10 Favorite Mail-Order Nurseries

February is a terrific time to choose new plants for the garden. Here are some of my favorite mail-order nurseries for perennials, trees and shrubs. Do you have other favorites? Please share them with others in the comments section!

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Bluestone Perennials

Bluestone Perennials was one of the first mail-order nurseries that I purchased perennials from when I began gardening. Most of those perennials -geraniums 'Wargrave Pink' and 'Johnson's Blue', lobelias and astilbes, to name a few, are still growing in my garden 20 years later. Bluestone carries a huge selection of perennials, as well as bulbs and shrubs, from reliable standbys to exciting new hybrids. If you need help with plant combinations, you can order pre-planned theme gardens, such as a Butterfly Garden, Cutting Garden or Lamp Post Garden. Robust plants are shipped in 3-1/2" x 4" plantable pots. The nursery has been family-owned and operated since 1972, and provides excellent customer service. Catalog available. bluestoneperennials.com

Brushwood Nursery

If you are looking for clematis or other climbers, Brushwood Nursery is an excellent source. Brushwood offers hundreds of clematis varieties as well as honeysuckles, trumpet vines, passion flowers, wisteria and jasmines. The informative website is a virtual encyclopedia of clematis - you will have a hard time narrowing down your choices! I was inspired to try clematis after hearing Cheryl Monroe's lecture, and she recommended Brushwood. Since then, I have ordered plants for myself and as gifts for friends, and they have all done beautifully. Owner Dan Long takes great care in selecting, growing and shipping healthy, vigorous plants. They now sell all the vines in one-gallon pots with free shipping. brushwoodnursery.com

Flowers by the Sea

I love the spiky form and delicate flowers of salvias, but you rarely find any varieties other than 'Caradonna' and 'May Knight' at local nurseries. Luckily, there is a California nursery called Flowers by the Sea, which specializes in beautiful salvias and has 52 varieties that are hardy to Zone 6. Last year I added salvias in periwinkle blue, soft pink, magenta and white to my perennial border and they bloomed until November! Plants are large and healthy and the website offers a wealth of information about growing salvias. If you sign up for their newsletter, you receive weekly Salvia deals. fbts.com

Santa Rosa Gardens

Santa Rosa Gardens offers an extensive selection of perennials with an emphasis on ornamental grasses - there are 182 varieties of grasses on offer! Most of the plants are sun lovers, and you will be pleased with the number of varieties to choose from - 13 types of agastache, 32 varieties of coreopsis, 14 Gaillardias, 44 Sedums, and more. In addition to standard 3-1/2" pots, you can also order perennials in flats of 72 if you are doing a mass planting. Santa Rosa Gardens is family-owned grower that has been in the horticulture business for four generations and offers excellent customer service.

Santa Rosa Gardens has also started a new subscription service called My Garden Box. The nursery assembles a custom crafted collection of plants and gardens goods that you can receive on a monthly basis or send as a gift. The plants are beautifully packaged and arrive as a lovely surprise.  santarosagardens.com

Pine Knot Farms

Hellebores have a special place in my heart, and there is no better place to look for new varieties than Pine Knot Farms. Judith and Dick Tyler have been breeding hellebores for more than 25 years, with stock plants from the UK, the Balkans, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The couple authored a comprehensive book on Hellebores in 2006. I hope to visit their North Carolina nursery someday, but in the meantime, I try some of their new offerings every year. pineknotfarms.com

Palatine Roses

When I replanted my rose bed last year, I was determined to use hardy, disease-free roses. I ordered bare root rose bushes from several sources, and the best plants came from Palatine Roses in Ontario. The roses had well-developed root systems and strong canes, and flourished during the entire season with no signs of black spot or other diseases. I had blooms through November. Palatine has a minimum order of 3 roses, and the mail order deadline is March 15 for spring shipping. palatineroses.com

High Country Gardens

If you are looking to develop a drought-tolerant perennial garden, look for plants at Santa Fe's High Country Gardens. The nursery has been dedicated to improving the environment "one garden at a time", and has been a pioneer in the concept of xeriscaping - gardening with plants that need minimal water once established. Founder David Salman has introduced unique hybrids for water-wise gardens, and all plants are grown neonicotinoid-free. This nursery is a great source of sun lovers such as liatris, agastache, lavender, coreopsis, monarda and more! The site is also rich with plant description and gardening advice. highcountrygardens.com

