The ‘Fern Table,’ My Way

There is an inspiring feature about fern tables in the current Horticulture Magazine, written by Richie Steffen. Steffen is the Executive Director of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington and President of the Hardy Fern Foundation. I’ve read the article through a few times now and studied the illustrations for ideas. It is an excellent overview of fern tables and I highly recommend reading it if you love ferns and enjoy container gardening.

A fern table is a representation of the forest floor, built up from a flat surface. The arrangement typically includes small to medium sized ferns, mosses, shade loving woodland perennials, small shrubs, vines, bits of old wood and rocks. Fern tables may be built directly on a tabletop, on a concrete paver, or on a tray.

These fern tables are designed as permanent outdoor installations, built on concrete bases and measuring several feet square. They are very natural and rustic. They may be used indoors or on a porch or patio, as a centerpiece or runner on a table, or may be placed in the garden as a focal point.

This form takes elements from bonsai, from kokedama balls, and from container gardening to create something new and different. Built up from a solid but flat surface, these displays look a bit illogical and perhaps a bit dangerous. One must break a few gardening ‘rules’ to create them. But they are also whimsical and fun. I wanted to try to create arrangements in this style.

Before investing in concrete blocks and pavers and building something permanent in the garden as a gift for my squirrel friends, I decided to experiment on a smaller scale. So I found some simple Bonsai trays to use as a base. These are entirely portable and may be used indoors or out on our deck. My rectangular trays are 8″ x 10″ and have a shallow side, perhaps a half inch deep. Perhaps I should call my arrangements ‘Fern Trays’ rather than ‘Fern Tables.’

Read more about how to construct a Fern Table on Our Forest Garden

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WG

Associations

As a young gardener, I bought and cared for individual plants I liked.  I still remember a beautiful, red-leafed Begonia in a hanging basket that I bought at a Richmond farmer’s market in the early 80’s.  I happily brought it home to my little apartment and hung it on the screened in porch.  It brought tremendous joy as it bloomed and stretched and succeeded in that humble little space. 

Many of us may spend our entire gardening lives focusing on single plants.  There are orchid enthusiasts, African violet enthusiasts, rose enthusiasts and Begonia enthusiasts; and we can remain quite happy with our special plants in special little pots doing their beautiful genus specific ‘thing.’

Begonia x. rex

But at some point, some of us experiment with putting several different types of plants, together, into a single pot or basket.  You may have seen ‘how-to’ articles in gardening magazines that offer recipes for container gardens of 3, 5, 7, maybe 9 or more plants.  When plants are grown together in a community like this, we call it an ‘association.’

It takes a little more understanding of the chosen plants to create a successful association.  In addition to considerations of the various colors of the flowers and leaves, we also consider each plant’s form.  What will grow tall?  What will droop or drape down the pot?  What will grow thick and dense?  What will reach out of the arrangement for the sun, or what will creep across the soil as a groundcover?  When will the flowers bloom, and for how long?

To create a good association, we also need to know what is happening in the soil.  How deep do each plants roots want to grow?  Do any have taproots?  Will there be bulbs dividing and expanding?  Rhizomes creeping?

And of course, we need to consider the amount of sun each plant needs to thrive, and which plants might die back with too much or too little light.  Does the plant want the soil to dry between waterings, or should the soil remain moist?  Or ever waterlogged?  Most of us learn these things through our mistakes as much as through our study.

It may be simpler to use a recipe from a magazine, but experienced gardeners develop their own ideas of favorite associations that suit their own microclimate.  A simple potted arrangement also allows us to learn about new plants, watching them carefully through a season or two to learn more about how they perform.  We can decide whether to grow more, or move on to something else.

A good association of plants can carry a pot or basket with something of interest every month of the year.  Winter blooming annuals, bulbs that begin their growth during the cold weeks of winter, and good strong foliage plants can bridge the awkward times when nothing else much may bloom.  Annuals may be popped in and out of a grouping anchored by a shrub or an evergreen perennial.

Pots are a great way to try out new associations of plants.  Some will work beautifully, and maybe others, not so much.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  Pots are portable, allowing a gardener to easily move the grouping into different light, and to control the water more reliably.

Those of us blessed with a bit of ground where we can dig, and plant, will eventually create associations in our garden beds and borders.  That is how great designs develop, as we get a good feel for which plants make good neighbors and stunning displays together.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Ruthless Love

Solidago, goldenrod, and Physostegia virginiana grow vigorously, making life challenging for other perennials in this space.

Baby plants have a particular charm for me.  I spent a happy half hour this afternoon browsing the display of tiny ‘terrarium’ plants in 1” pots at the Great Big Greenhouse in Richmond. and came home with more than a half dozen tiny starts of Begonias and ferns.  What fun!  I have a couple of future projects taking shape in imagination, and I gathered some of the plants and staging I will need for them today.

