How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Hostas in Your Garden
Are you thinking about planting some hostas in your garden, but aren't sure where to start? The best place to look, is usually someone that has experience planting them! In this article, certified master gardener and hosta expert Laura Elsner walks through every step you'll need to follow in order to plant, grow, and care for hostas in your garden!
Hostas, sometimes referred to as plantain lilies, are a wonderful genus of low-growing shade perennials. They are well known for their attractive green foliage (although they do flower). Hostas are a shade garden staple. They provide the lush foundation on which other plants can be layered on top to create a full and lush shade garden.
Hostas come in many shades of greens and subtle variegations. They can brighten up corners, fill large spaces, or even act as a focal with their stunning leaf patterns. Hostas grow in almost all the zones in the USA, ranging from USDA zones 2-9. This means they can be found in gardens all across the country.
They are low maintenance and will reward you with lush foliage if they are kept in their ideal growing conditions. In this article, you’ll learn exactly how to do that. Continue reading on to find out how to plant, grow, and care for hostas in your garden!
Hosta Plant Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Species Hosta spp.
Native Area China, Japan, Korea
Hardiness Zone USDA 2-9
Season Spring and Summer
Exposure Partial Sun/Partial Shade
Plant Spacing Variety Dependent
Planting Depth To the Crown
Height 6 inches – 6 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests Slugs and Snails
Diseases Powdery Mildew
Soil Type Light, Humus, Well-Draining
Attracts Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Plant With Huechera, Brunnera, Lysimachia
Don’t Plant With Full Sun Plants
While hostas have been growing in American gardens for hundreds of years, that barely scratches the surface of the leafy shade marvel. They are actually native to China.They have been documented to have been cultivated there since the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE).
This means in China they were appreciating the hosta’s elegant foliage before Julius Cesar was ruling the Roman empire. There are also written records of hostas found in Japanese documents as long ago as the 8th century.
Fast forward a thousand years to the 17th century to the German naturalist and physician (author of Flora Japonica, History of Japan), Englebert Kaemphor, who first named the genus Hosta. Even though he discovered and named this unique genus of plant, he was unable to bring any of the physical specimens back to Europe.
Which brings us to over a century later when in the mid 19th century. German physician and botanist Phillip von Siebold brought hostas back to Europe. Once there, they eventually made their way to the Americas.
Now there are hundreds of species of hostas and more than three thousand unique varieties, or cultivars. It is clear that hostas are not just some quick fad of a plant. They are a true garden mainstay that has been around for literally thousands of years. They will likely be around for thousands more.
Hostas are actually a part of the Asparagus family, Asparagacae (this is why deer love munching them). Their genus is hosta, and under that is 70 separate species of hosta, and under that is more than 3000 separate cultivars.
There are so many uses for hostas, borders, masses, features, containers, cut flowers, and even as food! Everyone can find a hosta that will fit your space.
When it comes to propagation, there are several important factors you’ll need to be aware of when it comes to hostas. You can propagate by transplanting, planting crowns, division, and also planting directly from seed. Let’s take a look at each so you know what to expect.
Purchasing a Plant
The easiest way to obtain a hosta is to go to a local garden center or nursery and purchase a plant. Some of the larger more general garden centers will just have hostas listed “Hosta Spp” which just means it’s a hosta. It may not have any information about variety (sometimes the exact variety is obvious, other times not so much).
At more specialized garden centers and nurseries, the exact hosta variety (e.g. Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’) will be on the label. I’ve personally bought both styles of hosta. Sometimes I want a very specific variety. This way I will know exactly what to expect in terms of size, color, and growth, and sometimes what I see in the pot will work just fine.
Dividing a Plant
Another way to obtain a hosta is by dividing an already existing hosta in your, or a friend’s, garden. The best time to divide a hosta is in the early spring when the leaves are just starting to poke through the soil, or in the late fall when they are starting to go to sleep.
The best time of day to divide a plant is early in the morning, or late in the afternoon/early evening. If it can be done on a cloudy, rainy day, even better. Dividing and transplanting in the heat of the day will shock the plant and it will take longer to recover and be able to establish itself.
