Fabulous Friday: Continuous Effort

Our upper garden was bathed in sunlight this morning.


Wouldn’t it be nice if gardening was all about sunbeams and rose petals, happy planting times and delicious harvests?

Let’s have a good laugh together, and then get real.  Gardening is really about making a continuous effort to fashion little improvements here and there and address challenges as they arise.


More sunbeams and golden orbs encircle our happy Colocasia ‘Black Coral’


If you need a bit of inspiration, please pick up the current issue of Horticulture Magazine, which is filled this month with timely advice, gorgeous photography, and wonderful suggestions for how to have fun with fall planted bulbs.

In case you’re wondering, those suggestions include a group of friends, good things to eat, and a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.


Narcissus ‘Art Design’  It’s that time of year to start thinking about planting spring bulbs….


My gardening challenge this morning involved neither friends nor wine, but my partner was there to support and assist.

You see, there are well tended beautiful parts of our garden, and then there is this sad, steep slope from the side yard down into the ravine that suffers from erosion, vole tunnels, deer traffic, deep shade and benign neglect.  While we’ve both made efforts in this area over the years; they don’t seem to amount to much.


This steep slope in our side yard has had erosion problems for many years. Every bit we do helps, but we’re still trying to improve it.


A neighbor’s fallen oak wiped out many of the ornamental trees growing here when we came.  The remaining trees, and shrubs we’ve planted, have been regularly pruned by the deer.  Let’s just say the challenges have outnumbered the successes.

But excuses don’t matter a whit when it’s raining buckets and your slope is washing down into the ravine.  Which is why we decided that another ‘intervention’ is necessary this week, as we sit here on the cusp of Atlantic Hurricane Season.


April 2017: Another area where we had an erosion problem has responded very well to these terraces and perennial plantings.


We’ve had great success with the terraces we installed a few years ago, on the other side of the yard, to control erosion.   Even though the Rhodies didn’t take off as planned, the ferns and other perennials are filling in, and the erosion is handled.

In fact, I’ve learned that ferns are a terrific plant for controlling erosion in deep to part shade.  They set deep, thirsty roots to both hold the soil and control the amount of moisture retained in the soil.  Their dense foliage absorbs some of the impact of pounding rain.  As they grow, they create their own living mulch to keep their roots cool and moist.


This is the planting at the top of that previously terraced slope, today.


So it was that I loaded up my shopping cart on Wednesday with concrete landscaping blocks, pea gravel and as many holly ferns, Cyrtomium fortunei, as I could find. 

Now, I imagine some of you are thinking:  “Why don’t you just spread a good load of pine bark mulch here?”  or “Why don’t you just build a retaining wall?” 

We’ve learned that bark mulch makes moles very, very happy.  They love the stuff, and consider it great cover for their tunnels.  We use very little wood mulch, always a blend with Cypress, and I am transitioning to gravel mulch in nearly every part of the garden.  The voles hate gravel, and it is much longer lasting.


This bluestone gravel is my current favorite to use in the upper garden.  A Yucca I thought had died reappeared a few weeks after I mulched this area.  I’m installing more of this, one bag at a time….


A retaining wall wouldn’t work here because we use this area as a walkway between parts of the yard.  It is also so steep, that we would need major construction for it to be safe.   I don’t fancy bringing all of that heavy equipment into this part of the property.  Everything we use has to be carted in by hand.

It was my partner’s idea to space the landscape blocks a few inches apart this time.  We’ll reevaluate that decision after the next heavy rain!  But we filled in some of the divets, from collapsed vole tunnels, with the root balls of our new ferns.  Voles don’t do as much damage to fern roots as to some other perennials and woodies…. and then there is the small matter of the gravel….



I planted five new ferns today and added two more bags of gravel to the 10 or so we’ve already spread here over the last several years.  Pea gravel gets worked down into the soil over time, and can even get washed further down the hill in a heavy rain.  The concrete blocks will stop the washing away.  Eventually, we may add a larger size of rock mulch in this entire area.


These are two of the three holly ferns I found on sale racks Wednesday morning. With perennials, you are really buying the roots and crowns. I cleaned up the browned leaves and planted these with full confidence that they will grow into beautiful ferns.  New fiddleheads were already peaking out of the crowns.


But this is our effort for today, and we are both satisfied.  I had two little ferns in our holding area, waiting for a permanent spot, that we added to the three new holly ferns.  I’m sure a few more will turn up over the next few weeks.


I have already been planting a few ferns in this area over the last several years (top center). Now, I’ll also add some Helleborus transplants to the ferns, to further hold the ground and make this area more attractive in winter and early spring.  Hellebores make excellent ground cover year round and stop voles with their poisonous roots.


