Garden Lovers Invited Back into Hosta Territory
Eau Claire couple again open up largest private hosta garden in Wisconsin
As the long Wisconsin winter finally fades, the hours of daylight grow, and the earth itself begins to warm, gardeners and non-gardeners alike welcome the green shoots that have at last begun to emerge from the earth.
At the home of Richard and Karen Witt outside Eau Claire outside Eau Claire, these shoots are innumerable, and most are of the same genus of plant: hostas. These hearty perennials are well-loved by gardeners worldwide, but few love them more than the Witts, who over the course of nearly 50 years have created a massive home garden showcasing a mind-boggling array of the plants.
Why hostas? “They’re pretty, they’re versatile, there’s something for everybody,” explains Richard, a retired UW-Eau Claire mathematics professor. Hostas provide an instant lush look to landscaping, he says, and they come in an astonishing array of colors, sizes, and variegations (those are the complicated color patterns on their leaves).
“For me, it’s just a passion. I love to talk about hostas and how nifty they are.”
Garden lovers will soon be able to enjoy the fruits of the Witts’ green thumbs: This year, for the first time since before the pandemic, the couple will be holding a garden walkabout for visitors over the first weekend in June.
“It’s fun doing the best I can to answer questions about hostas,” Richard says when asked about the walkabout, which in past years has welcomed hundreds of visitors. “For me, it’s just a passion. I love to talk about hostas and how nifty they are.”
Richard and Karen moved to Eau Claire from Madison in 1974 and soon established a garden. Richard brought with him a few plants that he particularly liked. A few years later, he was told they were hostas. Seeking more, he proceeded to take out an ad in the newspaper and soon had a truck bed full of plants he’d dug up from other gardeners.
“Then I started to get foolish with these,” Richard says. “My passion was breaking out.”
He was a dedicated collector of hostas until about a decade ago, and at one time had about 1,400 different varieties and far more individual plants: If he liked a particular variety, he might have six or eight specimens. Today, the Witts have scaled back a bit and have “only” about 1,000 varieties. They are planted along picturesque rock, brick, and mulch paths that wind through the woods around their home. “I won’t show you all the paths, because you’d be here until tomorrow morning,” he tells a visitor.
Come summer, hostas will cover several acres of the couple’s property in the Town of Brunswick just south of Eau Claire. During a visit on a chilly late April afternoon, however, the ground was mostly bare, save for the clusters of asparagus-like shoots beginning to poke above ground. Printed signs indicated the varieties that would soon flourish, names that include Alligator Shoes, Torchlight, Cherub, Ice Cream, Forest Shadows, Gypsy Rose, Captain Kirk, and Komodo Dragon. The latter is one of the largest varieties in the Witts’ garden: These plants will grow to be 3 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide.
Oaks surrounding the home provide dappled shade, which the hostas love. The ground itself, however, leaves something to be desired: As Richard points out, the name “Rim Rock Road” gives an indication of the rocky soil he’s been working to supplement for decades. “For a mathematician, it almost comes to an infinite amount of black dirt and manure,” he quips. Hostas need a good organic mix, he explains, which also includes potting soil or sphagnum moss.
In addition to the thousands of hostas, the Witts cultivate numerous companion plants, including ferns, rhododendrons, and lilies. Together, the effect will be one of an undulating tide of green covering the Wisconsin hillside.
“The great joy of most gardeners is sharing their garden,” Richard says. “If people come out and enjoy the garden in a walkabout, I couldn’t ask for more.”
The hosta walkabout will be 9am-6pm Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 5, at W2585 Rim Rock Road, Eau Claire. To find the garden, travel south on Highway 37 from Eau Claire for about 6 miles, then turn left (east) into Rim Rock Hills.