Among the most popular perennials for shade gardens, knowing when to cut back hostas is an important part of their care. Hosta leaves are stars of the low-light garden, with hundreds of cultivars that come in many different shades of green. The foliage of these low-maintenance plants looks glorious all summer long, but when fall strikes and the first frost arrives, they quickly turn yellow and die back. But when is the best time to prune back hosta leaves? Is it in the fall or the spring? In this article, I’ll discuss the 3 main pruning times for hostas and share some reasons for each.
Hosta trimming times: 3 options based on your goals
You may be surprised to hear that there are three main pruning times for hostas: Fall, Spring, and Summer. There are different reasons why gardeners may want to prune during each of these times. In this article, I’ll address the main reasons for pruning, and the pros and cons of each of these pruning times. The good news is that hostas, also known as plantain lilies, are tough and forgiving plants. Much like cutting back daylilies or pruning Russian sage, even if you forget to prune them at a certain time or you neglect to prune them at all, they’ll still survive just fine, even if they don’t look their best. But to maximize plant beauty and health, follow the hosta pruning guidelines below.
When to cut back hostas: Option 1 – The Fall
The first – and probably the most common – time to prune hostas is in the fall. This should be done any time after their leaves are damaged by the first hard frost. It’s important not to cut hosta foliage back too soon because the carbohydrates formed in their green leaves need time to travel back down the stalk and into the crown of the plant where they’ll help fuel next season’s growth.
Do not cut hostas down in late summer, even if they look a bit raggedy. Instead, wait until late fall. It’s during the early fall (September and early October in my Pennsylvania garden) when the night-time temperatures start to drop, that the carbohydrates begin to make their way back down to the plant crown. Wait to prune back hostas until the leaves turn completely yellow or fully brown.
Reasons to prune hostas in the fall
Most of the time, fall pruning is just an option, rather than a necessity. I like the way spent hosta leaves and old flower stalks look in my snow-covered garden in the winter. Because of this, I save my hosta trimming until the spring. Other gardeners prefer a tidier fall and winter garden and prefer to prune their hostas in the autumn. But, there are a two cases where fall pruning is a must.
- Knowing when to trim hostas if they are diseased is definitely an important consideration. If powdery mildew or another foliar disease has affected your hosta plants, then fall pruning is essential. After a hard frost, remove every stem and leaf, in addition to all of the flower stalks. Clean them out of the garden and toss them in the garbage, rather than putting them on the compost pile. This prevents fungal spores from overwintering in the garden and reduces the chances of the disease affecting next year’s plants.
- I also suggest pruning hostas in the fall if you have a major issue with weeds. Fall is a great time to rid the garden of weeds, especially those that are about to drop seed. Cutting your hostas down makes weeding around them easier in the fall. Follow your weeding with the application of a layer of mulch, but do not put it directly on top of the crown of the plant.
When to cut back hostas: Option 2 – The Spring
If you ask me when to trim back hostas for the greatest chance of winter survival, spring would be my answer. Hostas are a perennial plant with exceptional hardiness. But in colder climates, leaving the foliage stand through the winter helps the plant overwinter safely by insulating the roots. With this option, don’t prune the dead leaves in the fall. Instead, allow them to remain in the garden all winter long. By the time spring arrives, they’ll be shriveled up and fully brown. Spring hosta pruning is also much easier on the gardener. You don’t even need tools to get the job done; you can just pull the dead leaves away with your bare hands before the emergence of new growth.
If you use a rake to remove the hosta leaves from your spring shade garden, it’s essential that you remove the dead leaves before the new hosta shoots spring up. Otherwise you’ll risk breaking the young sprouts off.
I also like to trim hostas back in the spring because doing so creates overwintering habitat for many different insects. You can read more about that practice in this article about conducting a wildlife-friendly garden clean up.
When to cut back hostas: Option 3 – The Summer
You many be surprised to learn that summer is another potential time for trimming hostas. Though this isn’t the time to cut the plant back all the way to the ground, it is a good time for some maintenance pruning. Here are some reasons why summer hosta pruning might occur.
