Kathy Pedersen was in awe of the hosta gardens cultivated by Hideko Gowen, a hybridizer and grower in Excelsior, Minn. About three decades ago, Pedersen was working at the Gowens’ perennial greenhouses helping transplant, water and weed.
“Gorgeous, glorious gardens covered her whole yard,” Pedersen recalled. “Hideko had hundreds of varieties of hosta. She knew all the names and could identify each one.”
Today Gowen is in her 80s and has named and registered about 30 hosta varieties. “She helped me see the possibility of what I could do,” said Pedersen, who remains Gowen’s friend. “We had lots of shade, so I thought it would be the perfect plant.”
Pedersen remembers Gowen teasing her when, as a “newbie,” she filled her hosta beds under the pine trees with plain run-of-the-mill “Honeybells.”
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“Slowly, she introduced me to a huge array of varieties, walking me through her gardens and pointing out the different characteristics — from the wavy edges to variegated foliage. Each one was unique.”
Pedersen began acquiring divisions from Gowen such as “Silk Kimono” and “Fatal Attraction.”
“The more successful I was with hosta, the more it became an addiction,” she said.
Over the past two decades, Pedersen and her husband, Mike, have carved out an oasis of hosta and other perennial gardens amid their 50 acres of farmland in Shakopee, Minn. They rent land to neighboring farmers who grow crops such as soybeans and corn.
The Pedersens’ shady front yard is a lush composition of the big-leafed beauties, with pine-needle-lined pathways curving among the beds. Kathy’s artful mingling of variegated edges with light and dark green-blue leaves resembles a shadowy landscape painting. The sunnier backyard unfolds with colorful cottage-style plantings surrounding a stream flowing into a pond.
When Kathy was growing up in Minnetonka, Minn., she considered gardening a chore as she tended her parents’ vegetable beds. “If you would have told me when I was in my 20s that someday I would have elaborate gardens, I wouldn’t believe it,” she said.
Like Gowen, her mentor, Kathy now rattles off hosta variety names and points out unique qualities. Gowen may have inspired Kathy to become a hosta aficionado, but Mike helped her turn her newfound fixation into a lovely gardenscape.
The couple became partners in planting — as well as digging, dividing and hauling rocks — when they married 24 years ago. “I could never have done it myself,” said Kathy. “Mike adds so much to the gardens.”
Kathy is the plant collector, focusing on color, size and shape, while Mike is the multitalented builder. “We have fun together,” he said. “But after we divide and have extra plants — I know that means we’ll be adding another garden.”
The key to Kathy’s eye-pleasing composition is to “think of contrast,” she said. For example, “Liberty” has a nice white edge that stands out next to the dark green leaf of “Edge of Night,” she said.
Like an interior designer, Kathy also repeats the color in a solid-hued hosta in the edges of another planted next to it. “But don’t plant too many variegated hosta in a row,” she said. “It’s too busy for the eye.”
Some of her favorite giant specimens are “Sum & Substance” and “Blue Mammoth,” which anchor the flowing beds. “ ‘Empress Wu’ can get 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall,” she said. “The bluish-green leaves are huge and make a statement.”
The couple don’t spend much time designing, Kathy admitted. “I got 10 plants from Hideko, and we look at the space, color and height — and just plant them.” But they are constantly moving and dividing hosta and other plants that have become overgrown or lack the right exposure.
“The key to good design is being willing to move plants,” she said. “Trees get bigger, shade moves away, and the sun spreads.”
How does Kathy keep all her nearly 500 hosta varieties organized? Mike pokes aluminum name tags into the ground to identify them. “I also have a map on the computer (where) I put in the size, name, when I bought it and where it’s planted,” she said.
Slice of heaven
When Kathy and Mike retired eight years ago, they “could do the fun gardens we always wanted,” she said. Their “fun” gardens turned out to be a 40-foot-long stream that flows down a slope into a pond, which they designed and built themselves. Three mini-waterfalls dot the stream, welcoming multitudes of birds — from indigo buntings to cedar waxwings — to the yard.
The couple hauled truckload after truckload of stones scavenged from their farm fields to line the stream and falls, “fitting them together like pieces of a puzzle,” said Kathy. Finally, Mike built two wooden bridges over the stream as bookends.
“I knew I’d like it when it was done,” he said. “That’s what kept me going.”
The sunny backyard is ideal for cottage-style perennials, including orange and red daylilies, purple Russian sage paired with yellow ligularia and clumps of zinnias for bursts of color. The Pedersens also planted ornamental redbud and pagoda dogwood trees by the stream to create dappled shade for — what else? — more hosta.
As a winter project, Kathy fashioned an arbor of copper pipe using a Martha Stewart pattern. The following spring, she lined hosta along a fieldstone walkway beneath the arbor to mark the entrance to the backyard gardens.
Mike contributed a piece of garden art, a life-size eagle sculpted from steel rods welded together and perched on the stump of a dead evergreen.
“Some friends said that it feels like a healing garden,” she said. “We’ve created our own slice of heaven.”
Kathy is constantly researching and discovering new things about her beloved plant, of which there are more than 4,000 registered varieties. She relies on “her bible,” “The Hostapedia” by Mark Zilis.
She’s even tried hybridizing after learning the steps from Gowen, but found the process extremely time- and labor-intensive — and it takes up lots of garden space.
“Right now, I just want to enjoy my hosta and share them with others,” she said, noting that her gardens are slated for a Minnesota Hosta Society tour this summer.
After all these years, Kathy still has an extensive hosta “wish list,” including “Gunther’s Prize,” “Tooty Mae” and “Moon Shadow” because “we can never have enough,” she said.
Every morning, she and Mike make a cup of tea and walk the gardens to see what’s blooming and which chores need to be done.
“My favorite time is when the sun is coming up or setting and it’s so quiet and peaceful,” she said. “That’s when the colors are true.”