Some ferns are excellent garden plants
By Jimmy Williams
Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 8:01 pm
A fernophile I am not, though there are several genera and species of ferns around our place. I am not averse to them, mind you, but I have failed miserably with so many that I would rather expend my efforts on other things that (might) live.
A good bit of our garden would seem well suited to ferns, that is, damp and with heavy soil. Native ferns hereabouts seem to thrive mostly under those conditions, though there are a few that are seen on drier sites.
Botanical nomenclature of ferns is beyond my comprehension, partly because I have spent so little time in studying it and otherwise because it is more confusing than that of many other plants. So I mostly use common names, rather than Latin monikers, though the latter are more accurate.
Among the most common natives is the Christmas fern, so named because its evergreen fronds were once used as Christmas decorations. That custom has largely passed out, but why I don’t know, since they would surely do yeoman duty for that. I must remember to gather some in December.
The Christmas fern is found on north facing hillsides and damp lowlands in almost every woodland. The fronds, up to 18 inches long, are really evergreen, but lie on the ground as temperatures fall, and those old leaves are best cut away as new ones unfurl in spring. The Christmas fern is excellent under cultivation in a garden setting, and of course they are free for the moving, which is simple.
The most vigorous native is the sensitive fern, so named because its fronds wither at the first hint of frost in fall. They reappear early in spring and will reach two feet or more in the course of the summer. This fern has the pleasing property of putting up new fronds continuously during the growing season, the fresh, pale green, ones contrasting with the older ones.
Sensitive fern stolonizes rapidly, and can take over a lot of real estate unless controlled. It thrives in shade as well as full sun, and large plantations of it are often seen along roadsides, rooting out fescue and other foes. Again, it is easy to move, but be aware of its vigor.
Among my abject failures has been the generally easy autumn fern, so named because its fronds emerge a bronzy color and remain that way for a long time. I see it in luxuriance in other gardens, particularly Diane Mahan’s, where patches of it are two feet or more tall. Despite my yearning of many years, it has frittered away and disappeared in our garden more times than I can count.
On the other hand, there is the Japanese painted fern, my all-time favorite hardy fern. I have it in full sun to deep shade, and it doesn’t know the difference, except for a curling back in extreme drought in the sun locations. Once it is damaged by that, however, it can be cut to the ground and bright new fronds will emerge shortly.
Japanese painted fern is an exceptionally fresh looking pale gray-green that blends with anything. I have it in woodland, mixed borders and rock gardens, and it excels in all. It wasn’t named the U.S. Perennial Plant Association perennial of the year a few years ago for nothing.
I started with a couple of quart plants of this fern some years ago and have divided it endlessly since. It has even seeded (spored) here and there and variations in color and size appear among the sporelings. Therefore I have it all over the place, but have not reached saturation point.
Japanese painted fern will reach a foot or so in height, maybe more in some strains. There are several named varieties of it on the market, some larger than others and some with color variations. Though it is prolific and travels around, it is in no wise a nuisance nor invasive.
In fact, once you have it you will appreciate its constant supply of new plants from old.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 7.19.11