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Geraniaceae Nursery

One of my earliest "favorite plants" were the hardy cranesbill geraniums for their long-lasting dainty blooms and ease of care. I recently discovered a book devoted to this family of plants written by Robin Parer which led me to her specialty nursery in Marin County, Cal. While local nurseries sell less then 5 varieties, Geraniaceae offers close to 170 hardy geraniums hybrids, as well as erodiums and pelargoniums. If you love this family of plants, there is no better source! geraniaceae.com

Mason Hollow Nursery

If you have a shady garden or just love to collect hostas, you will enjoy ordering from Mason Hollow Nursery in Mason, New Hampshire. Owners Sue and Chuck Anderson opened the nursery in 2001, and offer an impressive array of more than 800 hosta varieties, as well as ferns, epimediums and other perennials. Plants arrive with good sized root systems and are ready to be planted in the garden. You can also visit Mason Hollow and see their lovely display gardens. masonhollow.com

Lazy S's Farm Nursery

A family-owned nursery in Virginia, Lazy S's Farm offers a huge range of perennials as well as many hard-to-find hybrids of shrubs. Do you like callicarpa? You can find 13 varieties at Lazy S. All plants come in quart pots, so it is an inexpensive way to purchase an unusual shrub if you have the patience to grow it on for a few years before it makes a significant presence in the garden. When delivered, plants are healthy and vigorous and ready to take their place in the garden. lazyssfarm.com

 

The Surprising Beauty of Hosta Flowers

I had the pleasure of touring several Hudson River estates after settling my daughter for her senior year at college. One of the places I visited was the Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield in Hyde Park, NY. Beatrix Farrand was one of the first women landscape designers, whose work defined the American taste in gardens through the first half of the 20th century. She championed the use of perennial plants instead of annual bedding, using color harmony, bloom sequence and texture to create beautiful herbaceous borders. Bellefield is one of the earliest examples of her private work - a small walled garden with long flower borders that show single color combinations from pink to blue, purple and white.

 Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield

Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield

Seeing the garden in late August, I was struck by the white border, because it showcased a beautiful combination of white phlox and the flowers of Hosta plantaginea. I have many hostas in my own garden, and appreciate them for their strong, lush foliage in a myriad of colors and patterns. But I had never thought of planting hostas en masse,  purely for their flowers.

There are more than 58 varieties of hostas that have evolved from Hosta plantaginea. They all bloom in August and are prized for their lovely pure white flowers and strong, sweet fragrance. They need ample sun to bloom, and the flowers open in the late afternoon instead of early morning like most hostas. Some of the most well-know culitvars of H. plantaginea are 'Honeybells', 'Aphrodite', 'Cathedral Windows', 'Fragrant Bouquet' and 'Guacamole'.

 Hosta 'Fragrant Bouquet'

Hosta 'Fragrant Bouquet'

'Venus', another cultivar of H. plantaginea, has striking flowers that are fully double.

Since hostas are members of the Liliacea family, they produce funnel-shaped blooms on scapes that arise from the center of the plant. Like day lilies, individual flowers last for only one day. The plant may produce ten or more scapes with up to 50 flowers per stem, so the bloom time can last of 3-4 weeks. By planting different cultivars, you can have hosta flowers in your shade garden from May until frost.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

Most of us are unimpressed with the lanky scapes and violet blooms of common green hostas. But hosta flowers can range in color from deep purple to white infused with pink.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

If you look at hosta flowers closely, you may see colorful striations.

Others feature unusual flower scape forms, almost resembling scepters, like those of the 'Blue Dolphin' hosta.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

One of the latest hybridizing trends has been to create branched flowers, as seen in this example created by Tony Avent of Plant Delights nursery.

So as you plan future gardens, give some thought to including hostas purely for their floral display. They can make magnificent additions to your landscape!

Five-Plant Gardens

I recently came across a book in the library called Five-Plant Gardens by Nancy  J. Ondra, which features 52 ways to grow a perennial garden with just five plants. I was intrigued by the topic – it reminded me of the “5-Ingredient Recipes” cookbook that my sister-in-law swears by. The book was beautifully designed and illustrated, so I just had to bring it home for a closer look.

