Fabulous Friday: Continuous Effort

Our upper garden was bathed in sunlight this morning.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if gardening was all about sunbeams and rose petals, happy planting times and delicious harvests?

Let’s have a good laugh together, and then get real.  Gardening is really about making a continuous effort to fashion little improvements here and there and address challenges as they arise.

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More sunbeams and golden orbs encircle our happy Colocasia ‘Black Coral’

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If you need a bit of inspiration, please pick up the current issue of Horticulture Magazine, which is filled this month with timely advice, gorgeous photography, and wonderful suggestions for how to have fun with fall planted bulbs.

In case you’re wondering, those suggestions include a group of friends, good things to eat, and a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

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Narcissus ‘Art Design’  It’s that time of year to start thinking about planting spring bulbs….

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My gardening challenge this morning involved neither friends nor wine, but my partner was there to support and assist.

You see, there are well tended beautiful parts of our garden, and then there is this sad, steep slope from the side yard down into the ravine that suffers from erosion, vole tunnels, deer traffic, deep shade and benign neglect.  While we’ve both made efforts in this area over the years; they don’t seem to amount to much.

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This steep slope in our side yard has had erosion problems for many years. Every bit we do helps, but we’re still trying to improve it.

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A neighbor’s fallen oak wiped out many of the ornamental trees growing here when we came.  The remaining trees, and shrubs we’ve planted, have been regularly pruned by the deer.  Let’s just say the challenges have outnumbered the successes.

But excuses don’t matter a whit when it’s raining buckets and your slope is washing down into the ravine.  Which is why we decided that another ‘intervention’ is necessary this week, as we sit here on the cusp of Atlantic Hurricane Season.

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April 2017: Another area where we had an erosion problem has responded very well to these terraces and perennial plantings.

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We’ve had great success with the terraces we installed a few years ago, on the other side of the yard, to control erosion.   Even though the Rhodies didn’t take off as planned, the ferns and other perennials are filling in, and the erosion is handled.

In fact, I’ve learned that ferns are a terrific plant for controlling erosion in deep to part shade.  They set deep, thirsty roots to both hold the soil and control the amount of moisture retained in the soil.  Their dense foliage absorbs some of the impact of pounding rain.  As they grow, they create their own living mulch to keep their roots cool and moist.

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This is the planting at the top of that previously terraced slope, today.

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So it was that I loaded up my shopping cart on Wednesday with concrete landscaping blocks, pea gravel and as many holly ferns, Cyrtomium fortunei, as I could find. 

Now, I imagine some of you are thinking:  “Why don’t you just spread a good load of pine bark mulch here?”  or “Why don’t you just build a retaining wall?” 

We’ve learned that bark mulch makes moles very, very happy.  They love the stuff, and consider it great cover for their tunnels.  We use very little wood mulch, always a blend with Cypress, and I am transitioning to gravel mulch in nearly every part of the garden.  The voles hate gravel, and it is much longer lasting.

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This bluestone gravel is my current favorite to use in the upper garden.  A Yucca I thought had died reappeared a few weeks after I mulched this area.  I’m installing more of this, one bag at a time….

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A retaining wall wouldn’t work here because we use this area as a walkway between parts of the yard.  It is also so steep, that we would need major construction for it to be safe.   I don’t fancy bringing all of that heavy equipment into this part of the property.  Everything we use has to be carted in by hand.

It was my partner’s idea to space the landscape blocks a few inches apart this time.  We’ll reevaluate that decision after the next heavy rain!  But we filled in some of the divets, from collapsed vole tunnels, with the root balls of our new ferns.  Voles don’t do as much damage to fern roots as to some other perennials and woodies…. and then there is the small matter of the gravel….

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I planted five new ferns today and added two more bags of gravel to the 10 or so we’ve already spread here over the last several years.  Pea gravel gets worked down into the soil over time, and can even get washed further down the hill in a heavy rain.  The concrete blocks will stop the washing away.  Eventually, we may add a larger size of rock mulch in this entire area.

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These are two of the three holly ferns I found on sale racks Wednesday morning. With perennials, you are really buying the roots and crowns. I cleaned up the browned leaves and planted these with full confidence that they will grow into beautiful ferns.  New fiddleheads were already peaking out of the crowns.

