant, always a plus in my book.

Japanese name for the is “gib?shi”.

In old garden books you might find them by their outdated name: Funkia.

Hostas Never Jade, 5 Top Choices

hosta plant and lilies

hosta plant and lilies

Hostas are such beautiful plants, and are so versatile in the garden, that they are always attractive in my estimation. Primarily foliage plants, some of them have outstanding flowers, too, and add their own allure to situations as diverse as underplanting trees and shrubs, in the foundation planting, and in containers as well – as one innovative gardener illustrates.

There are so many varieties to choose from, and Margaret Roach asked the question “Which one can’t you live without, or wish you lived with?”

She names several, fluctuans ‘Variegated,’ aka ‘Sagae,’and Krossa Regal, which I must say, looks like a winner to me. My own choices are ‘Royal Standard‘ and ‘Frances Williams‘.

Variegated hosta

Variegated leaf hosta

My Top 5 Favorites

1 Frances Williams‘ is a standout that is on many top lists of great hostas. This variety is very large, once it gets settled, but don’t expect that until several years after planting. The leaves have a bluish green base that is variegated with pale lemon. They are puckered, something like seersucker fabric. Pretty white flowers are an added bonus. This plant is a standout wherever it is planted, and is superior to most other variegated selections.

2 ‘Royal Standard’ might be a bit of a dark horse for some, given the many choices. Let me tell you why it makes my top choice list:

  • It has clear green, very clean and fine foliage in a neat circle of medium size. This uniformity of leaf gives it a strong presence when grown in the groups that display hostas so well.
  • It has beautiful large white flowers, long lasting bloom which when paired with the clear green foliage give a classically beautiful appearance.
  • It’s foliage stands up better to the elements than some other hostas, each year it impresses me, in dryish shade, during drought, in wet years…. it is dependable and good looking.

I think that the variegated hosta plants give a texture and beauty to the garden, and they certainly are eye-catching, but there is a time and place for something solid and refreshing in color to the eye. Royal Standard excels in that niche.

3H. tardiflora came late to my list of favorites, but all the more reason to include it. It is a smaller form, with solid green leaves that are a medium green. Unimpressed so far? Well, let me list its attributes.

  • The tardiflora is sturdy and healthy with a uniformity that makes it great for trims or using as a large group.
  • Easy to divide and multiply it seems to settle right in and give a good show, unlike its larger leaved siblings.
  • And most of all the attribute by which it is named: pretty stalks of lavender flowers that are very late to bloom. It is a welcome addition to the autumn garden.

4‘First Frost’. Growing from 16 inches tall to 24 inches wide, ‘First Frost’ is a sport of ‘Halcyon’ (another top choice).
‘First Frost’ foliage is centered with blue and bordered with wide yellow margins. As it matures in the season, the yellow changes to cream-white. The foliage is substantial and the plant really stands out in the garden. Late spring flowers are lavender.

Look also for ‘Autumn Frost’  which is a  sport of the popular ‘First Frost’ hosta with wider and much showier margins. (Sports are naturally occurring variations of a variety). It has the same qualities of size and flowering.

5 My fifth choice is a blue leaf variety, ‘Halcyon’. It keeps its fine appearance in the above named garden challenges, and is reputed to be resistant to slug damage. They don’t seem to bother it in my garden (although they are a problem with poor Frances W.), perhaps due to the thickness of the leaves.

Halcyon Hosta – Gorgeous Medium Size Deep Green/Blue! – Gallon Pot

hostas and lamium maculatum in shade

Royal standard hostas and Lamium maculatum in shade. My Ohio garden.

I love to see these perennials as a trim along a house or a shady driveway. Sometimes variegation can be too much of a good thing, but when it is a tapestry of greens under trees or shrubs and seen from a distance, there is a beautiful texture that is very restful and interesting at the same time. Peaceful, but not boring.


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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.