Soil Security

Saxifraga stolonifera, Strawberry Begonia


Gardens offer endless surprises and seemingly endless challenges.  One hopes to discover most of the challenges in the first year or two.  Better to address them right off and be done with it, right?  But that’s not how this business works…. things change….

Ours is a very steep property.  Our bit of James City County spreads across ridges and ravines.  We happen to live and garden on the slope of a ravine.  Water drains down across the yard to a creek running through the ravine, which flows to a pond and then out to College Creek.   Managing all of that water during a heavy rain remains a challenge for us.


This area suffers serious erosion in heavy rain, and is frequented by voles.  It is hard to get anything much to grow here.  We have just added the stones to offer some protection and planted a dozen seedling Hellebores to help hold the bank.


Our county’s division of  storm water management staff advise:  “Plant more plants!”  I take that advice to heart, regularly, and have struck up a working relationship with one of the staffers.  They work with the local Master Gardeners to help homeowners design rain gardens to catch some of the run-off after a heavy rain, and offer grants for those who install them.

I like that proactive, cooperative approach.  This spring, I’ve done a bit of reading about how to construct a rain garden.  And one of the first things I realized is that steeply sloping land isn’t a very good place to site one, unless you are prepared for a major project of earth moving and engineering to construct a berm on the down slope side.


This was our steep, eroding slope before our work began this spring.


As I thought about rain gardens, and walked our property looking for a place to catch run off and use it in a new planting bed, my partner pointed out a new erosion problem on the very shaded and inaccessible slope beside and below our driveway.

This is an area we’ve largely neglected over the years.  Towering, mature Ligustrum shrubs cast deep shade across this slope.  Their leaves drop here year round, and the ground has been covered in a tangle of Vinca vines and wild growth.  Where there is bare earth, it has been covered with fallen leaves. I planted  some Mahonia and Hydrangea in this area when we first took over the garden, and they have expanded, but never bloomed.


Daffodils have replaced Caladiums here at the base of our driveway, where a great deal of water runs off when it rains.  An Autumn fern has thrived here for five years or more, and I decided to expand the planting last summer.


But last summer, I began clearing some of this strip, nearer to the drive, and planted it in Caladiums, Zantedeschia, Ajuga, Oxalis, some transplanted Liriope and a few ferns.  We enjoyed it enough that when we dug the Caladiums in October I planted Daffodils and Arum in their place.

Below this planted area, we noticed a new area of erosion a few weeks ago.  Storm water had found its way into a vole tunnel, and a whole piece of the bank had collapsed.  There was a gorge, partially filled with leaves and other debris.  Finding that bit of erosion sealed the deal that we would invest our time, energy, and gardening dollars in fixing this neglected, and now crumbling, bit of the garden.

Too steep for a single ‘rain garden,’ we decided to create several terraces to catch and slow the flow of water down the slope, directing the run-off from one planted area to another.  We found several Rhododendron shrubs to anchor each terrace, and planted the first right into that nasty gorge to stabilize it.  We found some sturdy trapezoidal concrete blocks for building the terraces.  They fit together snugly to make a secure wall.  We installed the first ones below that Rhododendron to hold it in place.


The first Rhododendron we planted to stabilize a gorge caused by erosion over a vole tunnel. We planted in the hole and stabilized the area with two concrete blocks.


We trimmed up the lowest Ligustrum branches to let in light and make the area more accessible and raked back the leaves and debris.  Then, we studied the area for several days to decide where to place our blocks to form natural terraces.

After building the terraces, and planting three more of the shrubs, I began filling each terrace with plants.   I selected a variety of perennials which will thrive in shade, tolerate a lot of moisture, hold and cover the soil by spreading, put down extensive root systems, and stop voles with their poisonous roots. Oh, and did I mention they also must repel deer?


The terraces before today’s torrential rain.


Remember our mantra:  “Plant more plants!”  It was going to take a lot of plants to fill these spaces.  Luckily, we have a pretty steady supply now of a few perennials which fill these criteria.  They are ours to dig, divide, and transplant as needed.


