Beautiful and Easy: The Lady Ferns

Japanese painted fern Athyrium ‘Metallicum’ grows with silvery Rex Begonias.

When you’re planning what to plant, do your eyes sometimes glaze over while reading the growing instructions?  Does it all seem too complicated, to find some success with the plants you want to grow?  No one earns points on a tally for growing complicated plants.  Maybe that is why I love growing ferns.  Most are happy enough to find a home for their roots that they just take off, making a beautiful planting with very little effort.

Ferns are such ancient plants, appearing in the fossil record millions of years ago, long before the first tree or flower, that the same species may be native to several continents.  Take the classic lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina.  It is considered native to North America, Great Britain, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Related North American natives include the northern lady fern. Athyrium angustum (Zones 4-8), and the southern lady fern, Athyrium asplenioides (Zones 5-9).

There are nearly 200 Athyrium species, which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. Any curious gardener can fill a garden with an Athyrium collection.  There are beautiful selections more than 100 years in cultivation, and new selections regularly come on the market.

Some of the most colorful and ornamental lady ferns are native to Asia.  The most well-known, the Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum,’ has burgundy stipes and silver markings on its sometimes gray, sometimes burgundy fronds.  Another beautiful Asian fern, the eared lady fern, Athyrium otophorum, emerges greenish gold and matures to a beautiful shade of green.  All of these are hardy in our area.  

Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’

Read the rest of this post , and see more fern photos, on my new site, Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday:  Resistance is Usually Futile

Peonies are blooming this week

It was so hot here yesterday that pots I had just watered on Thursday, and that seemed fine yesterday morning, were parched and nearly dead when I went out this morning.  It was our first day in the 90s with bright sun.  I made my best efforts first at the botanical garden where I volunteer, and then at home. 

Apparently, it wasn’t enough for some of the new plants still waiting in their nursery pots.  I found a perfectly lovely (yesterday) white Gaura dry and limp this morning.  I’ve cut back all its beautiful stems of flowers, watered it well, and set it in the shade in hopes it will recover.

Gaura is pretty tough.  It root easily from stem cuttings and blooms here until nearly frost.  I bought this white one two weeks ago and have been tardy in planting it.  If it recovers, and I expect that it will, I’ll get it into the ground right away and hope it still will grow into its potential.

Mid-summer heat hit us quickly this year.  The cool and damp of April and early May lulled me into procrastination on many fronts.  But the slow transition from spring to summer in our garden has now gotten stuck on ‘fast-forward.’  There’s not much one can do once the weather turns hot except play along as best one can.

Continue to the rest of this post on Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: No Mercy

Not so long ago a seedling, and now a towering oak tree giving shade and sheltering wildlife

An oak takes a long time to grow from a sprout to a tree.  Or so we think.  This morning I’m standing below oak trees that I either planted, or spared, when they were just seedlings. 

We had been here a few years.  Oaks fell in a storm, taking understory trees with them, and leaving a wide, sunny patch in the upper garden.  The character of the garden had changed entirely, and eventually I took it in hand and planted the bones of what we have today. 

Two little ‘live oaks’ arrived from the Arbor Day Foundation, and I planted them across from one another on either side of the new, gaping hole of a full sun in what had been a shade garden.  Then the deer found them and grazed what little new growth they had.  I planted deterrent plants and supports around one of them, which has stretched to at least three times my height.  The other?  Well, It is in a shadier place, without as much protection, and the deer still find it from time to time.  It isn’t quite head high. 

Oh, and those two ‘live oaks’ apparently weren’t.  The still small one has the traditional strappy leaves of a Quercus virginiana.  Live oaks are notoriously slow to grow.  The other, now tall one?  I’m still trying to figure it out.  It is a semi-evergreen red oak, but not our Virginia live oak.

The sapling sprouted within the drip line of our remaining double trunked swamp chestnut oak, Quercus michauxii.  I was curious about it, and just thrilled to have it after losing so many other trees.  I procrastinated on moving it, left it be, and now it stretches to nearly 30 feet tall in not quite 10 years.  And curiously, it’s a different oak species altogether.  It must have blown in on the wind, or come with a squirrel or a blue jay to rest among the roots of the huge mother tree that now dominates that part of our yard.

Yellow Flag Iris overtaken by Akebia vines

Read the rest of this post, and view more photos on my new website, Our Forest Garden

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

I love finding mountain laurel growing in large, lovely masses in the wild.  Its creamy pink flowers glow softly in the forest.  Wild mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, sometimes covers the undeveloped banks of creeks and rivers in Eastern Virginia.  It grows as an understory shrub in our oak and pine forests. 

These evergreen, wild looking shrubs, almost small trees, simply blend into the fabric of the woods through much of the year before bursting into bloom in late April and early May, suddenly elegant and beautiful.  Wild mountain laurel usually has white or pink flowers.  Some cultivars in the nursery trade have been selected for darker flowers of purple, red or maroon.  Ours are probably wild ones, since most of the flowers are white.

