A Gift of Ferns

The ravine at the bottom of my friends' garden is filled with beautiful ferns.

The ravine at the bottom of my friends’ garden is filled with beautiful ferns.

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Ferns have such wonderful texture.  Though most are green, their interesting leaves and self-sufficient nature make them one of my favorite garden plants.  I’ve found shady spots to plant ferns in most of our garden areas.  Ferns grow in some of our hanging baskets, and huge lady ferns sit on tables in our home.

Knowing that I love to collect interesting ferns, a gardening sister invited me to come dig ferns from the back slope of her garden.   She has worked over the last several years to clear this area of brush and weeds, and discovered a hillside full of lovely  ferns this spring.

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This steep slope is where I was invited to dig up divisions of many different varieties of fern.

This steep slope is where I was invited to dig up divisions of many different varieties of fern.

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There are many native ferns naturalized in our forest community.  And many more have been planted over the years by gardeners wanting shade loving plants the deer won’t touch.  Ferns don’t need any special care as long as their soil is moist.  They need no fertilizer or pruning, no spraying or deadheading.  They appreciate a bit of compost or mulch over their roots, and can be tidied up each spring to remove lingering dead fronds.

Beyond that, they take care of themselves.

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This is an area in my garden where I added ferns yesterday.  The larger ones have been in place for a year or so already.

This is an area in our garden where I added ferns yesterday. The larger ones have been in place for a year or so already.

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Ferns, one of our most ancient plants, never produce flowers or seeds.  Instead, tiny spores form on the backs of fern fronds, and after a fairly long process which involves a warm damp area to grow, tiny fern babies begin to develop.  These spores, once released from the frond, sometimes travel a considerable distance from the parent plant.

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May 13, 2015 ferns 005~

Ferns also may spread across moist, fertile soil by furry underground stems called rhizomes.  This is usually the case when a tiny clump of fern begins to grow near an established clump.

Some ferns even grow tiny new plants on the tips of their leaves, and these grow roots when the frond falls over and touches moist soil.

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These are the tiny ferns before I began to dig yesterday.

These are the tiny ferns before I began to dig yesterday.  See how close they are growing?  They are likely connected by underground rhizomes.

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By whatever means the magic happened, my friend found hundreds of ferns, of all sizes and several different varieties, growing down the slope from the edge of her cultivated areas down into the ravine.  And she called me to share in this bounty!

I appreciate her generosity so very much. 

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Ferns growing from the stump of a fallen tree.

Ferns growing from the stump of a fallen tree.

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We spent about an hour together navigating the steep slope.  She was weeding and trimming while I was digging.  Because young ferns have shallow root systems, I was able to pry up small clumps with a chunk of  moist soil protecting their roots.

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May 13, 2015 ferns 010

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Many of these little divisions were surrounded by rich moss, also protecting the roots.  I avoided taking any clumps more than a few inches tall, and tried to make sure that I got a good sized chunk of rhizome, with plenty of roots, to support each group of leaves.

It is important to keep ferns moist, especially during transplanting, and to replant as soon as possible.

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Many of my new ferns are now planted on this shady slope.

Many of our  new ferns are now planted on this shady slope.

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Once back home, I watered the trays of ferns and put them into deep shade while preparing a place for them.

There is a deeply shaded slope, already supporting a few ferns, that we had not yet developed.  I set to work removing weeds and preparing spaces for the new fern divisions.

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May 13, 2015 ferns 039

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The soil was already rich and moist, and similiar enough to the soil they came from that I didn’t amend it with any additional compost.  I simply scooped out a depression for each, inserted the roots, and firmed the soil around the roots to the same depth they had been growing.  A thorough watering set them in place.

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Weeding helped me find some ferns already growing on this slope, and I hope they will take off now that they can get more light.  I added a few Mayapple transplants from other parts of our garden, and I’ll transplant a few Hellebore seedlings in the coming days.

How pretty this whole area will be as the ferns grow and spread!

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Looking from the newly planted ferns in the foreground, up and across our more established fern garden in the shady area of our lower garden

Looking from the newly planted ferns in the foreground, up and across our more established fern garden in the shady area of our lower garden

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Ferns can be expensive.  A favorite mail order nursery offers an outrageous selection of wonderful ferns, but they often run $15.00 or more, each.  I visited a local specialty nursery today were ferns, in gallon pots, were offered for $12.00 or more each.

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May 14, 2015 gardens 023

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Some more common ferns can be had at Lowes, or other big box stores, for around $5.00 each in slightly smaller pots.

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Japanese painted Fern is one of my favorite hardy non-native ferns.  They can often be found in small pots in spring.

Japanese Painted Fern is one of my favorite hardy non-native ferns. They can often be found in small pots in spring.  These grow well in containers or in the ground.

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Bare root ferns, available in late winter, are affordable but may take a few years to get established.

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May 13, 2015 ferns 032

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I am so very happy to have this gift of native ferns as I’ve been able to cover a very large new area of the garden.  They are all hardy, and once established will continue to spread over the years.

Like all truly wonderful gifts, they will bring pleasure for many years to come.

Woodland Gnome 2015

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New growth on our Autumn Brilliance ferns in mid-April

New growth on our Autumn Brilliance ferns in mid-April

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

9 responses to “A Gift of Ferns

  1. I have added quite a few ferns to the woodland garden and now volunteers are popping up in unexpected places: fine with me.

  2. What a bonanza! I love ferns for all the reasons you stated, easy to grow, shade-loving and spread well without being obnoxious. I put quite a few in the ‘new’ bed (just did some more this morning!) which is ideal for them. I’ve been wanting to post some pics of ferns I’ve taken in the past few weeks, but haven’t got around to it. 😉 Soon perhaps?

  3. It’s really nice to have a generous garden buddy. I have found that Autumn Fern does really well in my woods, and I am now spreading it around the garden, intermingled with hostas and liriope.

    • I love Autumn Fern after it has been in place for a few years, and grows quite large. They remain evergreen for us, and the new green growth is so pretty. How do you spread yours around, John? I’ve not tried to dig and divide. Do they respond well?

      • All the autumn ferns in my garden are ones that were in pots on the front porch. My wife decided they needed to be replaced, so I planted some in the woods and put others in the waste pile. They have all thrived, even the ones in the waste pile, year after year. This year for the first time I have moved them around in various spots in the garden. Just dug them up, split them with a knife, replanted, and they are doing well. They seem to be very hard to kill.

        • That is good to know, John! I will try that next spring with some of our largest. I discarded a potted autumn fern, the spring after we moved, thinking it had died over winter. I found it several weeks later throwing out new fronds, replanted it, and it is still going strong. I like agreeable plants with such a strong constitution! Autumn ferns are especially easy to place since they can tolerate a good bit of sun.

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