Beware the lure of the hosta.
The plants that are a mainstay of any shade garden are grown mainly for their foliage. To the uninitiated—or, perhaps, unenlightened—they’re those ordinary, leafy green plants: boring—drab, even—and certainly no match for showier, colorful blooms.
But they grow on you (pun intended). Case in point: Jim and Sheila Hartmann’s garden. The one-acre yard, nestled just east of Parker’s Lake, is a hosta-lover’s dream, and will make even the most resistant start to appreciate the subtlety, beauty and infinite variety of these amazingly versatile plants.
The Hartmanns boast about 800 varieties, from dainty, petite “minis” like the Mouse Ears family, or the tiny little hosta that’s been growing in the hollow of a rock for a good seven years, to huge blue plants that can grow up to 6 feet tall, with textured leaves that can grow nearly a foot wide.
In fact, the garden is now officially a “collection,” labeled and grouped (admittedly sometimes whimsically). And though 800 might seem a lot, “We’re pickers compared to some of the collectors,” Jim Hartmann says of how they got their start. “There are over 8,000 named varieties.” The Hartmanns began by selecting just a few plants for their yard, but quickly became enamored by hostas, and so their “collection” was born.
“I’ve often said I’ve had prettier gardens when I had more variety [of different plants],” he says. “But when it went from a garden to collection, a collection has to be displayed a little differently. It’s the difference between displaying art in your home and in a museum.”
So, for example, if people want to see what the Sweet Innocence hosta looks like, it’s not only labeled, Jim has it in a database, and it’s marked as “F17” for its location in the garden. Their garden was part of the American Hosta Society’s convention tour last year when the group met in the Twin Cities, bringing fellow gardening and hosta fans from as far away as Europe and Asia.
But labels or no, this is by no means a plot of plants lined up in dull, orderly rows like soldiers. For one thing, the Hartmanns designed and built it all themselves. Some of that was practical (“if we couldn’t do it ourselves, it didn’t get done,” Hartmann says), but some was more personal. “Not designing and tending your own gardens is sort of like sending your kids off to be raised by someone else,” Sheila Hartmann says.
And the garden contains not only artful arrangements of the hostas, but companion plants and a lot of garden art, like the penny-covered gazing ball one of their daughters made, a pump that came from Sheila’s grandparents house, and the little statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh peeking out behind the King Tut hosta, just to name a few.
There’s also a sly wit in the way they arrange the hostas. Some are arranged in families—for example, “descendants” or genetic sports that have been bred from an original parent—but others, which might not be “related,” are grouped by name, for example, what Jim calls his “sharps collection,” including species Rickrack, Ginsu Knife and Razor’s Edge.
It also is a way to honor loved ones. The garden contains a hosta that belonged to Sheila’s mom. Sheila and her sisters split it and divided it up among themselves and a good friend of her mother’s as a joyful reminder of the cycle of life.
This sort of collection doesn’t just sprout up overnight; the Hartmanns have been at it for more than 30 years. When they returned to Minnesota in the early ’70s from Boston, where Jim attended MIT, they eventually found this modest house with a big yard on a quiet lane, and they’ve been there ever since, raising two daughters and being foster parents to three. Now retired (they were both educators in the Wayzata school district), they liken gardening to teaching, with a strong component of optimism and faith in the future.
They got involved in hosta gardening innocently enough. “It was spring, and I was out in Delano getting plants with my mom, and there was a collection of six hostas for $25. My mom thought it was outrageous to pay that much for some plants,” Sheila says. She and Jim both laugh, as some hostas, like the originator stock or foreign varieties from Holland and more, can run as high as $1,000 per plant. Most, however, are usually $7–$8 per plant, or up to $60 for more mature plants.
Jim liked the hostas initially, because they were pretty easy to care for. “I didn’t want to mow the lawn. And we worked hard, spent a lot of hours, like to travel, needed a garden that would take care of itself.
“And then at some point, it turned into …” he looks around at their realm and laughs.
Walking through the garden, Jim takes on a charmingly professorial air, pointing out various varieties and their genealogies, their growing habits, what makes them look blue (it’s a kind of wax), and throwing around terms like “tetraploid” with abandon. (“Jim likes the science part,” notes Sheila.)
In fact, they have several registered varieties of their own, including Sookai, a combination of his two daughters’ names, a feat he takes great pleasure in.
“Back then the naming convention required you to use a word that existed in a modern language. When I first tried to register Sookai, they rejected it; they said there was no such word. Then I Googled it and found a Japanese word that means ‘a gathering of alumni,’ so they couldn’t turn me down,” he says with glee.
Another variety he has bred, though not yet registered, is from a sport of the Captain Kirk series, the character from the original Star Trek TV series. He named his variety Dammit Jim, a perfect in-joke for every fan of the old series. (And, he notes, “It gets my name onto a hosta.”)
But with constant care and work over the decades, the gardens might be “almost full,” Jim concedes. “I’m getting hard-pressed to find one that’s SO different I have to have it.”