Take a spade and dig up the hosta. They usually have a very tight and clumped root mass that doesn’t go too deep and is relatively easy to dig up. Now with the sharp end of a spade, edger, or a gardening tool like a hori hori knife, slice through the hosta as cleanly as possible. The general rule for plant division is thirds.
Leave at least one-third of the original plant to plant back into the ground. Try and get the divided piece (or pieces) and original piece planted into the ground as soon as you can. Water both the original plant and the divided piece thoroughly. More on planting in the section below.
Another option for hostas is buying the root from a garden center or nursery. These usually appear in packages alongside lily bulbs, bleeding hearts, crocomasia, alocasia roots, and other spring planting bulbs and roots. These packages will usually state the exact variety on them. Take note of the size and color patterns on the foliage to determine if it is a good fit for your garden.
In the early spring, start by soaking the bare root in water for an hour. Then pick an ideal, protected, partial shade area of the garden and dig a hole 2-3 times bigger than the root. Plant the root up to the crown (sometimes the root will have sprouts coming out, plant at the point where the roots meet the sprout aka the crown of the plant). Water well and wait for it to emerge and grow.
In the early months of spring, it always seems like the garden is full of holes and spaces. But then, as late spring and summer come around, all those spaces are filled in with later emerging perennials. If this is something you are concerned about, plant the bare root into a pot and let it sprout from there. Then transplant it into the garden where there is a good space for it. Keep it in light potting soil, and keep it evenly moist.
Now for the final way to propagate a hosta, and probably my least favorite way, by seed. Seed starting has become a major hobby in the plant world. Don’t get me wrong, I love planting seeds. My south window sill is crammed with tomatoes, peppers, petunias, and the kids’ experimental avocado seeds jammed with toothpicks.
But hostas, they take more work to start from seed. It’s not impossible, but they do require a few extra steps than tomatoes. The other thing with hosta seeds is that they will not come true to their parent plant. What this means is that if you go out and harvest the seeds on your favorite hosta, you will not get baby hostas that match the parents. Normally you will get a much plainer variety of hosta.
Obtaining seeds from a store or online (beware online, there are no crazy electric blue and purple hostas despite what the picture might show) is the best bet for growing the hosta you want.
Growing From Seed Indoors
Okay, now the seeding process. Hostas require a period of cold, in nature, the seeds will drop, and then they overwinter and sprout in the spring. To replicate this period of cold, place the seeds in the fridge for 2-3 weeks before planting. Use a good soilless seed starting mix that is evenly moist and place the seeds on top of them and sprinkle gently a bit more on top.
The best container to use are things with a dome lid (like a berry container). Make sure there are holes in the bottom to drain out extra water. Put the lid on them and place them in a dark warm spot. Some good areas are the cupboard above the stove, or on top of an older model refrigerator is good.
Check on them every day or two. They can take a week, or two, or three to germinate, once the seedlings emerge move to under a grow light or a bright southern exposure. Keep them watered and let them grow. Start hosta seed very early, January or February, as they are very slow-growing perennials.
Transplanting Seed Grown Hostas
Once they are ready to go into the garden make sure they go through a process known as ‘hardening off’ before they get planted. Plants grown indoors are used to the wonderful conditions of indoors. That is to say, no wind or rain, or weather so to speak.
If you bring a new seedling (this goes for all plants grown indoors) outside right away they will succumb to the elements. Instead, you will need to introduce them slowly to outdoor life. This whole process takes about a week.
Start by bringing them outside in a protected shady area for a few hours. Then, bring them in, then the next day a bit longer, and then maybe a whole day (depends on how hot the weather is, if it’s hot and dry it will take longer). Eventually, the wee hosta plants will be ready to go into the garden.
If you have a choice, stick to the first three methods (buy, split, buy bare-root) for starting hosta plants. But if seeds are your thing, give it a go. Also, perennials planted from seed take a few seasons to really get going. So, don’t expect a fully mature plant by the end of the first season.
Hostas can be planted anytime in the garden season, up until the last two weeks before freeze-up. The best time to plant a hosta would be early in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Don’t plant in the heat of the afternoon sun. On a cloudy or rainy day, it is even better. Hostas can be planted with a number of other plants, and pair well in shady areas.