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But this is our effort for today, and we are both satisfied.  I had two little ferns in our holding area, waiting for a permanent spot, that we added to the three new holly ferns.  I’m sure a few more will turn up over the next few weeks.

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I have already been planting a few ferns in this area over the last several years (top center). Now, I’ll also add some Helleborus transplants to the ferns, to further hold the ground and make this area more attractive in winter and early spring.  Hellebores make excellent ground cover year round and stop voles with their poisonous roots.

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Why holly ferns?  Cyrtomium fortunei, Fortune’s holly fern, is hardy at least to Zone 6.  Some sources say Zone 5.  It is evergreen, with large fronds of tough, waxy green pinnae.  The clump expands each year, and eventually, after a couple of year’s growth in a good spot, a single fern will cover an area a little more than 2′ across.  Once planted, little care is required.

Cut out brown fronds once a year, keep them watered the first year, and then just regularly admire them after that.  Disease and critter damage isn’t an issue.  This is a large, bold, shiny green plant that shrugs off ice and snow.  It is great for halting erosion in shady spots.

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Fortune’s holly fern planted in the 2017 terraces has grown very well.

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And so once the blocks were set, ferns planted and gravel spread, I was happy to go back up to the upper garden to hold a spraying hose while watching butterflies.

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Actually, I also had 3 new Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ to plant to entice more hummingbirds to the garden.  But that was quick and happy work, and only a minor distraction from admiring the butterflies.

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My partner and I agree that every summer day should be a lovely as today.  We enjoyed sunbeams and cool breezes here for most of the day.

And yes, did I mention all of the butterflies?

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Fabuous Friday:  Happiness is contagious; let’s infect one another!

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Dryopteris erythrosora’Brilliance’ is another of our favorite ferns. It is evergreen and easy to grow.

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“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge
to test our courage and willingness to change;
at such a moment, there is no point in pretending
that nothing has happened
or in saying that we are not yet ready.
The challenge will not wait.
Life does not look back.
A week is more than enough time for us to decide
whether or not to accept our destiny.”
.
Paulo Coelho

 

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Reliable Beauty: Ferns

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Once the first few fronds of our hardy ferns poke through the warming soil, and begin to unfurl themselves, I finally trust the change of season to spring.  Tight fiddleheads are appearing in pots and beds, under shrubs, and along the bank, and we always celebrate their appearance.

Emerging fronds show up so subtly; one might not even notice them at first.

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Japanese painted fern emerges deep red, and lightens to show some green with silver markings as the season progresses.

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Especially those coming along under larger plants, or in secluded corners of the garden, may escape my notice until I go in search of them.  But like a child hunting Easter eggs, I make my rounds of the garden in search of my favorite ferns, re-emerging after their winter’s rest.

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Christmas ferns emerge among Hellebores in our back garden.

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Some hardy ferns remain evergreen.  The Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides; holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum; and our Autumn Brilliance fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’,  maintain a presence through the winter.  They are growing a bit raggedy by April and I sometimes cut off their old fronds as they break or fall.  But you never lose track of them.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ emerges a beautiful copper, but its fronds eventually fade to medium green.

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While D. ‘Brilliance’ is a hybrid, the Christmas fern is one of our most common native ferns.  D. ‘Brilliance’ can be found easily in most garden centers each spring.  It can be a little harder to locate starts of the Christmas fern, however.  This spring I found them, bare root, at a big-box store and stocked up.  I have about a dozen of them started in little pots, ready to plant out when I find a spare hour for planting.

Holly fern is also easy to find at garden centers and big box stores either bare root in late winter, or already growing in a pot in the spring.

These are all clumping ferns.  While they will grow a bit wider and taller over the years, they won’t go wandering through your garden without your assistance.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ in June

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Like other perennials, ferns have their own sequence for when they first appear each spring.  One of the earliest ferns to emerge is the beautiful hybrid Athyrium niponicum, ‘Pictum.’ 

Known as the Japanese painted fern, there are now several beautiful hybrids with various color patterns and with beautifully curled and divided fronds.  These are such a dark shade of burgundy as they emerge, you might not even notice their fiddleheads at first.

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I keep a clump growing in a low trough by the kitchen door, and watch it daily each spring, waiting for the first signs of life.  These fronds have often fallen away by early spring, and unless you remember where they are planted, they will surprise you as they unfold.