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Nancy Ondra wrote this guide to simple gardening primarily for novice gardeners. As she states in her introduction, “..when you’re new to the process, starting with a manageable-sized space, a clear shopping list, and a simple-to-follow planting plan can make the difference between inspiring success and frustrating disappointment.” I think her five-plant strategy is great for gardeners of any experience level, and may even be very beneficial for those seasoned gardeners who are looking to scale back and simplify their complex, time consuming gardens.

The “Five-Plant Gardens” concept is a great organizing and editing tool. (And by “gardens”, I mean a garden bed, or a small plot, not the entire property.) After gardening on my own property for 22 years, studying landscape design and visiting hundreds of gardens, I can attest to “less is more.” Less variety and more of each type of plant, that is. Not the collector’s approach of “one of this and one of that”, but large masses of the same plant, which create a stronger statement in the landscape. It can be very hard to do, and requires steely self-control, (not to mention a special “collector’s bed” where you can house your impulse purchases), but the result can be very satisfying. And with a small variety of plants, the maintenance is much easier.

I have a “five-plant garden” that I installed 20 years ago, and it still pleases me after all these years. It is a shaded circular bed in the loop of my driveway, with a gazing globe as its focal point. The five perennials are hellebores, astilbes, cinnamon ferns, hostas, and fringed bleeding hearts – low maintenance shade plants that provide four-season interest.

Every month has its own highlight:

  Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

  Emerging fiddleheads in April

Emerging fiddleheads in April

  Hosta foliage unfurls in May

Hosta foliage unfurls in May

  Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

  Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Hosta blooms stand out in August, and the changing colors of fall foliage provide interest from September through November.

I’m going to break the five-plant rule by adding snowdrops for February appeal. Since they are early bulbs that completely disappear, perhaps they won’t count?

Top Ten Hostas (For the Moment)

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By Joan Butler

With so many great hosta to choose from, creating a list of ten favorites turned out to be a daunting task. As I strolled my gardens, so many hostas caught my eye and jockeyed for position on my list. Thoughts of hostas I have admired in other gardens added to the delightful confusion.

Finally, I decided to choose five hostas that awe me every year, and five hostas that are awing me at this moment. Already, as I look at my list, I wish I had room for more! Hostas like ‘Paradigm’, ‘Cup of Grace’, ‘Whirlwind’, ‘Dick Ward’, ‘Sun Power’, ‘Salute’, ‘Little Wonder’ are also awing me at this moment and deserve recognition. Maybe on the next list….

1. Hosta ‘Liberty’ 

Large, 4’wide x 2.5’ high, possibly larger. Dark blue-green leaves with a wide margin of golden yellow form an upright clump. Its size, bright variegation and form make it a “wow” plant that is a focal point in any garden.

2. Hosta ‘Queen of the Seas’   

Large, 6’ wide x 4’ high. Forms a beautiful architectural clump of blue-gray leaves, deeply ribbed with pie crust edges. Breathtaking as it unfurls in spring and a commanding presence all season long.

3. Hosta ‘Guacamole’  

Large, 4’ wide x 2’high. This hosta made the list for two reasons. The first: its green-edged chartreuse leaves have a satiny gleam that makes them look springtime fresh throughout the growing season. The second: its large flowers are fragrant! Plus, this hosta is a fast grower, and can take plenty of sun.

4. Hosta ‘Allegan Fog’ 

Medium, 2’ wide x 1.5’ high. Gently rippled leaves with a curved tip and variegation that changes as the season progresses, make this a favorite. The leaves are irregularly margined with dark green; the centers are white in spring, changing to pale green flecked and misted with darker green. Lovely.

5. Hosta ‘Little Miss Magic  

Small, 1’ wide x 6” high. The spring foliage of this little beauty is brilliant yellow! Add to that the lance-shaped form of its rippled leaves, and you have garden perfection.

6. Hosta ‘Duke of Cornwall  

Large,5’ wide x 2’ high. Big, heart-shaped dark green/blue leaves have a wide, feathered pale green margin in spring. The margin changes to ivory, a feature which looks especially dramatic by the light of the moon. Every time I see this hosta at night, I think it would make a great addition to a moon garden because of its large size and corresponding amount of white detail.