Start by finding the space the hosta will fill, keep in mind that hostas have large differences in size between varieties, so take note of the mature width and height of the hosta before planting it. Also keep in mind the ideal conditions a hosta likes to grow in (check out the how to grow section for more info)
Dig a hole at least twice the size of the container that the hosta came in, both horizontally and vertically, this will give the roots a bit of help to spread and establish. Now take the hosta out of its pot, the hosta could crumble apart at the roots, and in that case just plop it in the hole, filling the bottom with the loosened soil you just dug up and mixing in a bit of compost (ideally) into it.
Make sure the crown is on the soil line and fill the hole in with the soil that was dug up and a bit of compost or triple mix (compost, peat, and topsoil) and I usually throw in a handful of bonemeal.
If the hosta comes out of the pot and it is rootbound, which means it is just a matting of roots in the shape of the pot, it is very important to “scruff” the root ball. Plants don’t know they’re in pots, if they’re planted straight into the ground like that their roots will just keep growing around and around until they choke themselves out.
So make sure to break apart the roots by hand, or with a spade, or a knife such as a hori hori knife. Don’t skip this step, and don’t think you’re hurting the plant by pulling the roots. In extreme situations, I have chopped off the bottom ‘mat’ of root because they are so entangled.
Now it is time to water water water. A good method is to fill the hole you dug with water, let it soak in, and then plant the hosta and water again. A slow drip of the hose to get it to saturate deep is better than a quick blast. Also focusing on wetting the soil is better than spraying the leaves.
How to Grow
Hostas are great, low maintenance, drought-resistant perennials once they are established and in their ideal growing conditions. There are a few factors to consider to keep them in their ideal conditions and that is light, climate (wind), soil, and watering. If all of these things are in harmony a hosta will live a long time in your garden.
Hostas are shade-loving perennials for the most part. It really depends on the variety to determine how much sun and shade they will tolerate. It also depends on the location. But hostas can do very well in colder zones if they are darker. The general rule is the darker and thicker the leaves the less sun they require, and the lighter and thinner the leaves the more sun they’ll need.
Any of the dusky blue-hued varieties such as Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ or ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’ or ‘Halycon’ don’t need as much sun. These ones are perfect for the shadier sections of the garden, maybe some dappled morning or late afternoon sun and that’s it. Consider east or northern exposures, or underneath a large tree canopy which would provide heavily dappled sunlight.
The lighter colored, chartreuse hostas can handle more sun, this includes Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, ‘Dancing Queen’, and ‘Guacamole’. These hostas can be placed in sunnier areas of the garden, not full blazing all day sun, but 4-6 hours sun or dappled sun will be fine.
If you are planning on placing a hosta in an area of more sun, make sure that they are receiving extra water.
Hostas will let you know if they are not happy with the amount of sunlight they are receiving. They will get burnt crispy edges or bleached-out sections on their foliage if they are in too much direct sunlight. If they aren’t getting enough sun, hostas will be slow to grow and have less vibrant colors. Too little sun and your hosta might not come back the next season since they were unable to store enough energy for winter sleep.
Hostas are actually a fairly drought tolerant plant once they are established. After the initial planting of the hosta make sure they are watered frequently. This really depends on the weather, if it’s rainy you won’t have to manually water them as often, but if it is really hot and dry they might require daily watering.
The good news is hostas will tell you if they need a drink. Their leaves will droop and curl downwards, then after a good soak, they will perk back up.
When watering, opt for a nice low and slow approach aimed at the soil line. Drip irrigation is great, as it will slowly leak water directly onto the soil. Constantly spraying the foliage when watering leaves plants more susceptible to disease, and it can actually burn the foliage if done in the heat of the day (water droplets act like little magnifying glasses).
Once a hosta is established, I’d say after the first season (usually the third season is where I consider fully established), hostas don’t need as much water, a good weekly soak will suffice, depending on how much rain the garden has been getting.
