Hostas take a garden from zero to OMG
We speak of folks who do fancy footwork with ornamental grasses as pioneers. Okay, they may be movers and shakers. But they are not real pioneers. The true trailblazers are intrepid gardeners like Judy Lambert of York, Maine. She transformed an asphalt-and-gravel dumpsite into a hosta garden.
Not just any hosta garden. Twenty-eight years ago when Judy first laid eyes on the mounds of debris, she imagined for this 2-½-acre property a future
garden with swerving wrought iron fences, granite gateposts, and scalloped cemetery urns enhanced in mottled verdigris, and teeming with hostas. She was not thinking of one or two polite hostas—she visualized hundreds of hostas with immense seersuckered and pleated leaves overlapping in soothing patterns of chartreuse, forest green, cream, and gunmetal blue. The fact that she chose hostas, a plant ideal for coastal conditions, was how she successfully went from zero to OMG.
Of course, Judy’s husband, Rex, a contractor, provided both help and heavy equipment to construct her dream landscape. He also built the massive barn and meeting-house-style antique shop with its ample porch and superabundance of outward-looking windows, which lure customers to stroll the garden. He knew his wife all too well—Judy Lambert loves antiques, it is true. But second only to her romance with a resonant grandfather clock are gardening and bird watching.
Judy has always been a collector. Witness the fact that she presides over a shop with wares that would put a sparkle in any Antiques Roadshow aficionado’s eyes. With other dealers, she sells antiques at Bell Farm Antiques, the name the Lamberts chose for the shop. Next door in Backyard Birds & Garden Frills, which occupies an addition to the barn that Rex also crafted, Judy sells accoutrements to furnish the garden. The name says it all, but the truth is that the array of statuary, outdoor furniture, pedestals, bird feeders, fully functional (as opposed to fancy but impractical) birdhouses, and other garden accessories in this shop includes more than you can imagine. Of course, the shops set the mood and give motorists an excuse to drop in and stroll the landscape. What customers find is a garden so restful, rich, and filled with wildlife that they linger and return with their tripods and binoculars. Hosting frogs in their pond plus feeding and housing feathered fly-ins, it is little wonder that Bell Farm was nominated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
Creating that venue was not a walk in the park, by a long shot. The Lamberts had to bring in everything, including loam, peat, compost, and all the underpinnings for the garden. Because many oaks originally shaded the garden, Judy started with hostas, which provide the perfect foil for the barn-red garden shop and the antiques she uses as accents. But hostas also rose to the occasion for another reason. They are well suited to the dicey New England climate.
Richard Merritt and P.J. Beaulier of New Hampshire
Hostas in South Hampton reached the same conclusion. They once ran a garden center but decided to focus on hostas after experiencing success with those leafy plants, which keep on performing throughout the growing season. Hostas, they say, thrive on the cool coastal climate with its morning fogs
and moist air.
New Hampshire Hostas grows and sells hundreds of varieties, which run the gamut from immense leaves that rival elephant ears to miniatures and hostas with all sorts of leaf patterns and subtle innuendos of color. These collectors make a science of hostas, studying everything from sun tolerance to slug resistance.
Merritt and Beaulier have found that certain hostas are more sun tolerant than others. “It’s in their genetic background,” Beaulier says. “They can thrive in more light if given ample moisture.” Indeed, even when Judy Lambert’s oaks came down in a storm, she says that her hostas kept right on flourishing.
Beaulier has found that thick-leaved varieties tend
to be more sun tolerant than other hostas, but blue-leaved versions are made for shade. He explains that the blue hue is actually due to a waxy, chalky pigment in the leaf that breaks down in sunlight. Hostas with white variegation are prone to sun scald, and certain cultivars (‘Frances Williams’ comes to mind) are susceptible to leaf-edge browning.
Soil moisture has a lot to do with whether a hosta is happy or not. “Generally, the more moisture you have, the more sun they can endure,” Merritt says. “Be wary of dry shade and full sun; they can be killers. Some hostas will live in adverse conditions, but they rarely thrive.”