Why holly ferns?  Cyrtomium fortunei, Fortune’s holly fern, is hardy at least to Zone 6.  Some sources say Zone 5.  It is evergreen, with large fronds of tough, waxy green pinnae.  The clump expands each year, and eventually, after a couple of year’s growth in a good spot, a single fern will cover an area a little more than 2′ across.  Once planted, little care is required.

Cut out brown fronds once a year, keep them watered the first year, and then just regularly admire them after that.  Disease and critter damage isn’t an issue.  This is a large, bold, shiny green plant that shrugs off ice and snow.  It is great for halting erosion in shady spots.


Fortune’s holly fern planted in the 2017 terraces has grown very well.


And so once the blocks were set, ferns planted and gravel spread, I was happy to go back up to the upper garden to hold a spraying hose while watching butterflies.



Actually, I also had 3 new Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ to plant to entice more hummingbirds to the garden.  But that was quick and happy work, and only a minor distraction from admiring the butterflies.



My partner and I agree that every summer day should be a lovely as today.  We enjoyed sunbeams and cool breezes here for most of the day.

And yes, did I mention all of the butterflies?



Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabuous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another!


Dryopteris erythrosora’Brilliance’ is another of our favorite ferns. It is evergreen and easy to grow.


“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge
to test our courage and willingness to change;
at such a moment, there is no point in pretending
that nothing has happened
or in saying that we are not yet ready.
The challenge will not wait.
Life does not look back.
A week is more than enough time for us to decide
whether or not to accept our destiny.”
Paulo Coelho



About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

8 responses to “Fabulous Friday: Continuous Effort

  1. Oh, that is the holly fern you mentioned earlier. It sure is a nice specimen. I don’t know why, but they never look good here. It is probably the lack of humidity. (I don’t mean to sound redundant with that). The best colony of holly fern that I can remember was one that we needed to remove! It was sad. We divided it and canned it for use in other landscapes, but they never looked as good in their new homes.

  2. Thanks for the links in the post – it helped me get a sense of your slope. Have you considered anything larger than those blocks as a measure to control erosion? I’m wondering if something along the lines of a railroad tie – used both as a step and a terracing technique might make a larger impact?
    Sometimes it seems initially to be counter-intuitive to chip further away at a slope, but if you dug in those railroad ties and used the extra soil to really firm them in on the sides, there might be a more dramatic solution to controlling erosion while still allowing for safe passage up & down the slope – better actually.
    Then go nuts with ferns & other plant natives which will survive & thrive in the conditions you have.
    Vinca may prove to be a good choice, as well as European ginger, lungwort & lily of the valley.
    All the best!

    • Thank you, Kate, for your suggestion to use rail road ties here. I’ve seen what you are suggesting done on other sites and it is a beautiful solution. We could get a similar effect by using the next larger size of landscape blocks. The photo doesn’t show this well, but there are woody roots all through this area, which is probably what has held the slope this long! So digging down to install something large isn’t practical on this particular slope. If we dug deeply enough, something like a railroad tie could also serve as a barrier for the voles. Alas, they use every bit of cover they can find, which was one consideration in trying the smaller blocks, spaced a bit, first.
      Vinca is an excellent choice and naturally fills in many areas on the property. Once we get the ground stabilized, it will likely grow here, too. We have to be very careful with plant choice because many perennials have tasty roots that attract more vole activity.

      One of my first planting projects on this property was to plant an expanse ground cover Phlox further up the slope, in better light. Well, within two weeks, all the plants were gone. Deer grazed the tops and voles pulled them down into their tunnels. That was one of our first clues that this property was going to be a challenge!

  3. Well add another gold star to the list of what germs are great for!
    Had no idea that they help with erosion like this
    And glad you are tackling that sloped area in a way that is “earth friendly” too

      • Have you ever walked around on Belle Isle? I am sure you have – and when my boys were little – we’d go there on and off – and for some reason I always remember the ferns from our walks and bike rides – they have so many ferns in certain areas

        • Yvette, I spent a lot of time wandering around various sections of the James River Park in the 80s, when I lived in the Fan. They hadn’t developed Belle Isle yet, but I loved the wild places along the banks of the river. That is probably where I developed my passion for ferns. I also love finding ferns growing on rocky hillsides in the Blue Ridge, and now along the roadways on Jamestown Island. It is surprising how much sun many ferns can stand, provided they have consistently moist soil.

          • – thanks for sharing that – and…
            we do not have a lot of shady spots – but now that some of the trees I planted in 08 are taller – there is some shade and maybe I will add a few ferns later –

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