The charm of baby plants is their mystery and their promise.  What will it look like as it grows?  How beautiful will it be as it blooms?  How will it fit into my garden?

I have purchased countless baby plants over the years that ‘seemed like a great idea at the time.’  And then there were gifts of little divisions that came from friends in grocery bags and old nursery pots.  Gifts of love and kindness, all.   Especially when our upper garden was largely an empty, mulch carpeted blank slate, gardening friends expressed their compassion and well-wishes with gifts from their own gardens.  Plus, they know I’m a sucker for a new plant, right?

The promise inherent in most of these sweet little starts is that they will be happy in our garden, will feel comfortably at home, and will grow.

Here lies the irony experienced gardeners know in their bones:  some cute little baby plants grow up to become out of control real estate tycoons.  Sound like a familiar story?

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Companions

Ferns grow with Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop,’ Vinca, Arum and Hellebores

Have you ever noticed how some gardeners want to show off their mulch? Every plant or species group is carefully set far enough apart from the next to grow neatly, like little islands, in a sea of brown mulch. These curated clumps of vegetation may be arranged into an arc or grid or another clever scheme.

If shrubs, they are neatly sheared often enough to keep them in their intended shape. And the whole scene is surrounded by a sharp bordered sea of fresh mulch to demarcate the planting space.

I see these neatly manicured beds at the entrances to shopping centers and upscale neighborhoods, always anchored by a few rounded, evergreen shrubs.  The color plants usually get switched out seasonally, with a few dozen little Begonias planted in April or May, replacing the ornamental cabbages and pansies planted last October.  Once the cabbages flower, they look weedy, and are goners. 

Of course, one must weed to keep it in shape.   Seeds blow in from everywhere, so one must weed by hand, or spray periodically with an herbicide, to keep things neat. And often the answer is simply piling on more shredded bark mulch over the old, hiding what has faded. Mulch piles creep up the trunks of any larger trees like little brown mountains, beneath their leafy canopies.

This Aristotelian garden style asks us to make a lot of choices.  First, and most importantly, what is a desirable plant, and what is a weed?  What makes one plant desirable, and another not?  The gardener always gets to choose.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

My Final Plant Order

The second part of an order as it arrived on April 11, 2014. Michigan bulb did replace these plants when notified of their condition on arrival.

Back in the day, I loved finding a plant or seed catalog in the mail.  I studied each one carefully, marking up my wish list and then winnowing it down to something almost reasonable.  I read the descriptions on each shrub and perennial, compared tomato, bean and squash varieties, and stayed abreast of all the latest and greatest plant introductions.

Over the past thirty years (plus or minus) I have ordered everything from fruit trees to roses, ferns, geraniums, tomato seeds and Caladium bulbs.

I have received some fine, healthy plants that grew well, and I’ve received some duds.  Like you probably have over the years, too.  I used to collect heirloom roses and fruit trees.  There weren’t deer or rabbits in that garden, and I could grow vegetables and strawberries, too.  I grew at least six varieties of apples and three different peaches, all purchased through the mail.

I remember those days fondly.  The mail came every day, efficiently and without long delays.  Prices were fair and nursery companies were honorable and cared about their reputations.

July 2014

But things change over time, don’t they?  For the last few years, most of the nursery catalogs that make it to my mailbox go straight to the recycling can, just as soon as I can remove and shred my address label.  A quick glance shows me how ridiculously overpriced the most common perennial can be when ordered through the mail.  What I can buy locally for $5 suddenly becomes a $20 a plant before tacking on the postage.

It has been a long time since I have found a good deal on anything other than my favorite Caladium tubers.  A few years ago, I took a chance on ordering a rare, hard to locate Iris.  I ordered from a huge national company that advertises heavily, used a coupon code, and waited excitedly for my Iris to arrive.  The stock looked good on arrival and I potted up the several I had purchased.  They didn’t bloom the first year, and so I had an entire year to anticipate these inky, almost black, species Iris flowers. 

And then there were buds, and finally the buds opened…. blue.  What had been sold as an Iris chrysographes bloomed as a pale blue Japanese Iris.  It was a pretty enough Iris, but not what I had ordered.  And so instead of refunding my purchase, the company sent me a letter promising store credit on my next order.  That letter sat in my filing cabinet for a couple of years, because I truly wasn’t interested in buying anything else from them.

And then temptation struck me this past February.  February does strange things to an otherwise sensible gardener’s sensibility.  I found this fern I just had to have, and this company had it at a fair enough price.  And so one freezing February day I ordered the golden fern and a couple of Calla lily bulbs, and paid for it with my letter of credit, plus a few extra dollars to cover the difference.