Of course, soil moisture is linked to many factors. Competition from surrounding plants can cause issues. Merritt warns that maple-tree roots tend to run along the soil surface and be thirsty, stealing moisture from hostas that also want to be quenched.
Slugs are another problem. “It can be a slug fest,” Merritt says of the coastal environment. “It varies greatly from year to year. But high moisture levels are a big factor on how fast slugs feed and breed.” Merritt and Beaulier have found that the thicker-leaved hostas are apt to flummox slugs. “They just can’t get a leaf into their mouths,” Beaulier says. ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’ is one of their favorites among the tough-leaved hostas they have seen to be slug resistant.
Although hostas are usually lauded for their luscious leaves, most also send up flowers. Not only do spires vary in height, but the blossoms can differ in color from creamy white to mauve tinged. Fragrance can also be part of the package. Beaulier has noticed that fragrant hostas often have H. plantaginea from China in their heritage. Their list of fragrant hostas includes ‘Fried Bananas’, ‘Fragrant Fire’, ‘Holy Mole’, ‘Invincible’, ‘Royal Standard’, and ‘So Sweet’.
Since hostas may be a tad pricier than other perennials, gardeners are tempted to divide the plants to spread the wealth rather than opening their wallets. But the experts from New Hampshire Hostas find that dividing can be detrimental to a hosta’s progress. “It takes four to six years for a hosta to do all it can do,” Merritt says. ”You set it back by splitting it up. They only get better with age.” For those of us who are trying to minimize garden labor in the spring, that can be good news. Unlike irises that demand to be divided or suffer the consequences of overcrowding, hostas will live happily ever after if you leave them alone. If dividing is necessary, Merritt suggests April or September as the best time to do the deed in New England. “And you can just dig into a clump and take a section,” he advises. “There’s no need to dig the whole plant up.”
Spreading the wealth obsesses some hosta enthusiasts. Take Cheryl Cravino of Hosta Amour in Pelham, New Hampshire. She readily confesses to being a “hostaholic.” In fact, her addiction is evident in her business name. “Amour means an illicit love affair,” she explains. “That describes hostas and me.” When she and her husband, Rick, moved back to Pelham, they purchased his childhood home. “There were no gardens here. Hostas were one of the plants I brought with me.” She and Rick started with 25 hostas eight years ago. “Now we have 785 varieties with two acres of display gardens,” she says. She opens her garden on weekends from Mother’s Day through Columbus Day, offering more than 350 different varieties of hosta for sale. But with 7,500 varieties registered, she figures that she is just touching the tip of the iceberg. However, she adds to the wealth. A few years ago, Cheryl began trying her hand at breeding hostas (to continue along the illicit love affair metaphor). Her first effort, named ‘Matilda Jeanne’ after her bulldog, who serves as the garden’s mascot and tour guide, is already an award winner. With long, skinny, ruffled leaves—long, thin leaves are all the rage with hostas at the moment—and red petioles—another hot item for hostas—it is distinctive.
Which trends are on the horizon? Cheryl says that growers are striving for more red in the leaves. “They’ve achieved speckles along the veins of the leaves, but no one has hit upon red dappling throughout the foliage,” she says. With 3,000 seedlings in her basement, Cheryl may just have another winner in the wings. Whatever comes of her experiments with hostas, she has a whole lot of transplanting in her future.
When it comes to growing stupendous hostas, everyone agrees the main ingredient that separates ordinary from extraordinary hostas is compost, which brings us back to the sumptuous hosta spread at Bell Farm. Judy Lambert says that compost is crucial for building big hostas. When she first began her garden, she went straight for compost, as well as other amendments, to bring her soil from horrific to wholesome.
Judy still spends lots of time in the Bell Farm garden. Instead of seeing gardening as labor, she sees it as indulging her passion. You will find her coddling her hostas, whistling to the birds, and enjoying the company of customers who wander the grounds. Can you think of anything more heavenly than antiques, garden paraphernalia, and hostas?