7. Hosta ‘Shade Fanfare’

 Medium, 2’ wide x 1’ high. Apple green heart-shaped leaves have wide creamy margins and a pointy tip. The leaf surface is slightly seer-suckered, a detail I am always drawn to in hostas. A delicate overall appearance on a sturdy plant.

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8. Hosta ‘Raspberry Sorbet’

 Small, 1.5’ x 8”. Lanceolate, dark green leaves are very shiny, rippled and twisted, with petioles streaked with red. Its flower scapes do not rise straight up from the center as in other hostas, but emerge at an angle spaced all around the plant. To add to this: the petioles and calyxes are streaked with raspberry pink and the flowers are pale lavender with purple stripes. Wow.

9. Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ 

Small, 11” wide x 6” tall. Blue-green leaves are shallowly cupped and held horizontally. Charming flowers are held low on the plant, and are lavender with violet stripes. This hosta is very popular, and deservedly so. It is easily grown and likes morning sun.

10. Hosta ‘Little Ann’ 

Miniature, 3” tall. This sweet little hosta is a spreading type, with golden foliage and a narrow cream edge. It is useful as an underplanting for upright hosta and at the front of the border. As with other yellow hosta, its spring brilliance is outstanding.

If you are interested in learning more about these and hundreds of other hosta, visit the Hosta Library website http://www.hostalibrary.org/index.html. Arranged alphabetically, the site features numerous pictures of popular and rare hostas, many photos taken in garden settings.

Joan Butler enjoys her collection of more than 300 hostas in her beautiful half-acre garden in Holliston, MA. She is an active member of the New England and American Hosta Societies and served as co-chairman of the garden selection committee for the 2011 National Hosta Convention. Her own garden was featured in a tour of the New England Hosta Society in the summer of 2011.

Daylilies and hosta for dinner?

Although my garden is mostly ornamental, I’ve always longed to incorporate more edibles. My efforts at vegetable gardening have repeatedly been met by failure – I’ve been outwitted by chipmunks, rabbits and woodchucks, defeated by grasshoppers, cabbage flies and other pesky insects, and the weather never seems to cooperate with the type of vegetable that I grow that season. So it was with great interest that I discovered Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos in the bookstore of Longwood Gardens. I devoured the book in one evening, and am looking forward to tasting many of her recommendations.

As Ellen explains in the introduction to her book, many of our favorite garden plants have edible parts that have simply been overlooked. And since many of us gardeners already know what we’re growing in our own backyards, plant identification is easier than foraging in the wild. Sixty-five familiar plants you didn’t know you could eat are the stars of this impressively comprehensive guide, and Ellen stresses the “ease and elegance” of foraging these familiar greens, fruits, nuts, seeds, tubers, and fungi in yards and nearby environs.

I was surprised and delighted to find that some of the perennials that grow with unabashed abundance in my garden are on the edible list. Here are 5 of my favorites:

1. Daylilies

Do you have an abundance of the orange “roadside” daylilies somewhere on your property? Mine grow right in my compost pile where they were discarded several years ago. I have always known that dried lily buds are integral to Chinese hot and sour soup. But did you know that you can eat them fresh – either raw in salads where the taste is reminiscent of green beans, or lightly sautéed in olive oil with salt and pepper?

The best surprise about daylilies? You can eat the tubers, which are like mini potatoes! They are small like baby fingerlings, and are best harvested in fall and early spring when they are plump and full of starchy goodness. Like potatoes, they can be roasted in the oven with a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.

2. Dahlias

Every year when I dig my dahlia tubers for storage, I feel like a farmer harvesting her potatoes. Little did I know that dahlia tubers can be eaten like potatoes – boiled, roasted or baked. Apparently they don’t have a strong flavor, so they are a good vehicle for gravies and spices. They can also be grated and used like zucchini in quickbreads. Although I have a hard time picturing all those gorgeous dahlia flowers going to waste, dahlia tubers would be fun to try at least once!

