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: 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

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: Early Autumn Beauty

Dark form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectars on butterfly bush

… While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia.   The plants are tired.  We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale.    Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny.  There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.

So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges.  Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season…

See today’s photos and read more on 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.

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

Have you followed my new website? All new posts are now on Our Forest Garden. Please click over and follow today.


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

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

Sunday Dinner: The Known


“Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say,

`That is an oak tree’, or `that is a banyan tree’,

the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge,

has so conditioned your mind

that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree?

To come in contact with the tree

you have to put your hand on it

and the word will not help you to touch it.”


Jiddu Krishnamurti



“Their life is mysterious,

it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity,

it can be comprehended, described,

but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow,

the density blinds one.

Within there is no form, only prodigious detail

that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight,

foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap,

insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven,

all of it is deceiving.

There are really two kinds of life.

There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living,

and there is the other.

It is this other which causes the trouble,

this other we long to see.”


James Salter



“I’m planting a tree

to teach me to gather strength

from my deepest roots.”


Andrea Koehle Jones



“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike.

And no two journeys along the same path are alike.”

  Paulo Coelho


Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida


Photos by Woodland Gnome 2020



“Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall.

In their rings we read ancient weather—

storms, sunlight, and temperatures,

the growing seasons of centuries.

A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers

even after it has been felled.”


Anne Michaels




Pot Shots: Out By the Road

August 2020


Anything we want to plant at the edges of our property, out by the road, has to be tough enough to thrive in challenging conditions.  It might be too much shade or too much sun, curious passers-by, grazing deer, air pollution, road salts, or any number of other factors.  Maybe it isn’t a spot that’s easy to water, or an exposed site with too much wind.

Whatever the hazards, we can still find interesting plants to grow in these special spots.  After all, this is our public face that our neighbors see each day.  It is worth a little effort.

This pot sits at the gate to the Williamburg Botanical Garden, along one of the main roads through Freedom Park.  Since it’s outside the gate, the resident deer check it out frequently.  If I plant something they find tasty, it disappears almost overnight.  This is an unforgiving spot and plant choice must be spot on, or the plant disappears.


June 29, 2018


Pots or beds on display 24/7/365 require a bit of planning to minimize those awkward times between seasons.  When I planted this pot the first time, in the summer of 2018, I used several Lantana, a tall Alocasia ‘Mayan Mask’, creeping Jenny, Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ Artemesia ‘Powis Castle,’ oregano and a Heliotrope.   That  first planting was an experiment to see what would thrive and what would fade away in this partly sunny spot.

As summer wore on the Lantana, Euporbia, Artemesia and Alocasia performed very well.  The original creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, still grows today.  This pot remained full and attractive through the entire season.


September 20, 2018


As fall approached, I dug out the Artemesia to use elsewhere in the garden, potted the Alocasia to keep at home overwinter, and removed the Lantanas to make room to plant bulbs.  The Lantana ‘Chapel Hill Gold’ and L. ‘ Chapel Hill Yellow’ are perennials in our climate, but I wanted their space for other plantings.

In the fall of 2018 I planted a variety of bulbs to give a long season of spring bloom.  Along with Muscari and daffodils, I also planted a few Arum italicum for winter color.  These Arum send up leaves in early fall and remain glossy green all winter, blooming in April or May and making colorful berries after their leaves disappear for the summer.

Along with the bulbs, I also added a holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.  I mulched over the bare soil with moss lifted from the area and added a few Strawberry Begonia divisions, Saxifraga stolonifera, which make an evergreen ground cover and bloom in mid-spring.  The holly fern and Saxifraga have continued on since they were first planted and are part of the arrangement today.


Late November, 2018 Arum have begun to emerge and will unfold into long lasting glossy green leaves.


Many spring flowering bulbs have poisonous leaves or flowers and will survive grazing deer or rabbits.  Narcissus offer weeks of color, will bloom in winter sunshine even if the area becomes more shady when hardwood trees leaf out, and every part of a Narcissus is poisonous.  Muscari and Squill will also survive around grazing wildlife.

Tulip and most Crocus bulbs smell delicious to squirrels, who may dig them up for a snack soon after you plant them.  Voles may also attack tulips planted into the ground.  You might spray these bulbs with a repellent like Repels All before planting and hope for the best.  Deer sometimes graze on tulips once they emerge.  A species of Crocus known as early Crocus or ‘Tommies,’ Crocus tommasinianus, are not so appealing and will be left alone.

It is still smart to spray a finished container planting with repellent to discourage exploration.  Squirrels have been known to keep a keen eye on gardeners in autumn, waiting for those gifts of tasty bulbs.  Mulching with pea gravel and planting deeply can also slow down the squirrels.


April 4, 2019


The planting looked a little sparse to me in February and early March, so I tucked a perennial Columbine into a back corner when they first came available at our local nursery.  These grow easily from seed, and I’ve found a few seedlings cropping up near the pot from time to time.