Divisions of Strawberry Begonia transplanted from another part of our garden. Each division will send out numerous stems, with a tiny plant growing at the tip of each.  They will form a thick mat over time. 


I was able to transplant Hellebore seedlings, Ajuga and Saxifraga stolonifera in nearly unlimited quantities from other parts of the garden.  The Hellebores have  poisonous roots, and so I planted them around each of the Rhododendrons to protect their roots from curious voles.  I also planted them below the lowest row of blocks to form an additional vegetative barrier for any run-off.


This Rhododendron is ringed with seedling Hellebores.


I purchased holly ferns, Japanese painted ferns and Autumn Brilliance fern.  Although the Japanese painted ferns aren’t evergreen, they spread wonderfully and give about 7 months of presence here.  I also purchased some little 2″ Columbine and Heuchera and a couple of quart sized Tiarella .

I prefer to buy the smallest pots of perennials I can find to  minimize the size of the holes we must dig.  Living on a slope, we dig as little as possible.


Tiarella is a shade loving native perennial which runs and spreads over time. It blooms each spring, feeding hungry pollinators early in the season. It resembles Heuchera, but proves more deer resistant.


Heuchera is the only perennial in our palette for this new bed which may be grazed from time to time.  I am willing to take the chance for its beautiful foliage.  The rest of these plants have already proven themselves in our garden and I have confidence in using them here.  They are tough and thrive in our climate and soil.


Heuchera ‘Melting Fire’ and Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ anchor the end of this terrace. I will add Caladiums next month when the weather is settled.


And this was surprisingly good soil!  While we have clay in other parts of the garden, this was good, rich dirt.  Although I had stocked up on compost, I was able to build these beds without adding a great deal.

The key to planting on sloping ground is a good gravel mulch.  We’ve learned over the years to minimize digging, top dress and even out the ground with compost, and then mulch heavily with gravel. Finally, we pack this all down firmly with hands and feet.


Columbine and Tiarella anchor this terrace. Two tiny lady ferns, grown from bare root starts, will one day flourish in this moist bed.


We discovered that the first gardener on this property often used a large stone or hunk of concrete or brick to anchor shrubs he planted on slopes.  I’ve followed his lead and often anchor a newly planted shrub or perennial with something heavy to hold it in place until it establishes.


Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ will eventually grow to three feet. This evergreen fern has interesting spring color on new growth. We have anchored it with stones as it sits at the top of the slope.


We’ve been working on this new area over the past week or so.  We have been trying to fix the erosion ahead of the heavy weather forecast for this week.  The rains have shown us the weak spots, and where more work was required.  We had to go back and re-pack the area around the first Rhodie’s roots, for example.  And we also placed some stones above it to divert the flow of water around it from the slope above.

A front came through mid-day today, with torrential rain, about an hour after I finished the last of the planting and gravel mulch.  We were pleased that the terraces held.


Additional erosion after today’s rain left roots exposed. It showed us additional engineering was needed where water pours off of the driveway.  The terra cotta pots helped anchor plastic bags to protect the Hydrangea on the right during freezing weather in March.  It is slowly recovering and finally pushing out new leaves.


There were only a few spots of erosion, and only one Hellebore partially washed out on a terrace this time.  But the path along this slope was badly eroded.  Ligustrum roots were exposed where the path was washing away.

We studied the path the water took from driveway to ravine, noted where the gravel had washed out, and re-engineered parts of the project.  Translation: Back to Lowes for more concrete blocks, a few more bags of gravel and a bag of topsoil.



Additional engineering should slow the run-off flowing into the path from heavy rain.  My partner placed the blocks to divert the water’s flow.  We’ve added topsoil and gravel over the Ligustrum’s exposed roots in the path.  Sadly, some daffies may be sacrificed in the process….


We aren’t quite sure why the erosion on this bank suddenly got worse in the last year.  We must have made some small change in how the water flows, without even realizing it, when I planted the Caladiums last summer.  But whatever the cause, the problem was getting worse with each heavy rain.


“Soil security”


When you live on a slope, stable soil is a measure of security as heavy weather blows through.

