Garden Notes: Hostas can help

And their variety is incredible.


Meadowsong’s seasonal chorus has already begun. It is an elegy that could rightly be called “September Song.” The trilling and singing of millions of arthropods (crickets, katydids, cicadas) and tree frogs are signals of ripening summer.

Media and popular culture reinforce the alarmed, “eeeuuw” reaction to “bugs,” “creepy-crawlies,” insects, and other life we share our world with. And yet, who would wish for this meadowsong chorus, the elegiac theme of ripe summer, to be extinguished?

Arthropod life is at the base of the Trophic Pyramid. We as human primates at its apex cannot continue to survive like this! Why are we giving vent to primitive instincts to extirpate and kill whatever startles, is different, novel, or unknown to us?

Gardens are at once a microcosm and macrocosm of our existence: the reason this column touches on a wider subject range than merely the pretty flowers, eye candy, and boastworthy garden scenery. One could say gardens and pretty flowers are the lead-in, the clickbait, for learning: to experience and to better understand and appreciate the world we live in; how to study and protect it to become good gardeners.

School gardening and science programs and summer camp experiences do a good job of familiarizing and introducing young children to flora and fauna around them. In a calm atmosphere, the natural curiosity of children helps them learn that these are “just a part of Nature” — that, for instance, poison ivy is a superb food source for wildlife, while also making us itch and avoid it.

No butterflies without caterpillars

Find information sources, such as “Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds, and Other Animals That Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving” (Dominique Lavoipierre, Timber Press) and Eric Grissell’s “Insects and Gardens” (also Timber Press); they are invaluable.

Sometimes it is the parents rather than the children who would benefit from exposure to entry-level natural history education; there are many uninformed adults among us with the economic power to unwittingly wage ecological war.

Wide world of hostas

Speaking of calm atmospheres, hostas are the perfect foliage plant for creating a cooling garden tapestry. Around the Island, a wilted and dusty look is prevailing. The drama and color of flowering plants cycles through — coming and then going — while hostas’ fresh texture remains constant.

Hostas are tough, one of the cast-iron plants. Deer are the main trouble, and maybe slugs, early in the season or in over-irrigated gardens. Ideally, to present a well-grown hosta bed, deep, humus-rich soil with pH on the acidic side is required. Irrigation is unnecessary if soil retains moisture, but is also well-drained.

High or mixed shade/sun sites are ideal for hosta plantings. Hydrangeas, understory shrubs such as enkianthus and azalea, and ferns make good companions in shaded settings, by providing interesting contrasts in texture. A variety of foliage colors, sizes, and forms create the tapestry. Sunny sites are OK — as long as hostas do not bake or sit in sun all day long. That is likely to cause fading or browning of hosta leaves, with an overall tired look.

There are literally hundreds of hosta cultivars. Information about the latest introductions may be found at the website of the American Hosta Society ( Some may cost hundreds of dollars apiece when newly released! Variegated foliage, differing foliage colors from dusty blue to lime green to almost white, and ruffled and pleated foliage create the visual contrast that hostas supply. Their toughness insures that division is usually successful.

Mail-order source Plant Delights Nursery supplies a variety of cultivars, from minute to gigantic. Some on the large side I know and love include ‘Guacamole,’ Blue Angel,’ Big Daddy,’ ‘Krossa’s Regal,’ H. sieboldiana, and ‘Sum and Substance.’ H. plantaginea is a fragrant, late-blooming hosta with well-veined, chartreuse foliage and tall white flower trusses. Diminutive, “front of the border” hostas often have Mouse in the cultivar name: e.g., ‘Twice As Mice,’ ‘Crazy Mouse,’ ‘Blue Mouse Ears.’

Wide world of salvias

On the other hand, we are in a drought. If your garden is on the dry and sunny side, salvias are well adapted to those conditions. This family includes many Mediterraneans; the culinary staple, sage; the red salvias that decorate patriotic monuments; but also much more. Did you know taxonomists have now placed culinary rosemary and perovskia in Salvia? 

The meadow sage group include hybrids of Salvia x. sylvestris such as ‘May Night’ that flower in early summer. These rebound if cut back hard, sometimes flowering two or more times a season. Frequently seen in Island gardens, tall ‘Caradonna,’ a Salvia nemorosa selection, has dark upright flower stems that provide punctuation in a planting. Perovskia has been outstanding this dry year. Sky-blue S. uliginosa self-sows freely where happy, and some may have perennialized here. Willowy S. azurea var. grandiflora, my personal favorite, animates dry and hot spots with astonishing blue in late summer. Most are deer-resistant.

Many half-hardy and tender salvias are staples of container plantings and bedding. Hybrids of South American S. guaranitica dominate in tall, deep blue and purple bedding plants such as ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Indigo Spires.’ The Texas-native greggii hybrids are the ones that supply the hot pinks and reds. S. discolor is a striking addition to bedding and containers, with its green and white foliage and nearly black flowers.

In the garden

Conditions are perfect for powdery mildew: dryness plus high humidity. The spores are always present; drought stress heightens plants’ susceptibility. (Reminder: Avoid overwatering as well.) Dead-leaf and de-stalk various perennials.

Prolific self-sowers Nicotiana sylvestris and N. alata are co-hosts for cucumber mosaic virus: keep volunteers out of vegetable gardens. CMV afflicts a number of vegetable crops. Transmission is by aphids, tools, gardeners’ hands, etc. Striped cucumber beetles are active; try Neem Oil sprays. Timing all spraying early or late avoids pollinating insects’ flight times.

Tick check every night.



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