If you are designing a planting like this, remember that you might drop a few seeds into the pot in fall or early spring and expect them to germinate and begin to fill in by spring.  Alyssum is a great choice for a low, blooming ground cover from seed.

The next awkward time for container plantings comes as spring flowers fade and their leaves grow ratty.  Spring flowering bulbs need their leaves to soak up the sun for about six weeks after bloom to refuel the bulb for next year’s show.  A gardener can just work with the foliage for a few weeks, or dig out the bulbs to replant something else.  If you dig them, you can plant them elsewhere ‘in the green’ or pot in a plastic nursery pot while you let them finish their spring growth.

Again, removing the bulbs from a container allows room for the root ball of something else.  Besides, you might want to try new varieties of bulbs for the following year.


April 12, 2019 Narcissus ‘Exotic Mystery’ bloom with blue Muscari


When it was time to prepare this container garden for another summer, I tried to work around and leave as many of the bulbs in place as I could, adding new plants where space allowed.  Since bulbs are planted at three times their height, and frequently pull themselves even deeper into the pot, it is often easy to plant a transplant over a bulb you decide to keep, without disturbing it.

There is a new Salvia in the back corner, a new white Lantana along the front edge, a few small Columbines tucked along the back edge, and a Tradescantia pallida in the center.  I also planted a new Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost,’ which had done well the previous year.

But in 2018 the Euphorbia was in the back of the arrangement.  By planting it in the front corner I tempted fate, and the deer, who decided it is tasty.  It was grazed and replaced a time or two before I gave up on it.  By then, the Lantana had grow so much it no longer mattered, and the Tradescantia had become a showpiece.

Although I planted the Alocasia back, it never recovered its 2018 glory, and so I substituted another variety.  By now the holly fern and Saxifraga were well-established and showing active growth.

The pot filled out and looked nice throughout the summer.  In the autumn, when I cleaned the pot up around first frost, I planted a cream colored snapdragon in the front to bloom through the fall and again in early spring.


June 9, 2019


The snapdragon did extremely well and is still producing flowers this summer.  Through the winter we also enjoyed Arum italicum again, the Saxifraga, which bloomed beautifully in the spring with stalks of tiny white flowers filling the pot for several weeks, the holly fern, and of course soft, green moss.


Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia, blooms with ferns.


By the time the spring flowering bulbs died back in early summer, we were under ‘stay at home’ orders because of the virus.  I wasn’t working at the garden as much and many of the plantings were left to manage on their own for close to two months.

When I finally got back to a more normal schedule, I was thrilled to find this pot still looking good, with the Strawberry Begonia blooming and the Tradescantia returning to growth.  One always has to decide whether to leave perennials in place in a pot and trust they will return, or dig them up at the end of their season and pop something else into their place for the season ahead.


Tradescantia also performs well in hanging baskets because it is very drought tolerant.


Tradescantia is a great investment because it returns by late spring, grows with little care, propagates easily from stem cuttings and has delicate pink flowers in summer.  It will die back at first frost, so remember to take some cuttings in the fall to enjoy in a vase all winter, growing in water.  By spring you’ll have rooted cuttings to plant somewhere new.

The Columbine and fern returned this spring with a nice display of delicate Columbine flowers and fresh growth on the fern.  The Saxifraga had expanded so much, that I ended up removing some to another planting after their bloom.  Creeping Jenny may turn red or sometimes brown in winter’s cold, but pops back up with beautiful new growth each spring, expanding all season long to form a skirt of chartreuse vines draping gracefully over the edges of the pot.

I planted a new Lantana in May, since this has been a reliable star performer, and also added a sprouted Alocasia I’d kept over winter.  By the time I returned a few days later, no trace of the Alocasia was left.  A mystery….  I finally brought a little sprouted Caladium in June, and it has survived, if not yet grown into its potential.


August 2020


To keep a pot like this looking good over a long period of time, it is important to keep up the watering, grooming and fertilizing.  Especially around the change of seasons, things will die back and need to be cut out.  It is good to visit every few weeks with a critical eye and clippers in hand .  I also like to sprinkle in some time release fertilizer, like Osmocote, whenever I’m switching out plants.  In between, I try to drench the planting with an organic, liquid feed, like Neptune’s Harvest, at least once each month.

You may notice that the color scheme in this pot is subdued, and the colors remain much the same from season to season.  This scheme is built around blues, purple, yellow, white and green.  The departure comes in spring when the Columbine’s red flowers emerge.  You may also notice that much of the interest is found in contrast and texture.   Letting the foliage do most of the work makes a container easy to maintain since leaves last much longer than flowers.  Frankly, as long as there is something alive and green in the pot, I think that is all that is truly required in a spot like this.

Working with tough reliable plants, planning ahead, and regular care will allow anyone to maintain a presentable container garden ‘out by the road.’  Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.  Be willing to experiment and replace any plant that doesn’t make it.  And most of all, have fun and enjoy the beauty of it all.