If you have a hosta sitting alone in a bed with nothing but the soil around it, it will need more water, but if you keep your hosta in a garden packed with other plants they will create an environment that naturally requires less watering. I love to pack in plants, when I see soil I think, “Oh, there’s room for another plant!” Some people like plant, soil, plant, soil, which is perfectly fine, but those will require more frequent watering.
Hostas kept in containers will probably need daily watering along with other containers and hanging baskets. This depends on the size of the pot, and the weather.
Hostas generally prefer slightly acidic soil. I am not a scientist, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around soil acidity. You can get a testing kit to test the soil in your area. Or you can ask around and find out what the soil is generally like in your location.
For instance, I know in my region our soil is very heavy clay and is alkaline. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in soil science if that all seems too daunting. Here’s the deal, hostas like to be planted in rich, loose, organic matter, which is slightly acidic.
Amending the soil is key to growing lush beautiful lush gardens. Adding a top dressing of compost (this could be from your own compost, worm casting, manure, etc) in the early spring will give the plants the nutrients they need to grow. I don’t till this into the soil, simply apply it to the top of the soil and water it in, all the nutrients will seep down.
This can also be done in the late fall, I don’t add compost or manure during the active summer months. I will however add a liquid fish fertilizer, or a worm compost tea into my regular watering schedule at least once in the summer to help boost the microbes and nutrients in the soil.
The soil should be light and fluffy and not dense and compact, if the soil is too dense the bottom leaves of the hosta will start to yellow. If your soil is really heavy and full of clay, amend with peat, or coconut coir to loosen it. A quick test to check if you have dense clay soil is to just take a handful and squeeze it. If it forms like a ball of putty, it has a lot of clay, it should not be able to hold the shape of the ball and just crumble apart.
Mulching is another option for hostas, I tend to use natural ground covers in place of mulch, but if you have open spaces between plants adding mulch will help hold in the moisture.
Climate and Temperature
Though hostas can handle a wide range of temperatures, they do need a dormancy period. This is classified as six weeks of under 40F. They can take periods below this, in fact, they will handle -40F weather in the winter (I live in an area where this is a reality and I have beautiful hostas in my garden).
Hostas seem to know when to poke up in the spring on their own, where I’m from they hide underground until the last frost and then spring up in June. I also use that as a guide for planting new hostas, I plant them when already existing hostas have emerged, any earlier and they can be damaged by the cold.
Then in fall, the leaves dissolve once a hard frost hits them. I usually clean up hostas just by gently pulling the dead foliage away, this can be done in fall clean up or spring clean up.
Hostas do need to be protected from the elements, they don’t tolerate howling winds and their leaves will begin to curl if they are constantly exposed to it. Hostas are also prone to hail damage, so finding a spot near the house or under a tree to add a bit of extra protection from the elements should definitely be in the plan when considering a location to plant a hosta.
If you keep the soil in your garden in good condition, fertilizing hostas is not necessary. Top dressing with compost in the spring, and using a naturally derived soil conditioner (compost tea, fish fertilizer) throughout the season to ensure beautiful, alive, and healthy soil is by far the better way to keep hostas thriving.
However, this isn’t always an option or a desire for some gardeners. If fertilizing is the route you plan on taking, use an all-purpose 10-10-10 blend on hostas at the beginning of the growing season and then again midway through the growing season.
Make sure to dilute the fertilizer according to the directions, more is not better it can burn the plant. Also try not to get the fertilizer on the foliage, aim for the soil. Also, never fertilize dry plants. Make sure to water, then fertilize, and then water again, if you can avoid doing this during the heat of the day, even better.
The only real maintenance I do on hostas is to remove any holey leaves that have been munched, or pelted with hail (I live in the hail belt). I also will sometimes remove the flowers from hostas before they bloom. It depends on the look I’m going for. Sometimes it is just the lush foliage and the lavender purple or white flowers detract from the foliage details.
Sometimes the plume of purple is a welcome addition to a purely green late summer shade garden. Use your eye and your judgment to determine if it is something you want to prune off or let bloom. If you do decide to let them bloom, once they are finished blooming, clip them off before the seed heads ripen. We want the energy to be focused back into the hosta and not into producing seeds.