We’ve created terraced beds throughout the garden, planted lots of shrubs and perennials, and dumped hundreds of bags of pea gravel on this property over the years.   We rarely visit our favorite garden center without adding a bag or two of gravel or compost to our order. It is an investment in holding the soil in place and keeping our home’s foundation stable.



We trust that these new terraced beds, and the reinforced path we’ve created for water to flow down our sloping garden, will meet the challenge of heavy rain and the run-off it generates.  But more than that, we trust they will grow into beautiful additions which bring us many years of enjoyment.



Woodland Gnome 2017


Note: I don’t often like to show parts of our garden that aren’t ‘beautiful.’   We have a lot of rough edges here in our Forest Garden.  It is a work in progress. I hope the techniques we use to hold the slope and garden on uneven land will help others trying to garden in similar circumstances.

I’ll show you this bed again as the plants grow in.  We trust that it will soon be one of our most beautiful areas, filled with photo-worthy foliage and flowers.  We expect it will attract the attention of our turtles, lizards and toads as the season progresses, too.  

For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Security






Holding the Bank, or, The Dogwood is Free!

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It was a harmless little thing when we moved here…. barely knee high.

We debated at the time whether to keep it or cut it.


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We both know, firsthand, the problems with white pine trees growing near a home:  fallen branches, pine cones, tons of needles, and the ever present danger of the whole thing falling in a strong wind.  If any tree might be considered a ‘weed’ in Virginia, the white pine comes close.

But it was so cute and green; and its root system held a very steep bank.  I made the argument to leave it be.  And we did.

But that isn’t to say we haven’t reconsidered that decision seasonally.  We have trimmed off branches and headed back others in our efforts to keep it in bounds for its space.  And even I had to admit that the cute little pine had grown large and rangy.

What finally convinced me to ‘sign off’ on removing the pine, was seeing that the Dogwood seedling, which has been growing beside it, needs space to grow.  It is over 6′ tall this spring.  Its roots will help hold the bank, and it needs room to develop symmetrically.


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Beloved partner was tactful enough to get the task completed while I was away for the day.  I came home to the stump; the happy Dogwood, and a huge mess now visible on the bank.


April 6, 2015 vase 010~

This was an inaccessible area we mostly ignored in the garden; until now.  With the pine gone, I raked back the pine straw and gathered leaves to find a seriously eroded clay bank much in need of attention.

Our garden tumbles and rolls down a fairly steep hill from street to ravine.  There is no naturally flat surface on the entire lot.  We’ve invested a lot of effort and materials in reinforcing the steeper areas of the garden to control erosion.  In fact, the guys at our local garden center know that I’ll need them to load gravel and compost on most every visit.


April 6, 2015 building 001~

My prescription for these areas is simple:  soil, gravel and perennial plants.

Monday afternoon found me on hands and knees rebuilding the bank around where the pine once stood.


April 6, 2015 building 003~

Interestingly, I found a very old, hollowed out stump and a smaller solid stump beside the newly cut stump of our pine.  It appeared that the roots of the pine have battled valiantly over the years to maintain a presence here!

Once all of the accumulated needles had been raked away, I pulled the weeds, filled in the creature tunnels with small stones, and then packed the bank firmly with moist compost.  A  Carex plant, salvaged from a potted arrangement several years ago, was still alive near the base of the bank.  I had planted it and a deciduous fern two years ago in an earlier attempt to work with this area.  I simply reinforced the area around and below it with more compost.


April 7, 2015 spring chores 001


I also re-cycled pieces of a broken planter, and its gravely soil, at the base of the bank to further hold the new compost in place and to add a little interest.


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I plan to extend the existing fern garden across to this new planting area.  A variety of ferns, daffodils,  Hellebores and Lamium maculata already grow east of this new bed.


April 8, 2015 bank 007


And so I selected Lamium maculata ‘Aureum,’  Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ ferns, a golden leaved Hypericum, and Tiarella cordifolia, or foam flower, for the initial planting.  I plan to add some additional ferns and Hellebores before considering this area finished.  I’ve already added a strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera, and a table top fern, to the pockets created by the planter.



