Chris Miller's life definitely is made in the shade.
At her business — Bluegrass Hosta Farm, just west of Georgetown in Scott County — Miller and her husband, Tom, spend hours with their shade-loving plants. But in the spring and early summer, Chris Miller finds little time to relax. She is hard at work, creating display gardens, propagating plants and welcoming visitors who share a fondness for the more than 950 hosta varieties she grows and markets.
Newcomers looking for their first fantastic foliage plant or, as she quips, seasoned "hostaholics" searching for the next specimen for their collection, can find treasures at the farm. While most garden centers have sizable supplies of hostas, Miller's garden is a rare find, where friendly horticultural expertise, artful presentation and a broad selection of one plant come together.
Shade-loving, easy-care hostas were brought to the United States from their native China, Korea and Japan around the late 1700s. They have grown in popularity in U.S. gardens during the last 30 years, and breeders have responded with a diversity of variations.
Tom Miller says there now are about 1,500 introductions each year.
They can vary in size from the miniature Blue Mouse Ears to the giant Green Dragonet. Leaf colors can range from pale mint green to electric chartreuse; there are blues with a soft waxy surface, bright golds, whites and even some new red features that combine into endless, subtle variations. Leaf shapes —some floppy rounded hearts, others upright pointed-end ovals —and textures — smooth to corrugated — add to the mix, creating a tempting palette for budding garden designers.
Names tickle the imagination: Marilyn Monroe, with its wavy edged leaves; Praying Hands, whose upright leaves twist at the top; Woolly Mammoth, with round, corrugated leaves.
Chris Miller says Liberty, which has green-centered leaves balanced by a wide, creamy gold border, "is so showy that it's going to grab people."
Flowers, which take second billing to the leaves, are an added bonus when they appear in mid-summer.
"I look for unique and unusual qualities like different forms, improved flower show and coloration when I choose hostas," Chris Miller says.
When the Millers founded their farm in 1993, Tom Miller asked his wife, "What are you going to do, plant all 12 acres?"
Her reply, "I'd like to. I want to plant my own park!"
She found a job at Hillenmeyer Nurseries, and gained expertise alongside colleagues like Richard Weber, who went on to start Springhouse Gardens in Jessamine County; and Jamie Dockery, now the cooperative extension agent for horticulture in Fayette County.
Miller carried out her "park" plan by establishing a tree canopy to provide the right light conditions, gradually adding beds. Most have a focal point, like the Yin/Yang miniature bed, featuring the classic symbol formed with light and dark mulch and dotted with painted bowling balls. It's planted with X-Ray, Pandora's Box and other tiny temptations.
The gardens also features companion planting ideas, such as Japanese maples, and brunneras, and give Miller opportunities to discuss planting and cultivation ideas while giving tours.
Some of her suggestions:
■ Pot-in-pot planting under trees helps to prevent tree roots from competing with hostas for water. It also defines space for hosta roots, which expand to fill containers, then send more energy to above-ground development for mature shape and size. You'll need sturdy plastic pots with drainage holes. An empty "socket pot" is buried in the ground; a second removable pot, the same size or slightly smaller, containing soil and the plant, is put into the socket. You can see how the system works at www.floridafriendlyplants.com/Blog/post/2009/03/03/Pot-in-Pot.aspx.
■ Hosta leaves might change colors, depending on the amount of sun they receive and the season. Hot summer weather melts the waxy coating, or bloom, from blue leaves, making them greener; golds and yellows deepen to greener shades in the shade.
■ Divide hostas in spring, or early fall so they have a chance to become re-established in the ground before extremes of summer and winter weather. Miller rinses soil off the roots, then teases apart nodes, cutting only when necessary to avoid diseases.
■ When choosing a hosta, be aware of its mature size and form. Sometimes little potted plants grow up into Big Daddy hostas.
■ Join hosta organizations to learn more, and discover a garden community. See the list on the front for ideas.
Bluegrass Hosta Gardens is still a work in progress. Chris Miller has planted about half of her park. The place is mind-boggling and relaxing at the same time. "It's a gardener's garden, so you're going to see some weeds," says Miller.
Then, to husband Tom just as the garden visitor parted company at this busy time of year, "Now, let's get to work."