Hostas just dissolve into the ground in the winter, they have no winter features. I generally just lift the foliage and pull it off after it turns brown and limp and toss it into the compost during fall cleanup. It can also be done as part of spring clean up the same way.
There are more than 3,000 unique varieties of hostas, I’ve gone into more detail about 31 varieties here. There are so many different colors, shapes, and sizes of hosta they are so much fun to play with. I will list a few of the different options to showcase the different hostas currently available.
Hosta ‘Blue Angel’
Hosta ‘Blue Angel’ is a large dusky blue-hued hosta. This one makes a great anchor in the garden, it has large thick leaves and can handle more shady areas of the garden because of its darker foliage. There are many other hostas that have this bluish-green foliage and prefer shady areas, some examples are Hosta ‘Mouse Ears’, Hosta ‘Halycon’, and Hosta ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’.
Hosta ‘June’ is one of my favorites, it has such an artistic appeal. The foliage features a light green/golden center that almost has brushstrokes of a bluish-green color all along its margin. This hosta should be showcased for its stunning foliage in the front of a garden bed, perhaps with other hostas with more plain foliage in the background. Other hostas that have this artistic leaf appear are Hosta ‘Brother Stefan’, Hosta ‘Great Expectations’, and Hosta ‘Pandora’s Box’
Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’
I use Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ a lot in gardens, it is a very versatile perennial. It features large chartreuse leaves and will grow 5’ wide and 3’ high so it really fills a space. The lighter colored leaves allow for Sum and Substance to be placed in areas that get more sun (not full sun). This is a great anchor hosta to add other more intricate leafed hostas in front of to make an eye-catching hosta grouping. Other lighter colored hostas that can tolerate more sun include, Hosta ‘Guacamole’, Hosta ‘Stained Glass’, and Hosta ‘Dancing Queen’
I love Hosta ‘Patriot’ because of the white margins against the medium green leaves, it’s a great combination in a shade garden. The white really brightens shady areas, placed along the border of a path it will provide some natural illumination in a night garden. Some other examples of green and white hostas are Hosta ‘Reversed Patriot’, Hosta ‘Minuteman’, and Hosta ‘Fire and Ice’.
Pests and Diseases
Hostas are generally disease and problem-free, but they do occasionally come down with some common pests. Below you’ll find the most common issues that you’ll likely deal with as a hosta owner.
Deer and Rabbits
This is a big pest. Unfortunately, hostas are delicious. There sometimes isn’t much you can do to deter these critters if you live in an area full of them. There is a spray on the market (Bobbex) that can be applied to the foliage that will deter animals, however, this spray needs to be applied after rain.
Motion-activated sprinklers that will go off when the critters are near will also help serve as a deterrent. I’ve also heard of people using hair clippings in the garden to deter deer. Just keep trying until you find something that works, or perhaps start planting more deer and rabbit resistant plants in the garden if this becomes an ongoing, losing battle.
Slugs and Snails
Hostas have large leaves and love living in the damp shade. Slugs and snails love living in the damp shade and eat big leaves. They’re a match made in heaven. Well, maybe for the slugs, not so much for hostas. There are a few methods for ridding your garden of these slimeballs.
The first is a common one that gets passed down from gardener to gardener, I personally am not so convinced on this method. Getting a small plate full of beer and placing it around the garden to lure the slugs and then they can be disposed of. This method takes more effort than I’m into doing, the beer needs to be changed daily or after the rain and the slugs need to be disposed of daily.
The second method is no better, handpicking the little globs off the leaves. This is best done in the early morning or at dusk when they’re out and about. It works, but it’s a commitment.
The third, and the method I personally use in my clients’ gardens, is to sprinkle slug bait around the hostas on a weekly basis (this is the frequency I maintain most client gardens). Slug bait can be purchased from specialty garden shops. Works like a charm. Also, consider planting hostas with thicker leaves that are less appealing to slugs, such as Hosta ‘Brother Stefan’.
The shady damp environment that hostas thrive in is also the area of the garden that powdery mildew thrives in. You will notice film dust on the leaves of hostas. I find the best method to deal with powdery mildew is prevention.