Early American botanists first recorded mountain laurel, then called “Spoonwood,” in 1624.  Carl Linnaeus named the shrub for Peter Kalm, a Swede, who explored eastern North America in search of new and useful plants in 1747-51.  Mountain laurel, one of the most ornamental native plants growing along the east coast of North America, was collected by Kalm to export to gardeners in Europe. 

Mountain laurel grows from Maine to Florida in Zones 5-9.  It even grows east along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to eastern Louisiana. But it isn’t generally found near the coast south of Virginia.  It prefers the coolness of the mountains, and its southern range moves ever further west, at elevation, following the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.

Mountain laurel, part of the Ericacea family of plants, is related more closely to blueberries than to bay laurel, which is native to Europe.  It prefers moist, acidic soil and requires at least partial shade.  Although the shrubs flower more abundantly in bright shade than deep, Kalmia don’t like growing in full sun where summers grow hot.  These plants are best mulched, and fertilized, with shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch.

Read More on Our Forest Garden

Mountain Laurel, April 2017

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore….

Lantana attracts butterflies and birds. Deer never touch it.

When I began gardening here in a forested community in the autumn of 2009, my earliest efforts resulted in unexpected frustration as deer, rabbits, moles and voles ate much of what I planted. I still remember planting a flat of perennial Phlox plants and finding them gone the following morning, nothing left but holes where they had been planted only hours before.

Even plants that I expected to be ‘deer proof,’ like a new hedge of hybrid blue holly shrubs, died within months from the stress or repeated grazing. That frustration set me on a path to re-learn how to garden in such a ‘wildlife friendly’ environment.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is an heirloom Narcissus, dating to at least 1916. It grows here with lambs ears and Siberian squill, all unattractive to deer and rabbits.

Over a decade later, I’m still learning. But I’ve discovered a growing list of plants that the deer in our area leave strictly alone; plants that can be planted with confidence that they’ll be left alone for the gardener to enjoy. But ‘deer proof’ isn’t the only quality I’m looking for in plants. I also want beautiful plants that are reasonably easy to grow, persistent and that will support other wildlife. I want functional plants that serve a variety of purposes within the novel ecosystem of our community.

I began writing about these special plants for a local garden newsletter in May of 2021. The original set of nine articles has been republished here, with articles about additional plants on my ‘deer proof’ planting list added from time to time. I hope these articles will prove helpful to others who are trying to enjoy a garden where deer roam freely.

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel May 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scarlet Buckeye April 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore:  Narcissus March 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Ajuga February 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mahonia January 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Hellebores December 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Italian Arum November 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Evergreen Ferns October 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Rosemary September 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scented Geraniums August 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Verbena July 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Agastache June 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Calla Lily May 2021

Crossing the Line: When Plants Become Invasive

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’ grows with English ivy. Ivy is considered a highly invasive plant.

There is a long history of botanists and horticulturalists traveling around the world in search of new, beautiful and useful species of plants.  It is an essential part of our nation’s history to both send native American species to Europe, and to seek out and grow imported species here. 

You’ll hear wonderful stories of early colonists risking their lives and freedom to bring back some rice, or a tea shrub, or some other potentially productive and lucrative plant encountered on their travels, to put into production here in the ‘New World.’  Tony Avent of Plant Delights near Raleigh is one of many contemporary horticulturalists still importing new plants from elsewhere.

One of the trees imported from Asia was the white mulberry tree, Morus alba.  They were supposed to form the beginnings of a silk industry here in Virginia.  Sadly, the silkworm industry never took off in Virginia.  Worse, the white mulberry became an invasive species, even hybridizing with our native red mulberry.  But who knew that would happen in the Eighteenth Century?

Another Asian tree imported during the Colonial era, to potentially support silkworms, is the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera, formerly known as Morus papyrifera.  You may have noticed these odd-looking trees lining Francis Street near the Colonial Capitol building.  They are not considered invasive, but the silkworms didn’t care for them.  In China, they were used in the production of early paper products.

It may take only a few decades for a wonderful new plant introduction to cause enough problems in its new environment to find itself reclassified as an invasive nuisance plant. The very qualities that make a new introduction exciting and marketable may also make it harmful to its new ecosystem.

Read more and see more photos of Virginia’s invasive plants on Our Forest Garden. All new posts now go to the new website. Have you followed it, yet?

See Virginia’s Invasive Plant List

Six on Saturday: With Patience and Flexibility….

Turneric in bloom with elephant ears

It’s finally raining. Cool, soft rain has been falling for several hours now with more on the way. It is such a relief, because I’ve been pulling hoses and carrying full buckets of water nearly every day for the past several weeks to keep the pots and certain parts of the gardens watered. It has been hot and muggy, which has encouraged all of the flowers and elephant ears to push out new flowers and growth and stay beautiful longer than usual; so long as they can stay hydrated. Otherwise, we have drooping stems and crispy leaves.