- Removing spent blooms. The flower’s stems of hostas stand straight up out of the foliage, which is one of their most attractive features. But once the flowers fade, some gardeners find these straight, upright stalks unsightly. If you’re one of those gardeners, don’t hesitate to remove the stems by cutting them off all the way down at the base of the plant.
- Removing brown or dead leaves. Sometimes hostas lose a few leaves throughout the growing season thanks to foliage burn, various diseases, or other factors. Any foliage that is dead or diseased can be pruned off at any time during the summer.
- If you’re wondering when to trim hostas back that have been damaged by deer, rabbits, slugs, snails, or other pests, summer is the answer. Remove individual affected leaves and stalks but leave as much of the healthy foliage intact as possible.
Do not cut back hosta leaves just because they wilt. Wilting is most often a sign of underwatering or too much sunlight reaching the leaves. Adjust your hosta-care techniques to ensure they receive ample water and are located in a full shade to semi-shaded spot.
When to cut back hostas to divide and transplant
One final reason for cutting back a hosta is because you plan on transplanting or dividing it. Like other herbaceous perennials, such as ornamental grasses, Monarda (bee balm), globe thistle, and many others, hosta crowns benefit from division every 4 or 5 years. Division can be done in the early spring (just before or after the new shoots emerge) or in the fall (just after the foliage is fully frosted). When the plant is divided, you may need to prune off any damaged or dead leaves.
The same goes for hostas being transplanted. Depending on your timing, you may find a few hosta leaves die soon after the plant is moved to its new location (chalk it up to transplant shock and don’t worry too much about it). If that happens, cut the dead leaves off of the plant and ensure it is receiving enough moisture until it is re-established.
The best tools for cutting down hostas
Now that you know when to cut back hostas, let’s discuss the best cutting tools for the job. Here are my favorite pieces of equipment for the task of hosta pruning along with the merits of each.
- Hand pruners. If you only have a few hostas to cut back, this is the ideal tool. Make sure the blades of your shears are sharp. Clean them with rubbing alcohol or a disinfectant wipe after use if your hosta was diseased to avoid spreading the pathogen to other plants.
- Long-bladed hedge shears. If you have a lot of hostas or you want to get the job done as efficiently as possible, opt for a pair of long-bladed loppers. This is my tool of choice for cutting back all my perennials, including Phlox paniculata, purple coneflower, daylilies, black-eyed Susan plants, hostas, ornamental grasses, and many others. I even use them to cut back hydrangeas.
- An electric hedge trimmer (rechargeable or corded). If you really want to minimize your work, use a hedge trimmer to clip hostas and other perennials at their base. Models with long handles mean you don’t even have to bend over. What could be easier than that?
- Your hands. Yep. That’s right. You can also use your hands to remove spent hosta leaves, especially in the spring when they are shriveled and super easy to tug away from the crown.
How far down to cut hostas
In addition to knowing when to cut back hostas, you also need to know how far down to cut them. When trimming hosta plants, follow the stems and flower stalks all the way down to the base of the plant and make your cuts there. A healthy plant can be cut flush with the soil. Though you may hear that leaving short stubs of leaf stems behind can lead to rot, I’ve never experienced that myself in all my years as a professional horticulturist. Hostas are resilient plants. Unlike some other fussier perennials, crown rot is pretty unusual unless the plant’s crown is buried under a heavy layer of mulch or debris for a long period of time.
Cutting the plant down to the base also exposes slug eggs to predators and makes it easier to add a dose of natural, slow-release fertilizer to the plant in the early spring.
Watch me trim back a hosta in my own fall garden in this video. Plus, learn more about the three best times to cut back a hosta plant.
Growing happy hostas
Now that you know all the important details on when to cut back hostas based on the plants’ needs and your personal preferences, you’re fully prepared to head to the garden for some proper and well-timed pruning. Happy, healthy hostas are sure to be the result.
For more on caring for popular perennials, please visit the following articles:
- The best time to cut back peonies
- When and how to trim iris
- How to harvest lavender
- Growing perennial sunflowers
- Japanese painted ferns for the shade
- ‘Purple Dome’ aster growing tips
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