Tree Talk: Old generals in the revolution

Tree Talk: Old generals in the revolution

Tree Talk: Old generals in the revolution

The revolution began in ’76 ... give or take a year or two. I’m not talking about the American Revolution, here. No, it’s the American Horticultural Revolution, circa 1976, of which I write.

There always have been a few very serious gardeners in our country. Corn, beans and squashes were carefully cultivated by the first Americans. The rose collection of Monticello and the azaleas and camellias of Middleton Place come to mind.

There were a handful of people, a hefty percentage of them in the Pacific Northwest (often considered to be somewhat eccentric), who were serious plants people. Many of them created great American gardens, large and small, in the 19th and the early 20th centuries.

For the most part, however, our citizens divided the plant environment surrounding their homes into three parts: the yard (which included mowing the lawn and shearing the shrubs); the vegetable patch; and the flower beds. The concept of “The Garden” as an all-inclusive thing was pretty much a European or Japanese concept. That changed.

For whatever reason, the 1970s produced a period of enlightenment, followed by revolutionary changes. First came the physical fitness boom, ushering in workout gear, marathons and gyms, and then the foodie explosion, bringing high quality restaurants, cooking shops and delis.

About that time, dirt under fingernails became startlingly fashionable. Nurseries expanded, boutique plant shops popped up everywhere, horticultural columns appeared in newspapers and magazines, gardening books flew off shelves, garden clubs swelled in membership, botanical Latin was heard slipping off tongues and, with hurricane force, never-before-seen or heard of plants replaced clipped grass.

Yes, it was a revolution, and some of the old guard was banished. Petunias, pansies and geraniums were, sadly, for a time, considered too common to grow. The mob can be fickle. As Madame Roland said as she stood, awaiting her ascension to the guillotine, “Oh freedom, what crimes are committed in your name!”

Which brings me to hostas. This old standby survived.

In the past, perennial beds or flower gardens were just that. The limited palette of plants that bloomed yearly were chosen for their blossoms: peonies, bearded iris, roses, all the favorites of grandma’s flower plot. Hostas bloomed, but gardeners chose them to edge beds with their reliably dense crops of broad, ribbed or quilted leaves.

Once the horticultural revolution got into full swing, perennials grown for interesting and colorful leaves became fashionable. Heucheras sailed to overnight stardom, Heuchera “Palace Purple” leading the charge.

Having one gave the new wave of horticultural neophytes great bragging rights. Then hybridizers and propagators started crossing and selecting the green, sometimes green and cream, leafed hostas.

The offerings sprung up like dandelions in spring. They sold. The frenzy was on, and now hosta leaves are on the market in a variety of greens, blues, golds creams, solid in color or variegated, in leaves no bigger than your thumb nail or as large as a dinner platter. Rarely will you find one you don’t want. Mail order catalogs and online websites offer them by the dozens. They stand up well to shipping and, once received and planted, shoot into growth, rarely disappointing customers.

Herbaceous perennials, hostas appear in March, their fat, pointed buds popping out of the ground. They leaf out, putting on a great show until cold weather, usually in November, take them down.

They disappear completely in winter, only to emerge the following spring in a bigger, denser clump. Pretty much disease resistant, able to withstand some drought, happy in most soils, hostas have only one real problem: Slugs love them. If you do not have a perfectly slug-free garden, the critters will gnaw on the buds coming out of the ground, causing leaves to open that look like Swiss cheese, if they make it up at all. Once leafed out, the slugs keep chewing.

Consider growing them in pots, up where slugs find them hard to reach. The plants you see in the photograph are in pots. The two variegated plants are “Freedom” and “Revolution.” Beside them is “Dancing Queen,” bright leaves that stay reliably yellow to chartreuse all season. They make a great show, spring, summer and fall in my garden.

When the hostas go down after a cold snap, I move the pots to the north side of the house, out of sight but open to seasonal rainfall to await the appearance of next year’s buds, when I’ll bring them back out. Come late autumn, it’s a case of Hosta luego (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I feed hostas, as I do all container plants, monthly with a liquid plant food, mixed to manufacturer’s instructions. I water them, groom them when leaves are broken or die. Occasionally I’ll cut a leaf to use in an arrangement indoors. They are long lasting.

Clumps of hostas expand with vigor. Every three years or so, pull them out of their pots as you put them away for winter; cut big clumps into quarters and repot, individually. The roots are fleshy, and you don’t need to be careful about slicing them up. Just be certain each division has some roots on the end. Share with friends or increase your own show.

So, here’s a salute to hostas. Put one, or several, of these old generals in containers to act as focal points in your garden. They’ll shout out “Attention!” to any visitor entering your garden. Guests will march right to these stately and commanding plants saying, “Where did you find these? You’re growing them in pots! What a revolutionary idea!”