I’ve been doing July chores in October.  And even as we admire the lushness, my thoughts have already turned to changing out plants for the winter, planting bulbs and cutting back. 

I dug out the first Caladiums and Callas this week, laying the bulbs in a cardboard flat to dry.  I replaced the Caladiums with soft pink snapdragons to bloom on into the winter and again in earliest spring.  Trays of ferns and herbs are marshalled, ready to begin new lives in pots as soon as I lift out the summer tenants.

And here into the second week of October I’m still waiting to find that particular variety of Panola that blends pink and burgundy and softest yellow in each ruffled blossom.   My planting visions are filled with this warm palette of color to brighten winter pots. 

Climate confusion affects us all.  Butterflies linger a bit longer.  Trees remain green well into ‘autumn.’ It is still too warm to plant most of the winter ornamentals that usually fill nurseries and garden centers in October.  Gardening trains us in patience and flexibility.  And appreciation for even the smallest bit of beauty.

Read more and see four more photos on my newer website, Our Forest Garden

Four Season Container Gardens

This ‘Four-Season’ container garden grows at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. It is lush with ferns and Caladiums in late September 2021.

Do you have pots that stand empty for weeks out of the year?  In northern climates, gardeners often empty and clean their pots in winter.  Since unglazed ceramic pots absorb water and sometimes crack in freezing temperatures, this makes sense.  But how empty things must look once summer’s beautiful pots go into storage.

Fourth Dimensional Gardening

Gardeners work in four dimensions. Of course we consider how tall a plant will grow and how deep its roots will go. Every plant grows to a certain width and depth to fill the space around it. But we also work in a fourth dimension: time. Each plant appears, grows, and fades according to its own schedule. We can use this to our advantage, planning for various plants to appear in their season, dovetailing to create a series of beautiful compositions during each gardening year.

Our coastal Virginia remains mild enough to enjoy our pots throughout the year.  With a little planning, a gardener can have a beautiful display, and maybe even something in bloom, every week of the year.  Once you have the right sort of pot positioned in a sheltered spot, your horticultural imagination is free to experiment with a range of beautiful plants.

Read more of this post on Our Forest Garden, which is my new website. Please follow me there to see all new posts.

Six on Saturday: Gifts

These windmill palms made it from California to Virginia in perfect shape, thanks to Tony Tomeo.

Gifts are always fun.  Gardening gifts are the best, and gifts of plants always warm my heart.  A living plant is a gift from the heart, and it creates a special bond between giver and receiver as the plant grows on and develops into its potential.

That said, sometimes those gifted plant can get too enthusiastic and create work down the road.  But when that happens, I try to dig up those I can’t use and share them with someone else.  I love trying new plants I’ve not grown before.   Most gardeners I know love expanding their gardening experience by growing out new types of plants.

When California Horticulturalist, Tony Tomeo, who I’ve been corresponding with for the last several years through our respective blogs, offered to send me some windmill palms, Trachycarpus fortunei, I immediately accepted his kind offer.  He told me these were babies, and he assured me that they should grow OK here in coastal Virginia. 

I’ve not grown palms before.  What a wonderful opportunity to learn something new!  I know that they will do well on my sheltered front patio.  Since these are slow growing, I can keep them in pots on the patio for the time being, to watch them grow.  Once they settle in and grow more roots, I expect to transplant two of these beautiful palms into large pots on either side of my front porch.

Read more on Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday:  For the Birds

Our upper garden at the end of September is a haven for wildlife

A cold front this week blessed us with cooler temperatures and lower humidity.  The oppressive summer air was blown out to sea, and what followed feels crisp and clean.  I can see a few scarlet leaves and scarlet dogwood berries in the trees near my window, a sure sign that the season has turned, and the equinox is behind us now.

Each day will be minutes shorter now.  Mornings come later, but the cool comfortable hours for gardening last deep into the afternoon.  I’m drawn out again and again to tweak this or that and to capture a few photos.  Colors have grown bright and intense after days of rain and real relief from summer’s heat.

Even as the wheel of the year turns towards winter, we enjoy the culmination of a fruitful summer.  Beautyberries glow purple, inviting the many birds filling our garden to feast on them and spread their seeds.  Goldfinches fly up from stands of Rudbeckia to safer perches in the trees at our approach.  We find partially eaten hickory nuts and exploded beech nut hulls on the driveway, dropped by birds and squirrels.

It is a season of abundance for all the wild creatures our garden supports.  Nectar rich flowers open daily, pushing against one another in their expansive growth.  It is hard to walk through the upper garden now.  The paths have filled with fallen stems, and I rarely cut back some faded something to make the way easier for our passage.

Read more, here…. on my new website, Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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