All of these plants have proven unappealing to our herd, even if they could now find a way into the garden through our deer fences.

After the initial planting, I packed gravel over the entire area both to hold and mulch the compost and to discourage digging from the wild things.

It is only a start.  Newly developed beds always take a while to settle in and begin growing together. The white gravel will gradually ‘disappear’ as time goes by.  The plants will grow to cover it, and weather will dull it.

But we believe this spot is already infinitely better than it was a before the pine came down.


April 7, 2015 spring chores 004


Once the nearby trees grow their leaves, this bank will remain in deep shade most of the time.  I hope the golden leafed perennials will brighten a previously dark and forgotten area.

Part of the pleasure of creating gardens is in re-doing an unappealing area to make it beautiful.


April 8, 2015 bank 001~


Woodland Gnome 2015


The Dogwood tree has responded dramatically in the four days since the pine was cut.  It is ready to fill this space with its beauty.

The Dogwood tree has responded dramatically in the four days since the pine was cut. It is ready to fill this space with its beauty.



Several hours of thunderstorms with heavy rain rolled through here in the wee early morning hours today.  Listening to it, I wondered whether this newly reinforced bank would hold.  The plants haven’t had an opportunity to take hold yet and they haven’t grown to cover the newly laid compost.  We were so happy to see, in the morning’s light, that everything held.  There was absolutely no damage from all of the rain.  Success!


After last night's heavy rain... no damage to be seen at all.  The bank held.

After last night’s heavy rain… no damage to be seen at all. The bank held.

Ferns are Fabulous in a Forest Garden

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Autumn Brilliance fern

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Christmas Fern and a Southern Lady Fern

Several perennial ferns are native in our part of Virginia, and grow wild in the woods and ravines, unbothered by our herd of deer.  Many of us have these ferns already growing in parts of our yards.  They grow happily along year after year with exactly no effort needed by the gardener.  If they are close to our homes, we might think to remove  faded fronds in spring to spruce them up a bit.   These welcome natives can be used intentionally in our landscapes to great advantage.

Naturalized ferns beside the road on Jamestown Island.

Naturalized ferns beside the road on Jamestown Island.

Ferns are one of the most primitive of all plants.  They first appeared in the fossil record about 360 million years ago, long before any seed bearing plants like grasses, trees, or flowers appeared.  They produce no flowers or seeds.  Ferns reproduce through the spores which develop on the back of their fronds, and by spreading on underground stems called rhizomes.  Some ferns grow in clumps, others send up individual fronds from this underground stem.  Some species tend to spread, making them excellent ground cover in shady areas.  Others don’t spread quickly at all, but form handsome accent plants.

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Southern Lady Fern

Ferns can be found in a variety of sizes from very low growing to very tall.  The first trees on Earth were actually tree ferns, which can grow to over 100’ tall.  Although we normally think of tree ferns as tropical plants, varieties are available which can grow in our zone 7b provided they are given partial shade and moist soil.  The majority of ferns native to our region range from 1’-4’ tall.  Ostrich ferns will grow to 5’-6’ tall once established in moist soil.

Ferns are tough plants.  Most prefer shade, although some varieties will grow in full sun if given moist soil.  Moisture and humidity, which we have in abundance most years, are the keys to success with ferns.  Ferns don’t expect fertilizer, pruning, fencing, trellising, or coddling.  Plant them, enjoy them, and leave them alone.

When purchasing ferns for your landscape consider these key issues:

1.  Is this fern hardy in zone 7b?  If the answer is yes, you have a perennial which will return reliably year after year.  If the fern needs warmer winter temperatures, grow it in a pot and bring it in each winter.

June 21 Lanai 017

Japanese Painted Fern with a Begonia Rex. This deciduous fern will die back in November whether kept indoors or out, but will return in April.