Woodland Gnome 2020


Illuminations: Walking in Beauty Every Day



Six on Saturday: Rain Gardens

Both Caladiums and most ferns appreciate moist soil and can survive for quite a while in saturated soil. Ferns planted in wide strips as ground cover can slow down and absorb run-off from summer storms.


It’s still raining here.  It has been raining off and on for days, but mostly on.  We’re under a multi-day flood watch and a flash flood advisory.   A tropical storm inundated us not long ago and another formed off of our coast yesterday, and even heading out to sea it pulls historic rains behind as it moves away.

The ground is already saturated and every little plastic saucer under a ceramic container overflows.  I smile at the thought of how long it will be before I’ll need to water the garden again.  August usually is a wet month, and welcome after hot, dry stretches in July.  But the tropical storm season forecast for 2020 is unlike anything we’ve ever known before.  (That is our new catch phrase for 2020, isn’t it?  Unlike anything we’ve ever known before?)


Scarlet cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, is a classic rain garden plant. It thrives in moist soil but will survive short droughts, too.  This clump grows in the wetlands area of the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.


We have a program in our county that helps homeowners install rain gardens.  A friend is known for her beautiful rain garden designs. When working with local government and the Master Gardeners, county residents can have significant portions of their costs reimbursed.

The idea is very simple and elegant:  Rain gardens are dug a few inches below grade to catch and hold run-off from heavy rains.  Water loving plants growing in the rain garden help soak up the run-off, even as it settles into the ground to replenish the water table, instead of running off into local waterways, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  Unlike ponds, they don’t hold standing water indefinitely.  Most absorb and process the run-off soon after a rain.

Rain gardens help catch pollutants that wash off of lawns and streets so those nutrients and chemicals can be recycled and trapped by vegetation.  This helps reduce the amount of pollution flowing into creeks, the rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  They also provide habitat for small animals like turtles, toads, frogs, dragonflies and many types of birds.

Even when we don’t excavate and engineer a formal rain garden, there are things we can do to help slow the flow of water across our yards and capture a portion of that rain water before it flows into the local waterways.  We’ve built a number of terraces in the steepest part of our yard and planted them with plants to help slow the flow of rain water.  We also have several ‘borders’ of shrubs and other vegetation to break the flow of run-off and absorb it.

In fact, the slogan of our county Stormwater and Resource Protection Division is, “Plant More Plants.”   Plants buffer the falling rain, help protect the soil from erosion, slow run-off and absorb large quantities of water, returning it to the atmosphere.  Just planting trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennial borders helps to manage the abundant rain we are getting in recent years.


Zantedeschia, or calla lily, thrives in moist soil.  Some species will grow in the edge of a pond, and these work very well in rain gardens or wet spots where run-off collects.


But when the ground is as saturated as it is today, we worry that even some of our plants might drown!  You see, most plants’ roots want air pockets in the soil.  Saturated soil is a quick way to kill a houseplant, and it can cause damage to the roots of some trees, shrubs and perennials, too.

As our climate shifts and these rain soaked days grow more common, it helps to know which plants can take a few days of saturated soil, and maybe even benefit from the extra water in the soil.  Many of these plants process a great deal of water up through their roots and vascular systems to release it back into the air.

You have heard of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia?  Well, that blue haze comes from moisture released by the many trees and shrubs growing on the sides of the mountains.  Some trees thrive in constantly moist soil.  Try birches, willows, swamp dogwoods, white ash trees, and beautyberry bushes.

Plants release both water vapor and oxygen back into the air as a by-product of their life processes.  Some plants, like succulents, release very little water, and that mostly at night.  They will quickly die in saturated soil.  In our region they need to be planted higher than grade on ridges and mounds, or be grow in freely draining containers.


Colocasia and some types of  Iris grow well in saturated soil or even standing water.   Abundant water allows for lush growth.


Plants with very large leaves, like our Caladiums, Colocasias, Hibiscus, Alocasias, Calla lilies, Canna lilies, ginger lilies, and banana trees use large amounts of water and release water vapor from their leaves throughout the day.  Some types of Iris also perform very well in saturated soil.  They can live in drier soil, but do just fine planted in the edge of a pond or in a rain garden.  Ferns are always a classic choice for moist and shady areas of the garden.  Their fibrous roots help to hold the soil against erosion and perform well as ground cover on slopes.

Those of us living in coastal areas where flooding has become more frequent can use plants to help deal with the inches and inches of extra rain.  We can build ponds and rain gardens, or even French drains and rock lined dry gullies to channel the run-off away from our homes.

We are called on in these times to wake up, pay attention, and find creative and beautiful solutions to the challenges we face.  We are a resilient people, by taking every advantage, even in the choices of plants we make, we can adapt to our changing world.


Iris ensata, Japanese Iris,  grow with Zantedeschia in the ‘wet’ end of the Iris border at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden. Clumps keep their foliage most of the year, blooming over a long season in late spring and early summer.  These are excellent rain garden and pond plants.


Woodland Gnome 2020


Visit Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 783 other subscribers
Follow Forest Garden on

Topics of Interest