Try not to spray the leaves when watering, aim for the soil line, and space the hostas out a tad to allow for airflow. But once they have the mildew, spray with a fungicide available for purchase at the garden center. Also, make sure to clean up all the dead foliage and dispose of it in the fall so they don’t get reinfected the following season.
Hosta Virus X
I actually hesitate to mention this one, I find it too easy to blame the most common hosta problems on some hosta-specific virus when the problem usually is with environmental conditions (water, soil, wind, etc). But I will take the time to mention this one in case you are at your wit’s end.
This virus was first observed in 1996 and affects some, not all, varieties of hostas. The symptoms include blotchy, mottled appearing leaves, ringspot, and death of leaves. There is no treatment for this one, do not attempt to prune out the damaged leaves as this could just spread the infection. Dispose of (not compost) the entire hosta.
Most hostas occupy the middle height range in the garden. Ground covers can grow below them, and large perennials, shrubs, and trees that can grow above them (an exception would be Hosta ‘Empress Wu’ that grows up to 4’ in height). This makes hosta a great perennial to add as a filler in a garden bed. It will help create a real lush look, or as a border plant to frame a garden bed.
Playing with the various colors of hosta is a great way to use them. You can mix and match hostas with various shades of white and green to create a patchwork of foliage. Or, you can stick to one color to create a block of plants that the eye floats over easily.
Hostas also look great in containers. They are commonly used as filler when added with other plants and flowers, or on their own in a pot. Grouping a bunch of various pots together all with a single different hosta in it is very striking.
Another use, that isn’t often thought of, is eating them, Yes! Hostas are edible. They are part of the Asparagaceae or Asparagus family. The new hosta shoots that pop out in spring are a tasty treat. Trim off some of the new shoots and fry them up in butter for a delicious spring vegetable. The leaves can also be eaten like iceberg lettuce, but they are bitter. I’ll stick to eating actual lettuce in my salads and keep my hostas for the garden.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does a hosta need to be cut back in fall?
No, but they generally are cut back as part of a regular fall clean up routine. The leaves on a hosta turn to mush after fall freeze up so it’s easy to pull the leaves off and dispose of them. But this can also be done in the spring.
Can you move a hosta anytime?
Yes, the best time would be in the early spring, just as the tops are starting to appear. If you get it at this time the hosta won’t even know it was moved and not suffer any shock. It can also be done late fall with little consequence. Hostas can be moved throughout the season but it will be a bit harder on the plant. If you can’t wait for early spring or late fall, choose an overcast or rainy day if possible, and avoid transplanting in the peak heat of the afternoon.
What do I do with my hosta after it blooms?
Take your clippers and prune the entire flower stock off, you don’t want the hosta to put its energy into seeds, so don’t let the seed pods mature. I sometimes cut the flowers off my hostas before they even bloom if I am more interested in the foliage than the actual flowers.
Do hostas spread?
Yes and no, they do grow bigger every year and depending on the variety they might spread 4-6’ wide. But they are not mover and shakers like some plants that pop up all over the garden, they are a neat and tidy clump that will stay in its place. If they outgrow their space they can easily be divided.
What growing conditions do hostas prefer?
They prefer shadier conditions with light, moist, humus soil. Some of the lighter-colored hostas tolerate more sun, whereas the darker more blue-toned leafed hostas prefer more shady conditions.
Can hostas grow in pots?
Yes! They make a great filler in mixed containers, or as a stand-alone plant in a pot. However, if you live in a colder zone (2-4), you will need to either plant the hosta in the ground before winter or plant the entire pot into the ground.
Hostas are such a large group of perennials. They have so much variety in shape, size, and color, there is a hosta for practically every garden. They give gardens a lush leafy feeling, but without all the fuss of some other more aggressive perennials.
Have a hosta in a bed as a feature, plant a mass of them along the edges of beds, under a tree, or even in a pot. Play with the textures, colors, and different forms of hostas to create a beautiful eye-catching mosaic. Try mixing heuchera and brunnera in with them as well.
They are also easily and widely available. You are sure to be able to find one at a local garden center or nursery. So pick one (or two, or three…) up, pick a suitable location, and enjoy this wide leafed wonder for many, many seasons.