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Hosta heaven is just down the road

by: David Plechl, Hostas are great summer plants, provided they have plenty of shade. The thick-leaved varieties are resistant to slugs, while the flowers are a magnet for  hummingbirds.

Like a dog pulling at the leash, my car automatically points toward the many nurseries south of Portland. Now a destination new to me goes to the top of the list - Sebright Gardens, home of a multitude of heavenly hostas.

We can thank Oklahoma's humid summers, as rough on hostas as on gardeners, for Sebright's move to acreage just north of Salem in 1998. But the display gardens of owners Thomas Johnson and Kirk Hansen look like they've been there much longer.

Well-tended plants gleam with health. Beneath the canopy of tall firs and pines original to the property, luminous hosta leaves light up the shade. Newly planted Japanese maples, dogwoods and redbuds add dappled shade and interesting leaf textures to the understory.

But it's the hostas at ground level that stir up the most excitement. Bold leaves in a wide array of colors create a breathtaking tapestry. Brilliant gold, deep green, blue-green and variegated hostas vie for attention.

Patterns abound. Leaves may be thin or thick, smooth or puckered, glossy or matte, crumpled, speckled, veined and even seersuckered. Leaf shapes vary, too - round, lance-shaped and heart-shaped.

Blue-green 'Abiqua Drinking Gourd' has leaves so large and cupped that they hold rainwater. If you look closely you'll see that blue-green 'Big Mama' has undulating edges, while 'Birchwood Ruffled Queen' has ruffled margins, and lance-shaped 'Curls' has wavy edges.

The trouble is the more you look, the more you want. To help me narrow the choices down, I ask Johnson to show me his favorites. There is a pregnant pause, and I realize I've asked a ridiculous question, the very same question I hate. But he is kind, and humors me.

'Inniswood' is his first top pick for its thick, crinkled, bright gold leaves edged with dark green. Spreading 4 feet wide and growing about 1 1/2 feet high, the clump is so dense you can't plant anything beneath it.

By comparison, 'Gentle Giant,' at 45 inches tall and 4 feet across, is much more upright. The enormous blue-green leaves of this Sebright introduction are cupped and heart-shaped. It stands in beautiful contrast to a red-leaved Japanese maple.

Johnson also loves 'Moonlight Sonata,' a blue-green hosta with fragrant lavender flower spikes. Several hostas have flowers with the added benefit of scent - 'Stained Glass,' with golden leaves edged in dark green, 'Guacamole,' a two-toned green with a darker edge, and 'Fragrant Bouquet,' with apple-green leaves edged in gold.

'Flowers in a lot of ways ruin the effect of tranquility,' Johnson says. As he snips off flower spikes, leaving the hostas to display their leaves without any distraction, I have to agree. The tug-of-war between horizontally wide-spreading leaves and vertical spikes of flowers seems jarring, while the leaves on their own are calming. Still, the flowers attract hummingbirds.

It's also easy to create commotion by overdoing the patterned leaves.

'Too many variegated hostas look like a big clashy mess,' Johnson cautions. 'You need green to set them off.'

'Second Wind' is his favorite green, with dark, glistening leaves. He also interplants perennials with solid green foliage to anchor the splashier hostas. For winter bloom, he adds evergreen hellebores - for spring color, epimediums. Lacy ferns and big-leaved calla lilies also keep the hostas good company.

For summer bloom, fuchsias and day lilies join the mix, and where there's some sun, Johnson tucks in lilies. Their showy flower trumpets emit delicious fragrance.

What do hostas need? Johnson recommends a big planting hole, amended with compost, and a tablespoon of slow-release fertilizer sprinkled beneath the leaves. Shade is ideal, and morning light is good, but most hostas suffer in strong afternoon sun.

Two inches of water each week is best for optimum growth. Slugs and snails are Hosta Enemy No. 1, so eliminate them early in the season with bait (read the label for any cautions) or mechanical means.

Thicker-leaved hostas with a waxy coating are more resistant to pests, so to play it safe seek succulent, leathery leaves. With 400 varieties available at Sebright, you'll find plenty of choices. Check their Web site, www.sebrightgardens.com, for hours and travel directions.

Garden events

Cracked Pots Garden Art Show, garden art from recycled materials, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., with a plant sale 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today and Wednesday, July 26, McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale. For information, see www.mcmenamins.com or call 503-669-8610. www.barbarablossom.com