Now appearing. Hostas take the fall stage

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Every year, as the weather cools and the garden’s summer green slowly fades to gold, I’m surprised again, and delighted, at how fall plays out in this small space. The first performer is my potted Acer pseudosieboldianum, the purplebloom maple, which always seems to herald the shift well before the other players have given the approaching winter the slightest thought. Perhaps because it ranges from the colds of Korea and China into the bitter regions of the Russian Far East, it knows a thing or two about getting its act together early. Right now the various Japanese maples and dwarf ginkgos have started their play, abetted by the graceful arches of a Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’ and a chorus of Japanese forest grasses. The performance is shifting into full clamor this week. In another week it’ll certainly all be over. The lion’s-mane maple, the last on the scene, is already showing hints of bright copper in its crinkled, fat clutches of leaves. Just in time, I think. Looking at the extended forecast, winter’s scheduled for an early arrival this year and by tomorrow night it might be down to twenty-seven degrees overnight already. Which reminds me that I also need to drain the fountain.

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In the midst of it all are the hostas. The garden faces north, in light I usually describe as bright shade, with a few hours of morning sun. And some direct sun again in the afternoon in the summer after it comes around one of those unfortunately too-tall buildings stuck in at the end of the block sometime in the seventies. Most forest plants love it here. Especially the hostas and I’ve tucked in a collection of probably forty or fifty in various sizes and shapes, here and there. I’ve always thought it’s especially appropriate to have a hosta collection here. You see, they’re actually old residents of the neighborhood. And I do mean very old residents. In the middle of the nineteenth century, well before this corner of Manhattan was gridded and paved, this was the country and there was farmland. Just at the edge of where this garden is now was the Thomas Hogg Nursery. Long forgotten in the relentless sweep of urbanization and development, the Hogg family and their Manhattan nursery were celebrated in their day. Their farm was actually on the must-stop list of travelers taking the winding country road out of the City to catch the ferry, then located at about 79th Street, across the East River to Queens. In 1862, Thomas Hogg, Jr. was sent by Abraham Lincoln as a customs marshal to Japan to advise their newly opening government. Thomas, of course, didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to send numerous novel plants back to his bother, John, left in charge of the family business. Among the many horticultural treasures that found their way here was the hosta, introduced to American gardens by the Hoggs. Amazingly, a Japanese snowbell tree planted by John Hogg on his own adjoining property—a Styrax japonicus—survived until the 1930s when it, too, finally fell to the developer’s ax.

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The hostas in this garden are a diverse bunch, adding colors, patterns and flowers to the display from the moment they shoot up in the spring, through the summer. And taking their final bows in the fall. As amazing as the various shapes and sizes, from the smallest barely two inches tall to the largest one I can comfortably accommodate without removing half of everything else, are the equally various ways in which each slowly pulls itself into dormancy. Some start the show early, with the initial hints of yellow at the edges slowly spreading until the whole leaf has turned a vibrant gold. Some flop into long ribbons. Others stay upright. A number hang in there, green until the bitter end. I’ve a few favorites, of course, such as ‘Grand Slam’ which develops an amber translucency in its leaves that’s deliciously marbled with the darkest chocolate brown. Or ’Trifecta’ which maintains its central slash of white well after the green of its leaves has turned bright yellow. And that bright contrast holds for a couple of weeks. No immediate slouching for this one either. A few favorites, yes, but after a slow start fall is fully on stage out in the garden this week and the hostas are all superbly acting out their parts right along.

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Hosta ’Tritecta’

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Hosta ‘Grand Slam’

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