Hostas are popular ornamental plants, their lush green leaves are an ideal choice to fill a difficult space in the garden. Once established the hosta provides long lasting interest.
A resilient, shade perennial, the hosta is versatile enough to work in a range of planting schemes. Providing further interest, the plants are also available in a range of sizes and colors, including green, yellow and even blue. Variegated varieties are also available.
While being easy to care for, knowing when to cut back hostas helps you to keep these lush plants looking their best year after year. If you are unsure when or how to prune, this article explains exactly when to cut back hostas to keep them looking at their best.
The hosta is a popular ornamental plant.
Can I Cut Back Hostas?
Yes, you can cut back hostas. If done correctly and at the right time the plants respond well to pruning.
When and how much you prune depends on a variety of factors.
For example, many gardeners see the overlapping, richly colored foliage of the hosta as the star attraction. They chose to prune away the flower stems as they emerge. Other growers adore the fragrance that the hosta flower emits, choosing to leave the buds in place deadheading only when the flowers start to fade.
Some gardeners like to prune away hosta flowers before they bloom.
A serious pruning is best done when the plant is dormant. In contrast a little light maintenance or tidying up can be done, carefully, at any point during the growing season.
When to Cut Back Hostas
There are 3 main times when you can cut back hostas:
When you decide to cut back hostas depends on your reason for pruning the plants.
There are 3 main times when you can cut back hostas.
When to Cut Back Hostas in the Fall
Pruning in the fall is the most common time to cut back hostas.
As the fall progresses you will notice the leaves of your hosta turning from green to shades of yellow or gold. Yellow or variegated varieties will also start to look tired and faded.
The fading of the foliage is an indication that the plant is entering its dormant season. While it may be tempting, don’t cut back your hostas just yet.
It is important to wait before pruning your hostas because the plants use the period after the end of summer and before the first frosts form to transfer any carbohydrates still stored in the foliage back to the crown. These carbohydrates then help to fuel next year’s fresh growth.
Allow the nighttime temperatures to fall and the first frost of the year to form, damaging the foliage before pruning your plants.
If you are unsure when to cut back hostas in the fall, wait until the leaves have turned completely yellow or brown.
Allow the foliage to wither completely before pruning.
As well as pruning this is also a good time to tidy up your plants. Allowing dead leaves to remain on the ground can provide pests with lots of useful hibernating places.
Cut back hostas as soon as the foliage fades. At this stage of the year you can trim the foliage down to ground level, placing the cuttings on a compost heap.
As we have already noted, healthy plants can be cut down to just above soil level. Not only does this remove any potential hiding places for garden pests it also means that you can more easily apply a dose of slow-release fertilizer in early spring.
In colder climates, following pruning, you may need to place a protective layer of mulch around the plants. This insulates the root system, protecting it from the cold, winter weather.
Remove any mulch that is contacting the base of the plant in early spring to prevent the crown from becoming soggy and rotten. If you don’t want to use a mulch, you can also cover the plant with a Blanket Plant Cover. This insulates the plant, keeping it warm, whilst still allowing light and moisture to penetrate the soil.
Most growers prefer to cut back hostas in the fall. However, this isn’t a hard rule. If you prefer, and the plants are healthy, you can allow the spent foliage to remain in place until the spring. Waiting until spring is often recommended for growers in cooler climates.
Pruning away and destroying foliage affected by powdery mildew prevents the spores from overwintering in the garden. This reduces the chances that the disease will return the following year.
You may also want to prune in the fall if weeds are a serious problem in your garden.
Pruning in the fall enables you to more easily access the soil, making weeding an easier task. After weeding and tilling the soil, laying down a layer of mulch helps to deter weeds from re-emerging the following spring. Do not place the mulch on or near the crown of the hosta.
Remove mulches or protective covers in the spring to allow new growth to emerge.
When to Cut Back Hostas in the Spring
The hosta is a perennial plant which is surprisingly hardy. In colder climates allowing the old foliage to remain in place during the winter months helps to further protect the plant and insulate its roots.
Instead, prune in early spring, when your last frost date is approaching and the soil is beginning to warm up. At this point the foliage should be brown and shriveled.
You can allow the leaves to remain in place over winter and prune in the spring.
As well as protecting your plants, springtime pruning is often easier. You don’t need to prune away the foliage, just pull the leaves and they should easily separate from the plant.
Be careful when tidying the soil around your plant not to damage any new shoots that are emerging. While using a rake can speed up the process it may do more harm than good.
Allowing the foliage to remain in place during the winter months also provides a safe hiding place for a range of different insects, helping to make your garden more wildlife friendly.
When to Cut Back Hostas in the Summer
Perhaps the most surprising of our 3 when to cut back hostas times, it is unusual for plants to require pruning in the summer. However, this isn’t a heavy pruning. Instead, a little light pruning and some general maintenance helps to keep your plants looking green and vibrant.
During the summer period you may decide to remove the spent blooms or flower stalks. Once the hosta has finished flowering, bare stalks protruding from the leaves can look unsightly. Pruning away the stalks helps to keep your plant looking neat and tidy.
Prune lightly in the spring to keep the plants looking their best.
Dead and brown leaves can also be removed as and when you notice them. Leaves can become damaged or die for a number of reasons. These can range from minor issues such as sunburn to more serious signs of foliage disease.