We are fortunate to have Brent and Becky’s Bulbs close enough to shop with them in person.

Well, the fern arrived just fine in early March, but no bulbs.  They said the bulbs would be along shortly.  And so I waited patiently through the time frame they indicated, and still no Calla bulbs.  When I called customer service last week, the sweet lady apologized profusely while telling me that the next time frame for mailing them would be mid-May.  No thank you.

I cancelled the order, scolding myself the entire time, and requested a refund.  Well, I’m still waiting for that refund.  Are you surprised?

I tried a new company last February, too.  The Tennessee Wholesale Nursery has a professional looking website and carries a large selection of bare root ferns.  I was in fern bliss ordering species never found in stores.   The order arrived a few weeks later in March, and I was pleased with what I received.

Pleased enough that I had the botanical garden where I volunteer place an order for a project I was planting there.  We were a bit shocked to pay around $30 for postage for a few packages of bare root ferns, but there was no stated shipping policy on the website other than a statement that they would determine the shipping on each order.  Those ferns were shipped the same day they were ordered, and I was a very happy gardener to open that order, too.

The silvery underside of each frond is this fern’s distinguishing feature. I brought this fern home from Oregon in my luggage in 2019.

Perhaps I should have been satisfied and left it at that.  But no, I wanted a few more ferns for my spring projects, so I placed the third order with Tennessee Wholesale Nursery in mid-March.  The website indicated it would ship out in March, and my credit card was charged on March 20.

And I’m still waiting for that order a month later in mid-April, while getting nothing helpful or encouraging from their customer service agent.  When they told me last Monday that they wouldn’t be able to dig my ferns for several more weeks, I asked that the order be cancelled if they couldn’t ship by today. Numerous attempts to call the available numbers led only through the phone tree to full voice mailboxes.

Well, the order wasn’t prepared last week, and so on Friday, I requested that it be cancelled, and my payment refunded. No acknowledgement, just an apology.  It is getting too late in the season here for me to want to start off with bare root plants.  Our cool spring is history, and it is stressful for plants to have to grow new roots in our heat.

I requested again today that the order be cancelled.  And I followed up with an email to the owner.  Still, no acknowledgment that it has been cancelled, or that my refund is in process, even after writing to the owner.   Instead of happily planting my ferns, I am left pondering next steps . . .

2013, An Afghan Fig, newly arrived in the mail, ready to plant. It is still thriving in our garden today.

I have one more plant order ‘out there’ that is supposed to ship this week from Plant Delights in North Carolina.  This will be my first order with them in several years.  Once their shipping costs went above $30 for even a single plant, it cooled my plant lust considerably.  All it took was a few moments of ‘doing the math’ to figure out the actual cost of the plant to convince me that I didn’t need it that badly.

But I was given a gift of cash and asked to get something I had been wanting for a while.  And after several days of thinking about it, I decided to support the work that Plant Delights does for the horticultural community with a purchase/donation.  I say donation because the prices are so high.  But they are quite honest and let you know that your purchase helps support their botanical garden where the plants are trialed and cultivated.  Fair enough.

These three Colocasia plants were all purchased through the mail. The tall Colocasia “Black Runner” arrived from Plant Delights Nursery on April 2, 2014, in perfect condition. The tiny Colocasia, “Pink China” plants arrived from another company in poor condition. You get what you pay for!

I am waiting to hear that the order has shipped.  Plant Delights has a good track record of customer service.  If you don’t mind paying $20-$30 a plant for a little something in a 3.5” pot, you can source plants from them unavailable from anyone else.  And, the plants are healthy and correctly labeled.

Buying new plants should be joyous.  We all want to be treated fairly and to receive good value for our expenditure.  The plants we receive should be healthy, arrive at the correct time, and we should be able to communicate with the nursery staff if problems arise.

Many of the old names in the mail-order nursery business have gone under in recent years.  Others have consolidated.  This past year has presented special challenges for every sort of business, including mail-order nurseries.  I appreciate the work they do and the opportunity to purchase unusual plants few others carry.

This past week I unsubscribed from the emails of all but two nursery companies.  Why read the emails and see the sales when I’ve decided to stop ordering from them?  I am still allowing emails from Plant Delights, because I enjoy seeing their new introductions.  And I am still impressed with the quality, service and selection at Classic Caladiums, in Avon Park, Florida.

Beyond that, I have placed my final plant order.  I will shop locally or find happiness with whatever wildflower or sapling pops up in my yard.  Because peace of mind is priceless.

Native dogwood is our state flower, and the Virginia Native Wildflower of the Year for 2018. Best of all, it seeds itself around our garden for free.