2.  Is this fern evergreen or deciduous?  Reliably evergreen ferns in our region are the Christmas Fern, Tassel Fern,  and the Autumn Brilliance Fern.  These plants might look a little tired and worn by spring, but they will stand in the garden or in outdoor pots all winter long.  Deciduous ferns will survive the winter, but like other perennials, will disintegrate above ground after a hard freeze or two.  The Japanese Painted Fern needs a winter rest, even when potted and brought inside.  Once the days get longer in spring, and warmth returns, the fern sprouts new fronds and goes back into active growth.

3.  How big will this fern get?  Pay attention to the height and width potential of the fern.  Although purchased in a tiny pot, you may be bringing home a plant which will grow quite large over the years.  Put the right fern in the right spot, and make sure there is room for the fern to grow without crowding out something nearby. Most ferns grow quickly.

4.  How much light will this fern tolerate?  Normally we think of ferns for shady spots.  They are excellent under trees and shrubs partly because they have fairly shallow roots.  Some ferns will just shrivel into a crispy brown mess in too much sun, and others will thrive.  Do your research ahead of time if you want to grow ferns in partial or full sun.  The Autumn Brilliance fern is particularly tolerant of sun.  Some lady ferns and Christmas ferns will also tolerate partial sun.

June 21 Lanai 021

June 14 garden and cake 003Ferns are good problem solving plants in a forest landscape. 

  • Many ferns will form a lush, dense groundcover in just a few years.  They halt erosion and cover bare ground very economically.
  • Ferns are a good choice to grow on a steep bank.  Because they are good groundcover plants, and require little or no maintenance, once planted, they will work for you indefinitely.
  • Ferns are good around the edges of things, especially to cover the knees of shrubs.
  • Ferns will grow well in areas with too much shade for flowers and other ground covers.  They come in a variety of textures and colors. They work well mixed with Hostas, Heucheras, Vinca, Caladiums, Impatiens, Violas, Lenten Roses, and grasses.  Plant ivy, moss, or Creeping Jenny as a ground cover around specimen ferns.
  • Ferns aren’t bothered by deer, squirrels, or rabbits.  I have had newly planted ferns disappear down a vole hole, but that is a rare occurrence.  Once the fern begins sending out its roots into the surrounding soil it is rarely disturbed by small mammals.  It can offer some protection to tasty plants nearby.
  • Tall ferns, like Ostrich fern, can be used to form a fence, barrier, or a backdrop for other plantings.  These ferns will not only reach 5’ tall or more, they spread by rhizomes and will make a dense planting over a year or so.
  • Ferns love wet soil.  Areas where water drains and collects are perfect for ferns.  They won’t mind having wet feet, and will help dry the area by soaking the water up and releasing it from their leaves.

June 21 Lanai 008

Interesting ferns are easy to purchase locally, and can be found economically online.  Ferns can be purchased at the big box hardware stores and at Homestead Garden Center in a variety of sizes.  Homestead carried six or eight varieties this spring, in 2” pots, for only $2.50 each.  They also offered ferns in 4”, 6”, and gallon pots.  MacDonald Garden Center’s satellite stores in Williamsburg carried a very limited selection of ferns, but they did have them from time to time.  When purchasing ferns in the houseplant section at big box stores, be cautious about planting the fern outside.  These are often tropical plants which won’t make it through our winter.  Rather, purchase ferns out in the garden department for landscape use.

If purchasing ferns online, be cautious of the “bare root” ferns offered in many catalogs.  These are unreliable, and I’ve wasted lots of money over the years buying these plants which never grew.  Understand that they are dormant when they arrive.  That means you get a mass of dry brown roots in a plastic bag.   If you give in to the magazine photos in the middle of winter, at least pot the ferns up, when they come, and keep a close eye on them until they show strong growth.  Better to search out “potted ferns” from online vendors which arrive alive and green in a tiny pot of soil.

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Ferns grow well where it is moist and partially shady, along with Heucheras, Lenten Rose, and other shade loving ground covers.

Planting new ferns is most successful in early spring or late fall.  If you must plant between May and August, choose a stretch of cloudy wet days to give the ferns a chance to adjust to life in your garden.