You may also need to prune the plant to disguise any signs of pest damage. The hosta is a popular target of many garden pests including snails and slugs. Even larger animals such as rabbits and deer can target the leaves. This can cause your plant to look unsightly. In this scenario you can cut back hostas as soon as you notice any pest damage.
There are a number of ways to deter snails and slugs from the garden such as cleaning up dead leaves. Keeping the area around the plant neat and tidy also helps to improve the appearance of the plant.
When Not to Cut Back Hostas
While damaged leaves can be cut back, do not prune hostas just because the foliage is starting to wilt. This is usually a sign of underwatering. A good drink of water can help to revive the plant.
Going forward, amend your watering routine to ensure that the plant doesn’t dry out again. A soil moisture sensor is a handy little gadget that helps you to stay on top of your plants’ moisture needs.
Leaves may also wilt if they are in too sunny a position. Plants growing in containers can be easily moved to a slightly shadier spot. Larger pots can be placed on a Culberta Metal Plant Caddy. This enables you to easily move the pots around patios, along garden paths and over other flat surfaces.
Only prune healthy plants.
When to Cut Back Hostas for Propagation
A final time you may want to know when it is best to cut back hostas is if you intend transplanting or dividing the plant.
The hosta is a herbaceous perennial. Like other similar plants such as ornamental grasses and globe thistles, the plant benefits from dividing the crown once every 4 or 5 years. Regularly dividing your perennial plants prevents them from outgrowing their space and smothering other, nearby smaller plants. Division also helps to rejuvenate older plants, encouraging lots of new growth to emerge.
Divisions are best made in early spring, just before new shoots emerge. You can also divide in the fall, after the first light frost of the year.
After lifting and dividing the plants you can prune away any damaged or dead leaves before replanting.
If you are transplanting your hosta, you may notice some foliage dying away after planting the hosta in its new position. This may be transplant shock. Prune away the dead leaves and ensure that the plant has enough regular water. A little extra care during this transitional period helps the plant to settle into its new home.
What Do I Need?
It is not enough to simply know when to cut back hostas, you also need the right tools for the job. The following tools can all help to make pruning an easy garden maintenance task.
Hand pruners, or garden scissors, are an ideal choice if you only have a few leaves to cut back. Before using, make sure that the blades are sharp. Remember to clean your tools with Swan 70% Rubbing Alcohol or a disinfectant wipe after using them. This helps to prevent the accidental spread of disease around your garden.
A good choice if you have a row of plants that you want to cut back quickly and efficiently. Long-bladed loppers can also be used to trim other perennials such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, daylilies, phlox and ornamental grasses.
Electric Hedge Trimmer
Another tool that takes the work out of pruning, using a model with long handles means that you don’t even have to bend over. If you don’t already own one, our guide to the best hedge trimmers highlights some of the most versatile and reliable models currently available.
You may also want to wear work gloves and a long sleeved top to protect your hands.
Additional Hosta Care Tips
Part of the Asparagaceae plant family, the hosta is a herbaceous perennial. Depending on the variety and growing conditions the plants can achieve a height of 6 inches to 4 ft and spread between 1 and 5 ft wide. Most hosta varieties are hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9.
Once planted, these are easy to care for additions to the garden.
Most hosta varieties are partial shade plants. Yellow-leaf varieties tolerate more light than green-leaf types.
Your soil should be rich and well draining. Working in organic matter before planting helps to enrich the soil and raise the soil’s pH level. The hosta does best in acidic soil. If your soil is too alkaline or neutral, there are a number of ways to make the soil more acidic.
Water your plants enough to keep the soil moist. Established plants can tolerate short periods of drought, but too little water can cause the plants to struggle.
Working compost into the soil every spring helps to boost growth. You can also fertilize your hosta with a dose of balanced organic fertilizer in the spring.
Plants growing in pots require more regular watering and fertilizing. A dose of liquid fertilizer can be applied once every 2 to 3 weeks.
Hosta plants need a period of cool weather dormancy to help them thrive the following summer. This means that the plants tend to cope better in the ground than in containers, where the soil is more likely to experience extreme swings in temperatures.
Hostas, like many plants, dislike repeated freeze and thaw cycles. To protect container plants from this, replant the hostas in the ground for the winter months. Alternatively, move them inside or to a greenhouse to protect them from any cold weather that may hit your garden.
For more information on planting and caring for a hosta plant, our Guide to Growing Hosta Plants is filled with useful tips and advice.
Easy to care for, knowing when to cut back hostas helps the plants to look their best year after year.
The hosta can be planted on its own or alongside other plants to create a lush green border. Good hosta companion plant choices include the velvety-leaved Lady’s Mantle, Coral Bells and many types of fern.
Other, flowering choices include:
To extend the growing season, try planting spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils alongside your hosta plants. These add early season color. As they fade the hosta foliage grows, covering the yellowing foliage. Summer flowering bulbs, such as alliums, can also be planted to add more color and interest to your borders.
Many bulbs are considered low maintenance and are unlikely to disturb your hosta plants.
Knowing when to cut back hostas is an important part of cultivating a healthy plant. Aim to prune heavily only when necessary, trimming and tidying up the plant during the summer months. Don’t worry if you forget to prune the plants, or even over prune them. These are hardy plants that can tolerate a little neglect.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.