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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Hosta love, year-round gardening hot topics at forum

Probably it’s the same with any passion, say, golf or fishing. Your partner asks “Why would you stand in the hot sun (or cold creek) just to end up frustrated and sunburned (or cold) chasing a little ball around (or trying to catch a dinky fish)?”

That’s exactly how it went when 95 hosta lovers arrived home to their various states after attending the Fall Hosta Forum in Pennsylvania last weekend.

You bought that ugly green plant at the auction for how much? ... Wait, I see you just put eight more of those things in the driveway ... How many plants do you need anyway? The garden is full!

The NGS (non-gardening spouses) really don’t get it. We’re not talking about just any plants. These are Hostas! – only the most popular perennial in America. And there are 3,000 more named cultivars to collect! And, indeed, they are all different. Just look at this little streak here, and this ripple and this shade of blue. ...

In all fairness to the perturbed NGS who witnessed those cars unloading, “hostaphiles” do exhibit extreme behavior and often fall victim to a condition called Hosta Addiction Syndrome, as explained by expert Joseph Tyconievich, author of “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener: How to Create Unique Vegetables and Flowers” (Timber Press, $19.95). Symptoms include color blindness, in which victims begin to call plants “blue” or “yellow” when they are – clearly, to a sensible person – green. Hallucinations also occur, sometimes affecting entire groups of participants, prompting them to see “exciting new features” or “unique patterns.”(For help with this condition, contact the Western New York Hosta Society at or email:

Although surrounded by extremists, I was able to participate in some meaningful plant discussions and hear outstanding speakers at the forum, such as Tom Micheletti, who spoke on hosta landscaping, and Tony Post of Valleybrook Gardens, who talked about “zone pushing.” I do encourage gardeners to try a plant conference. You might start with a meeting of the WNY Hosta Society or other specialty plant associations. There is so much to learn.

Twelve months of gardening

Pittsburgh gardening guru Doug Oster – television and radio host and author – also spoke at the forum and took me back to my vegetable gardening roots. When I was a young mother, I wrote a book about companion gardening. It included late-season gardening tips, including row covers and cold frames to extend the season. But Oster has taken it to a new level – yes, 12 months of growing things in Pittsburgh, with a climate very similar to Buffalo. Now we all can grow much more than just cool-season spinach, lettuce and kale.

Here are some suggestions to kick-start a fall food garden, or keep the summer garden going.

• Find and plant seeds of leafy greens: Leftover seeds from spring, or maybe from garden centers or catalogs, can provide salads and delicious cooked greens well into winter if you plant them now, directly into the soil. Lettuce, spinach, broccoli raab, kale and arugula will sprout and grow through the fall months. At about 15 degrees above freezing they generally just stop in place – as if containing antifreeze – but resume growing whenever there are warm spells in winter or spring. Just cut off enough for use. Collards, that require a very long season to grow, can be planted in fall for spring harvest as well. Try less-familiar greens such as mustard greens, mache (called corn salad by some), curly endive, mizuna and tatsoi. Oster said that red Russian kale is as delicious as greens can get.

• Extend the season: There are new products and some very old ways to prolong the harvest. Instead of throwing out the old storm windows and doors, just prop one up, facing south at a 35-degree angle over the green plants (either just seeded or continuing since summer). Or dig a pit, fill the bottom with manure, cover with glass, and you have a really warm growing house. Use bales of straw or hay as the sides of a new raised bed and cover the opening with glass or plastic when the freeze is imminent. See how long the harvest lasts!

Row covers, also called floating row covers, are great to keep around to speed up the spring planting season and to cover plants in fall. They can keep the air 10 or 20 degrees warmer than outside. You can make a mini greenhouse by draping the row covers over wire hoops, or just drape them over to cover the plants. Row covers or sheets can also keep the warm-season vegetables and herbs intact for a few extra weeks. A just-picked tomato in October is nearly as good as the first taste in July.

• Don’t harvest too soon: There’s a kind of natural urge in autumn to gather and store the crops and all things gardening. But don’t rush to close shop. In the vegetable garden, carrots and Brussels sprouts are even sweeter after some frosts. I have harvested them as late as Christmas dinner – all the better when the gardener is as proud as the cook.

• The last planting: October (and even November) is for planting bulbs and garlic. Get garlic from a local source (because grocery store garlic is often from China and treated to prevent sprouting) and plant it 3 inches deep, 4 or 5 inches apart, or mix it among the lettuces. Next summer when you’re eating homegrown pesto, thank me and Oster for reminding me of the joys of fall gardening.

Can we really be gardening 12 months of the year? Well, Oster said so – but remember, he was speaking to those delirious hosta folks, so we can’t be sure. Perhaps we should look for the secrets in his books: “Grow Organic” and “Tomato, Garlic, Basil.” Or just try it.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.