Once you have chosen a moist, shady spot in your yard for your ferns, dig a hole slightly wider than the fern’s root ball.  Dig a hole of the same depth, or slightly shallower, than the fern’s pot.  Gently remove the fern from its pot, loosen the roots a little, and settle the root ball into its new hole.  If you spread the roots out a little so you have a wider, but shallower mass of roots, you can encourage the fern to begin spreading horizontally.  If you need to plant a little high because of tree or shrub roots already in the ground, use finished compost to make a little mound around the fern’s root ball to they are completely covered.  Use compost to mulch around newly planted ferns to hold in moisture, enrich the soil, and shade the roots.  Water them in with plain water or a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion fertilizer, and make sure the plants have adequate moisture, especially in hot weather, through their entire first season of growth.

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Fern Garden

Recommended ferns for our neighborhood:  (Some, but not all, of these are native to Virginia.)

Virginia Chain Fern, Woodwardia virginica, is a deciduous native fern which will grow 2’-4’ high in moist soil.  Large, single, medium green leaves grow from the underground rhizomes without forming clumps. This fern prefers wet, boggy soil.  Native

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Ferns grow in this shaded area with a hardy Begonia.

Southern Lady Fern, Athrium filix-femina, is a very delicate, lace like, medium green deciduous clumping fern.  Prefering moist soil, this fern is more tolerant of occasionally drier soil and can take a bit more sun.  It can grow to 3’ high after a few years.  The Southern Lady Fern has a fairly wide, feathery frond and the clumps keep getting a little larger each year.  Native

Marsh Fern, or Meadow Fern, Thelypteris palustris, grows pale green fronds up to 3’ directly from the underground rhizome.  It doesn’t clump.  This fern can grow in sun or shade, so long as the ground is moist.  Native

Christmas Fern Polystichum acrostichoides, is an evergreen fern which can tolerate drier soil and partial soil.  It has tough, dark green leaves to 3’ high which form dense clumps.  This fern doesn’t spread by underground rhizome, and should be dug up and divided to increase its coverage.  Native

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Japanese Painted fern growing under an Oakleaf Hydrangea

Rattlesnake Fern Botrychium Virginianum, has wide, dark green glossy fronds which come up singly from the rhizome growing to 2.5’ in partial sun or shade. Native

Autumn Brilliance Fern Dryopteris erythrosora forms large clumps of broad fronds.  This evergreen fern is a yellow green, but new fronds are bronze.  It can tolerate a wide range of light from almost full sun to deep shade, and is tough enough to tolerate drier soil.  The plants will eventually grow to 2’-3’ high.

Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is a very large tropical looking fern which will grow to 5’ or more in moist soil.  The fronds form vase like clumps, and will spread, forming new clumps, but underground rhizome.  Plant in partial sun to full shade.  This fern prefers moist soil.  Native

Cinammon Fern Osmunda cinnamomea, typically grows into clumps 3’ high and 3’ wide, but has been know to eventually grow to 6’ in a favored location.  These medium green deciduous ferns are similar to Ostrich Ferns, but grow distinctive dark spikes in the center which resemble cinnamon sticks. Native

Tassel Fern Polystichum polyblepharum, has very dark green, thick, waxy evergreen fronds which grow in a vase shaped spreading clump.  This beautiful ornamental fern grows best in light shade, in moist rich soil.  It will grow to 3’ tall and wide. Native

Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum- pictum is a highly ornamental deciduous fern.  All of the Athyrium ferns are ornamental and include Ghost Fern, Lady in Red Fern, Branford Beauty fern, and others.  These ferns have delicate clumping fronds which grow to about 2’ in moist shade.  Many of these have grey, silver, and burgundy coloration in the fronds.  Many of these prefer a few hours of sun each day to develop the best color.

This list is only a tiny fraction of the beautiful ferns hardy in zone 7b which will grow well in our forest gardens.   July 6 2013 garden 012

Good sources for ferns: 

The Homestead Garden Center in Williamsburg, VA

Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC

Lowes Home Improvement Store in Williamsburg, VA

Forest Lane Botanicals in Williamsburg, VA

For More information: 

Williamsburg Botanical Garden

Virginia Native Plant List:

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