Flights of foliage fancy from hostas

It seems no sooner does the trying summer season arrive, with its attendant watering problems, than the Christmas season also comes flying down the chimney, with a never-ending commitment to end-of-year functions, drinks, nibbles and a surfeit of bonhomie.

Trying desperately not to become too Scrooge-like at this time of the year, I cast around for the silver lining said to be in every cloud. In this instance, some social functions also offer the chance to wander around new gardens and see how other people cope with various gardening issues.

Last weekend was a good example. On Saturday evening, we went out to celebrate a friend's graduation and had fun strolling around her extensive gardens on a slightly exposed site on Upper Plain. Valiant attempts to try and keep the wind out had certainly had some effect but, on a windy night, it was plain to see the extent of the problem - the shelter belts were rocking dramatically.

There was a lot to like in the garden, which features plenty of old-fashioned, and highly-scented roses, along with other beautifully fragrant plants such as philadelphus and dianthus. Somewhat incongruously, the roses are interplanted with various members of the Protea family - not an association I would have immediately thought of, but it works well enough.

A large-flowered, white King Protea, P. cyanaroides, was especially enchanting, with many guests commenting on it.

But it was a glorious bed of large leaves that really stood out. Around the back of the house and out of the wind and sun was a large bed mainly comprised of hostas and Chatham Island forget-me-nots, their large leaves making a fabulous contrast with each other.

Hostas are one of the best value plants you can grow for places that are a little shaded - I have a long and narrow bed of them on our south-facing wall. They are largely grown for their impressive leaves but, in many cases, equally as deserving of a place in the garden through their attractive flowers.

There were a few varieties I could recognise but there were certainly others I did not know - there are many hundreds of varieties in New Zealand and thousands in other parts of the world. They come in a wide range of colours - blue, green and yellow foliage predominates, but when you throw in various variegations, the variation seems endless.

Most do best in reasonably shady areas - that way the blue varieties remain blue as they are prone to turning blue/green with sun. On the other hand, yellow and gold varieties, given extra sunlight, will intensify and hold their colour. Make sure the sunlight is not too bright though as hot, dry conditions and full sun can cause the foliage to burn. Green forms with white markings and edges are best grown in shade where their differentiation will appearfoliage fantasy from hostas more marked.

Most hostas do best in moist soil, preferably also humus-rich. The best hostas I have ever seen are growing in Taranaki, where the combination of volcanic soil and a cool, wet climate combines to give ideal growing conditions. Although we cannot do much to change our climate, there are a few things we can do to ameliorate the soil conditions and, at the same time, provide a cooler root run.

Obviously, we should start with the coolest garden we have and then we can add some extra humus to the soil - lots of compost is probably the best thing to use. This will add nutriment to the soil as well as helping maintain a cool root run.

Most hostas have pale lilac flowers, not especially attractive but pretty enough in their own way. A few varieties have white flowers and, in some cases, they are quite large and imposing. One of the best blue varieties, H. sieboldiana, has attractive white flowers in mid-spring.

Although they are not noted as fragrant plants, there is one variety that can be relied upon to provide scent for weeks on end. H. plantaginea's fragrant, pure-white flowers are a treasured delight over the summer months.

Although hostas are pretty much pest free in most regards, they are martyrs to slugs and snails, especially early in the season. The gently unfolding leaves seem to be irresistible to these nuisances and they make a beeline for them at the drop of a hat.

If you want perfect leaves you will have to pop some snail bait around. Be careful, as some baits seem to have a powerful attraction for dogs. Some people swear the old glass of beer trick works - leave a half-a-glass hidden among the foliage and the slugs and snails will be drawn to it, fall in and drown. It is not one I have trialled I have to say.

Fortunately, the slugs seem to leave Chatham Island forget-me-nots alone, so you can grow them without the danger to your dogs. They enjoy similar conditions to hostas - cool root run, south-facing garden - but they probably prefer even better drainage than hostas and probably slighter drier soil too.

As well as these slight advantages, they also have the lovely blue flowers that earn it the common name, the bluest of all native plants, and surely one of the nicest of our flowering perennials. At this time of the year, the flower heads will have gone to seed, but even they are quite attractive.

And for many of you Chatham Island forget-me-nots have another advantage over hostas -they are evergreen.


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