3. Bishop’s Weed

I planted variegated Bishop’s Weed in my dry shade garden despite being warned about its invasiveness. It’s good to know that I can harvest and eat it to keep it under control! The plants should be cut at ground level and the stems discarded. Young Bishop’s Weed leaves can be added to salads, where their taste is light, fresh and reminiscent of celery. Mature leaves can be a substitute for cooked spinach in recipes, particularly Greek spinach pie. Can’t wait to try it!

4. Bee Balm

Bee balm, also called bergamot, is a member of the mint family, and both its foliage and flowers are useful as herbs. For some people, the taste resembles oregano, while others are reminded of Early Grey tea. You can actually brew a delicious bergamot tea, the chopped leaves may be used as an oregano substitute in recipes, and the chopped flowers make a colorful addition to pasta dishes, rice, pizza, tomato sauces and meat rubs.

5. Hosta

Like many gardeners, I was enamored with propagating plants early in my gardening hobby, and now I have a plethora of plain green hostas that require a crowbar to remove. It’s great to know that I can serve them for dinner! You can remove a third of the plant’s outer leaves without harming the health of the plant. New, tight shoots can be served like asparagus over pasta and rice. Slightly older shoots that are just starting to open can be briefly blanched , then sautéed and served as a vegetable with  or without sauce. In northern Japan, hosta has become a commercial crop. So what’s stopping us?

I hope that you’ve been inspired to learn more about “Backyard Foraging”. Sixty  more backyard edibles await you in Ellen’s book, which can be found at Amazon. Bon apetit!

Gardening in the Hellstrip

The hellstrip — the space between a street and a public sidewalk, also known as a tree park, boulevard, meridian, and planting strip — is getting a lot of attention these days with the publication of Evelyn Hadden’s Hellstrip Gardening by Timber Press. This comprehensive guide with gorgeous color photographs of hellstrip gardens across the country offers inspiration and visual guidance to anyone ready to tackle this final frontier.

Hellstrip gardening is nothing new to my friend Kathy, who has been adding curb appeal to her home with hellstrip plantings for 15 years. Kathy began her roadside garden when she got tired of trying to keep the lawn grass alive in the hellstrip year after year. Always keen on water conservation, Kathy wanted a low maintenance solution for this long, sunny expanse. Her large backyard garden had also become shaded over the years as the pine trees grew taller and taller, so the sunny hellstrip offered a chance to relocate her sun lovers from the backyard and to try some new plants in this totally different environment.

She began the garden by digging up a small section of sod around her mailbox, amending the soil, and planting various sedums that would be low maintenance and drought resistant. Bit by bit, the hellstrip garden grew, and then expanded to the other side of the driveway. Now it measures close to 100 feet, and boasts a wide variety of perennials. Kathy learned through trial and error which plants to grow, and which plants to avoid. Some perennials, like yarrows, were too tall and floppy. Annuals were too labor intensive, except for the portulaca that self sows and returns year after year. But there were many perennials that acclimated to this dry, sunny area with its relatively poor soil.

Mediterranean plants and herbs – many of which sport silver foliage and prefer a sunny situation with lean soil and good drainage, thrive in Kathy’s roadside garden. Sedums, Lamb’s ears, salvia, sage, alliums, fescues, rosemary, thyme, mint, sea lavender, and catmint bask in the baking hot sun. The garden delights passersby with a changing palette of blooms and foliage. In the early spring, crocus, creeping phlox and species tulips, which love the good drainage, cheer up the border with their blooms. They are followed by stately bearded irises, columbines and poppies in June, and daylilies, helianthus and coreopsis in mid summer. A prickly pear cactus at the base of the mailbox surprises visitors with its yellow flowers in July. Sedums steal the show in August. In a shadier part of the garden, hostas and heucheras provided beautiful foliage from spring to fall.

Gardening in the hellstrip has its challenges. The soil in these areas is usually cheap, compacted fill. Kathy amends it at planting time with compost, and has been top dressing with leaf mulch. Because of the distance from the house, the garden is difficult to water. Although Kathy does not irrigate regularly, newly installed plants need supplemental watering, which amounts to many trips with a watering can. Weeds easily blow into the garden and crabgrass is a particular problem. Since the hellstrip is town-owned property, large sections have been dug up utility companies several times without prior notice.

