First, a bit of history. When the Cedar Valley Arboretum and Botanic Gardens began, two of the largest trees in the pasture were honey locusts. It was the natural setting for planners to begin work on what is now our current Shade Garden, and the same trees still tower over the setting.
The shade pattern was studied, and a small shade garden began in 1998. Sharon and Roger Jordan worked hard to spearhead and design this area, assisted by Maurine Crisp, Nancy Friedman, and Jan Guthrie. The late Sharon Weiss of Country Bloomers in Vinton generously donated approximately 75 special hostas which formed the foundation of the initial shade garden. The small site was enlarged about ten years ago under the leadership of Keri Leymaster (a CVABG intern), and our prior Executive Director Mollie Aronowitz. The site was extended to the east, with additional hosta and understory redbud trees. We were fortunate that John Miller placed benches in this area so the shade and plantings could be enjoyed. The large boulders nearby were moved to this area to fit the natural design. A grant from the Community Foundation in recent years added the hard surface path to assist visitors in accessing this area. For about the past five years, a private volunteer group called the Gentle Gardeners has met weekly in the growing season to weed and maintain the shade garden.
The primary plantings in the shade garden are hosta. Hostas are hardy, herbaceous perennials grown primarily for their foliage. They are shade tolerant and very low maintenance. They were introduced to the United States in the early 1800’s via Europe, although they are native to China, Japan and Korea. Today there are literally thousands of hosta cultivars, reflecting their extreme popularity with home gardeners. Hosta foliage colors range from chartreuse to deep blue-green, and many have striking variegated combinations with white. The shape of the leaf can vary from circular to heart, oval or lance, and textures vary also. Height ranges from 2 inches up to 36 inches. Leaf sizes can range from petite to gigantic (several feet). Blooms can be showy, ranging in colors from white to purple, and some blooms are fragrant and attractive to hummingbirds and bees. With these choices, you can pick a hosta for almost any landscape situation, and they clearly are effective with other companion shade perennials.
Hostas prefer regular moisture, and most will benefit from a few hours of morning sun. Although some varieties are promoted as being sun tolerant, most hostas have leaves that scorch and become unattractive with too much hot direct sun. They are relatively pest free, although slugs can become a problem. When mulching, it is very important to keep the area under the hosta leaves (at least 6 inches from the stems) free of mulch. Avoid watering late in the day, so leaves are dry at night, and try to space your plants so air can circulate. It is reported that hosta are attractive to deer, but thus far the Arboretum has been fortunate and not suffered from deer damage to our site.
If a hosta is purchased as a potted plant, it can be planted anytime during our regular growing season, although spring may be best. If planted later in the growing season, they will need more moisture to assist root development in the heat. They prefer well drained soil that is slightly acidic. Although it is not necessary, after three to five years a hosta can be dug up and divided to create new plantings. It may be easiest to do this in spring, shortly after the leaves begin to emerge from the ground, but can be done into the fall—so long as the roots have time to develop before frost. They need no special care to overwinter—many leave the dead foliage in place to mark the location of the plant, which should be cleared in the spring.
However, our Arboretum Shade Garden has many plants other than hosta. In early spring, a few wildflowers can be found. Now, in August, the round seed heads of the jack-in-the-pulpits are turning bright red. There are also coral bells, peonies, iris, Jacob’s ladder, and lady’s mantle. One of this author’s favorites is the turtlehead. Turtlehead, also known as balmony, is part of the figwort family and has the scientific name of Chelone glabra. (Chelone was a Greek nymph who insulted the gods, and in punishment was turned into a turtle). This plant is generally found along streams or damp ground, and there are at least two large clumps over two feet tall in the Shade Garden, now beginning to bloom (midsummer to fall). The flowers are said to look like the heads of turtles. The flowers are irregular, two-lipped, and grow in dense spikes.
Come down to enjoy our Shade Garden, admire the hosta, and this month find the pulpit seeds and turtlehead blooms!
Written by Pat McGivern