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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
Fern reproduction remains a bit of a mystery to me. A mystery that borders on the ‘magical’ when tiny ferns appear growing out of the mosses along the paths of our back garden. This two-step sexual reproduction appeared on Earth untold millions of years ago, allowing the first plants to recombine their genetic materials to produce new generations of some algae, mosses, liverworts, and finally ferns, the earliest vascular plants.
Most of our familiar plants produce seeds after fertilization of their flowers or cones with pollen. The pollen may be carried from one plant to another by a pollinating insect or other animal, or by the wind. Ferns, and other simple plants, don’t produce seeds. The microscopic activities of their spores are all but invisible to our eye. So, I am curious, and am studying others’ successes with fern propagation so I might learn to propagate my favorite ferns, too.
Ferns have successfully propagated themselves in nature, with no human assistance, for millennia. So it shouldn’t be too complicated, right? These very knowledgeable writers describe strategies that lead to success, and also explain how inattention to detail can lead to failure.
My first successes in growing baby ferns from spore were entirely accidental. Spore from potted ferns on my deck fell onto potting soil that I sealed up in a zip-lock bag for the winter while I waited for some seeds I’d sown in that shallow container of potting soil to germinate. At first, I thought a nice crop of moss was growing on the soil. As I kept checking the container every few weeks this spring, I was amazed and delighted to recognize tiny ferns growing from the green structures on the soil I had thought would become mosses.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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 moreabout 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.