But overall, gardening in the hellstrip has been a positive experience for Kathy. Neighbors stop by to admire the garden, and Kathy receives many compliments on sprucing up the neighborhood. “The hellstrip builds community,” says Kathy. “People stop by to chat and ask about the flowers. And it gives me a chance to try plants that I couldn’t grow anywhere else in my garden.”

A Dozen Dazzling Spring Containers

  (Poppies, lettuce and pansies grace a terrace at Longwood Gardens)

(Poppies, lettuce and pansies grace a terrace at Longwood Gardens)

I recently came across a wonderful description of "pot gardening" by landscape architect Thomas Rainer, who writes a thought-provoking gardening blog called "Grounded Design":

"Pots are perhaps the purest expression of planting design. Composing a pot is like a chef creating a salad—all of the rules of design get stripped down to their essence. In a larger landscape, the hand of the designer can be lost, but with a pot, the artificial environment is a pure display of horticultural skill."

I saw a fabulous display of this horticultural skill during my recent visit to Longwood Gardens and Chanticleer. Need inspiration for your spring pots? See the beauties below.

Spring Containers at Longwood Gardens

  Pitcher plants and ferns are an unusual choice for this bowl in part-sun!

Pitcher plants and ferns are an unusual choice for this bowl in part-sun!

  A grand display creates a focal point in a long walkway.

A grand display creates a focal point in a long walkway.

  Small redbud trees and dark pink foxgloves add drama.

Small redbud trees and dark pink foxgloves add drama.

  A pot of wallflowers and burgundy heuchera is simple yet stunning.

A pot of wallflowers and burgundy heuchera is simple yet stunning.

  Nothing says spring like English daisies, ranunculus, pansies, willows

Nothing says spring like English daisies, ranunculus, pansies, willows

Spring pots at Chanticleer

  a formal urn of purple, orange, chartreuse and silver welcomes visitors.

a formal urn of purple, orange, chartreuse and silver welcomes visitors.

  The simple repetition of deep purple-black pansies accentuates the pink and purple tulips.

The simple repetition of deep purple-black pansies accentuates the pink and purple tulips.

  A large pot of edibles and flowers in the courtyard.

A large pot of edibles and flowers in the courtyard.

  Blue fescue grass sets off the white poppies in a courtyard of raked sand.

Blue fescue grass sets off the white poppies in a courtyard of raked sand.

  The colorful branches of red-twig dogwood 'Midwinter Fire' combine beautifully with orange poppies, bronze fennel and golden creeping jenny.

The colorful branches of red-twig dogwood 'Midwinter Fire' combine beautifully with orange poppies, bronze fennel and golden creeping jenny.

Feel inspired? I sure did!

Miniature Hostas: It's a Small World

Miniature and dwarf hosta are gaining in popularity. They are widely used in troughs and rock gardens. When planted in the landscape, they look best grouped together, accented with other tiny perennials and conifers.

An elevated position is particularly useful when planting miniature hostas, to bring them closer to eye level. This incredible planter is actually a water trough in a garden in PA. The mix of texture and form and fascinating plant choices give this distinction.

This astounding display is from a garden in Bridgewater: three rusted oil tanks cut in half, filled with miniature and small hosta. Use your imagination! Anything can be adapted for use as a container.

This trio is an example of a variegation connection, pairing plants that have different amounts of the same two colors. In the front we have 'Bitsy Gold', and the ginger is Asarum naniflorum 'Eco Décor'. Labeling miniatures discretely can be difficult. This gardener used flat river rocks with black labels, a creative solution.

'Blue Mouse Ear is a miniature/small hosta. Here it is paired with the variegated dwarf grass, 'Beatlemania', pulmonaria, and the miniature Epimedium 'Liliputian'. Many sports of 'Blue Mouse Ears' have been introduced, including 'Cat and Mouse', 'Country Mouse', Mighty Mouse' and 'Snow Mouse'.

With so many possible uses and occupying such a small amount of real estate, is it any wonder that miniature hostas are gaining in popularity?


Blue Hosta in the Garden

There are very few perennials available to us here in New England that offer the color and form of blue hosta. With colors ranging from deep blue to powdery light blue, they offer a quiet presence that can be used almost anywhere in the shade garden. Plants range in size from giant to small and display a variety of forms and leaf shapes.