Building a Fern Bed to Reduce Erosion

Rainy weather and frequent storms over the past few years have presented a particular challenge.  We are situated on a sloping bit of land on the side of a ravine.  A creek runs through the ravine below us and empties into a small lake.

Working with the continual erosion has remained a constant theme of our gardening here.  Our challenge is to slow the flow of water to increase opportunities for rain to soak into the soil for later use, while reducing the amount of flowing water that erodes the soil and runs off into the ravine.

Read more about the construction of this new series of raised beds, and see photos of some of the ferns we’ve chosen at my new site, Our Forest Garden.

If you enjoy these posts. please follow my new site, Our Forest Garden, so you remain up to date with all of the activity in our garden.

-WG 2021

Providing Habitat for Native Bees

The original Pollinator Palace at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been renovated this month. Read more here

Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey? 

Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s.  That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.   

There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline. 

Informed  gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few.  This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems.  Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.

There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees.  A gardener’s  most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen.  Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.

 Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen.  Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.

Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them.  Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.

Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed.  They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower.  While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom.   Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.

While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants.  When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Spring in Our ‘Novel’ Garden

When we first moved to this garden nearly 12 years ago, we were delighted to find daffodils blooming our first spring, in a lush mass across a bank in the front yard.  We watched in wonder as their buds opened, revealing their varied forms and colors. 

Our next door neighbors, an English couple, also love daffies and plant a fresh lot of bulbs each fall to add to their springtime display.  Daffodils are heirloom plants, blooming for many decades after they are planted.  They divide each summer and sometimes their seeds are spread around, allowing for natural hybrids and unpredictable spread. Their bright yellows, whites and golds light up our woodlands before the first buds of Forsythia or wild deerberries begin their bloom.

Read more and see more garden photos

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG March 2021

Six On Saturday: Happy Pots in January

January and February might be months gardeners choose to take off.  After all, it is hard to get too enthusiastic with a northwest wind blowing and temperatures dropping, even if the sun shines for a few hours of the day.  Plant choices dwindle as temperatures drop, and frozen soil makes it even more challenging to keep potted plants hydrated.  Leaves may get crispy edges when roots can’t absorb enough water to replace moisture left to cold, drying winds.  Frozen soil is almost as limiting to plant growth as dry soil.

That’s why I pay attention and take note of potted plants that still shine with vigor and health by late January.  I get excited by every winter flower, green leaf, and promise of continued growth.  Granted, our winters here in Williamsburg may be milder than most.  And our coldest, frostiest weather often waits for February or early March, just as we’re primed for spring.  But I’ll tell you that last night was in the 20s here, and it had only warmed up into the 30s when I took these photos.  These are a few plants that have proven themselves sturdy through colder nights and icier days in winters passed. Read More on Our Forest Garden

 

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG January 2021

Our Forest Garden

Moss garden with Canadian Hemlock and holly seedlings

The time has cometo continue the journey that we began in June of 2013, with A Forest Garden, on a new site.

After over 1700 posts, it seems I’ve filled up all of the space allowed for new photos. If you are a regular visitor, you might have noticed fewer new posts over the past several months as I approached the limit time and again. I deleted some old material, recycled a few old photos, and tried to make it to January 2021 to organize a new website.

Now, in the quiet months, I have the time to assemble a new and improved “Our Forest Garden” site for gardening friends old and new.

If you have been a follower for awhile, I hope you will follow this new site today, so you will still receive notifications when new content is posted. If you are a new follower, you will be able to still access any old content of interest to you on A Forest Garden. I am building links between the sites for your convenience.

In fact, you may find it easier to find content by using the new directory pages I’m setting up to try to organize seven and a half years of posts. You’ll find these pages of links on the menu.  There are several of these directory pages already constructed and I have plans to continue adding new pages for a while.

Over the years, the most popular posts on A Forest Garden have been the ‘how to’ posts. The posts most heavily viewed have generally been those about trees, Begonias and Caladiums. With lots of media space open, I plan to offer some new posts on these popular topics.

My interests have expanded over the years, and my gardening community has grown. Even as our garden space has filled up with plants, my curiosity to grow new genera and to garden in new ways has also increased. I’m more curious now about working with nature in ever more subtle ways to support our rich ecosystem.

I am a ‘dirty hands’ gardener and am always happy with my hands in the soil, helping something to grow. My camera is always close at hand and I try to capture as much of the action as possible to document the passing of the seasons, the growth of favorite plants, and the presence of butterflies, birds, turtles, rabbits, and the other creatures who visit us.

There is so much left to grow and left to learn. I invite you to remain with me on the journey.

The Woodland Gnome January 2021

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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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