Happy hostas: Master gardener talks plants and gardening help

Hosta plants are perfectly suited for Midwestern shade gardens, but they need to be divided every few years — an endeavor that may seem like a Herculean task.

Luckily, master gardeners from Iowa State University Scott County Extension are here to help.

A team of master gardeners will be on hand at the Healthy Living Fair on June 17 to demonstrate a variety of techniques to divide hostas, as well as answer questions about gardening, lawn care and more. 

Sharp spades and serrated chef knives are among the tools used to separate the roots of the hardy plants, says master gardener Peggy Dykes, who will be among those at the ISU Scott County Extension booth at the Healthy Living Fair. 

"I try to dig up as much (of the root systems) as I can," Dykes says, of hostas. "Then you can saw right through those roots."

Hostas tend to need dividing when they become crowded or if the center begins to die back; generally every three to four years, depending on the variety. While spring is a prime time to divide hostas, "I've divided in the spring and in the fall, and it works either way," Dykes says.

The demonstrations at the fair will come with a bonus — the hostas that are divided will be potted up and given away to attendees. Master gardeners also will offer tips on the best location and care for hostas.

Scott County Extension director Becky Bray says the county has 115 active master gardeners who have completed training and an internship in the program and volunteer throughout the community. 

Among their tasks, master gardeners teach horticultural classes, offer an annual plant sale in May, help plan community gardens and staff the “Hort Clinic” at the ISU Scott County Extension office to provide research-based answers for Scott County residents' questions.

Dykes says common questions tend to be seasonal; for example, folks ask about grubs or Japanese beetles during the weeks when the invasive pests are active.


Other common questions master gardeners often hear include how to identify and control insects, and what to do about moles in yards and gardens.

"Traps are a good thing," Dykes says of coping with moles. "As soon as you see a tunnel or a mound, you need to be vigilant. You just have to stay with it and keep up with the method you're using."

People also are concerned about the Emerald Ash Borer, which has decimated ash trees in numerous states and has made its way to Iowa in recent years. Dykes says treatment options are available, "but sometimes you have to take down the trees."

Issues with plants that don't thrive — another common question — often are related to buying plants not suited to Scott County's plant hardiness zone, she says.

"We're in Zone 5, so anything higher, we can't grow," Dykes says. "They won't live through the


While Dykes and her fellow master gardeners definitely could be considered gardening enthusiasts, she says beginning gardeners should not feel overwhelmed. She advises starting small, such as growing tomatoes in a large planter or wine barrel, or helping children plant carrot seeds in a pot.

Seed packets offer important information on where and when to plant, Dykes says, as well as how deep the seeds should be planted. Early vegetables, such as radishes and certain varieties of lettuce, should be planted in early spring, while tender plants, including tomatoes and zucchini, need warmer temperatures so gardeners have to wait until after the last frost to add them to their gardens.

Beginning gardeners should look for the best location for their garden plots, which should be in full sun for highest production, she says.

Also, keep in mind the spacing of plants and how much of each crop the gardener's family will eat.

Dykes says master gardeners are an excellent resource for those questions and more. At the Healthy Living Fair, master gardeners will be on hand to answer questions regarding gardening, plants, insects and wildlife. 

"If we can't handle it at the fair," she says, "we can get back to them with the information."

Cindy Hadish covers gardening, farmers markets and local foods at homegrownIowan.com. For information about the Iowa State University Scott County Extension, visit extension.iastate.edu/scott.

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