Actually, blue hostas are green hostas with a coating of white wax on the leaf  surface, which makes them appear blue. Blue hostas prefer shade: too much sun melts the waxy coating. Like most hosta leaves, they change color throughout the growing season. Blue leaves eventually turn to shades of green.

'Dress Blues' (above) is a medium hosta that forms an upright mound of blue leaves with a yellow margin that lightens to cream as the season progresses. Hosta and ferns make lovely bed-fellows with the delicate fern fronds contrasting and complementing the solid hosta leaves. The dark stems of this fern play off the blue of the hosta leaves, creating subtle harmony.

Hosta: The Friendship Plant

According to the Perennial Plant Association, hostas have become the No. 1 selling perennial in America. And no wonder. With more than 7,000 named varieties to choose from, there is a size, color and shape of hosta to suit every taste and garden. In addition, this shade-tolerant perennial is easy to grow and serves many functions in the landscape. Large hosta, such as H. 'Sagae' and H. 'Empress Wu', make fantastic focal points. Hostas can be planted in drifts (H. 'Austin Dickinson') or as a ground cover (H. Kabitan').  Hostas also make wonderful edging plants along garden beds or pathways (H. 'Golden Tiara' or H. 'Radiant Edger').

Hostas are native to eastern Asia and were first brought to Europe in the 1700's. They made their way to the U.S. in the 19th century. There are about 40 different species of hosta, nearly all of which are green.  Over the last fifty years, thousands of new hosta cultivars have been introduced through hybridization and “sports” (mutations), and the range of colors has grown to include bold yellows, deep blues, pure white and dramatic variegations.

Hosta are hardy to Zone 3, which means that gardeners living in even the coldest climates can enjoy their beauty. Hosta offer a three-season presence and all change color as the season progresses. Bright yellows can become chartreuse, chalky blues can become green and the yellow centers of certain green hosta can become pure white. Some emerge brightly colored in the spring, then fade, while others are at their peak in the fall. All end the growing season by turning a pale straw yellow, that looks beautiful in the soft light of autumn.

The genus Hosta is a member of the family Liliacea, which includes lilies. Nearly all hosta are summer-flowering, with flowers that grow on a bloom stalk, or scape, that rises out of the center of the plant. Flowers range in color from white to purple; many are striped and some are intensely fragrant, such as H. plantaginea 'Venus'. Hosta flowers last only a day, like daylilies, but mature plants can produce a dozen scapes and hundreds of flowers.  With hosta, it is possible to have flowers blooming all summer long.

While most people think of hosta as a shade plant, most need some sun and many do best in full sun, such as H. 'Stained Glass', and H. 'Guacamole'. Hosta range in size from 10 feet in diameter (H. 'Sum and Substance') to a few inches in diameter (H. 'Shiny Penny' and H. 'Pandora's Box').  Dwarf and miniature hosta are all the rage now. They look wonderful planted in groups in the garden and make fantastic additions to trough plantings.

As if all the choices for size, color and shape aren't enough, you also can select hosta based on their names alone. Who wouldn't enjoy H. 'Queen of the Seas' or H. 'Lakeside Sea Captain' gracing their seaside gardens? I will confess to purchasing hostas because I enjoyed the name. I have H. 'Mountain Mist' because it reminds me of family camping trips, and a beautiful H. 'Three Sisters', because it reminds me of the relationship of my three daughters.

Hosta are called “The Friendship Plant” by the American Hosta Society, because of the friends that are made as people share their hosta and visit each others gardens. I can vouch for that. Since I joined the New England Hosta Society, I have been to many gardens that contain over 1,000 different named varieties of hosta, to gardens owned by hybridizers that contain the newest hosta available, and to more modest gardens.  All along the way, I have met friendly, generous people and have come to appreciate even more the genus Hosta and the beauty and tranquility it brings to the home garden.

Every year, the American Hosta Society hosts a convention somewhere in the United States.  It is attended by hosta afficionados from all over the country and the world. This year, for the first time, it is being held in New England, June 22-26, at the Convention Center-Best Western Royal Plaza in Marlboro, MA. For complete information on the event, go to www.hosta2011.org.

A great online resource for hosta information is www.hostalibrary.org. It describes thousands of hosta in an alphabetized list, with pictures.

By Joan Butler