The Athyriums, known as ‘lady ferns,’ may spread year by year.  They have good manners, however.  Chances are you will divide them before they move beyond where you want them to grow.  I particularly enjoy the hybrid A. ‘Ghost,’ which is a lovely silver grey.

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There are many beautiful ferns that grow well in coastal Virginia.  We have an interesting selection of native ferns here, and we grow several of them.  Maidenhair fern, royal fern, cinnamon fern and sensitive fern are a few easily grown natives.

But we also collect several imported ferns, hybrids and cultivars, as well.  Can one grow too many ferns?

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Although ferns generally appreciate at least partial shade and consistently moist soil, they are much tougher than they appear.  Once established, many varieties can stand up to some sun and survive, with mulch and a little supplemental water, during drought.

Do your homework before you plant, however, and keep in mind the gardener’s mantra, “Right plant, right place.”

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It is easy to grow most ferns, if only you site them to meet their needs.  Given good soil, a bit of shade, and sufficient moisture, they happily grow on year after year.  In fact, if they are sited in their ‘happy place,’ you will see new ferns crop up nearby from either spore or spreading.

If a fern seems to be struggling, then simply dig it up and move it.  Often, a fern will go into dormancy during summer’s heat in order to survive if it is getting too dry or too much sun.

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September 2017

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I tend to buy the smallest pots of ferns that I can find.  In  our wooded garden, with so many roots everywhere, I like to start ferns small and let them grow and find their own way among the already established plant community.  This nearly always works. 

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It is also kind to build a raised bed for your fern installation, as long as you keep it hydrated.  I also grow some in pots, and keep them going year to year.

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Hardy ferns can stay outside in their pots all winter.  I bring the tender ferns in to the house each fall and set them out again when the weather has settled in spring.

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Emerging holly fern in early March.

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Ferns are beautiful just by themselves, and I am cultivating a collection of them on a steep bank in the shade in our back garden.  But they also add a graceful note when grow with bulbs and perennials or under shrubs.  Medium sized ferns are a good ‘shoes and socks’ ground cover in the front of a shrub border and under trees.

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Ferns lend a peacefulness and serenity to the garden.  These easy plants hold the soil against erosion, require minimal fuss or maintenance, and have a long season of beauty.  Deer and rabbits rarely touch them.

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They make me happy, and I keep planting more with each passing year.

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Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday: Evergreen

Hardy Cyclamen and bulb foliage shine through the leaf litter of a perennial bed at the Heath’s display garden in Gloucester, Virginia.

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I’m appreciative today for every little scrap of green shining in our winter garden.  So much of the world is brown or grey or beige here this week.

Although I’ve spotted a few early snow drops, Galanthus, in public gardens; we haven’t seen more than the first tentative tips of green leaves from our own spring bulbs.  And yet they are utterly fascinating as they push up through the wet, nearly frozen Earth; and we celebrate every tiny tip of green.

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Early February comes, some years, gilded with early Forsythia, the first golden Crocus, and a few brave daffodils splashed across the landscape.

Other years, winter still reigns supreme. Tiny Forsythia buds shiver along the branches, swollen but wisely closed.  Bulbs wait for the sun’s warm embrace to trigger their unfolding.

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Italian Arum keeps sending up leaves despite the frosty weather.  Our first daffodils have begun to show themselves in recent days.

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This winter feels unusually determined and harsh.  It has been so cold that many of our evergreen shrubs, like the wax myrtle and Camellias, have cold-burned leaves.  Worse, many of their leaves have fallen this year, lying browned and forlorn beneath the shrubs’ bare twigs.

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Every bit of evergreen moss and leaf and blade and needle catches my grateful eye with its promise of better gardening days ahead.  I feel glad for all of those winter hardy Cyclamen and Arum blithely shining against the leaf litter and mud below them.  The effort of finding them and planting them feels like a very wise investment in horticultural happiness today.

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Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’ grows in several pots in our winter garden. Generally cold hardy, even this has shown damage from our frigid nights in January.

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Garden designers always admonish us to plan for all seasons in the garden.  But one season isn’t like the last, and this year isn’t like the next.  We gardeners are always improvising and experimenting, our planting often extemporaneous; the results surprisingly serendipitous.  It is through these odd cracks of chance that magic happens in our gardens.

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Hellebore leaves and hardy ferns fill the bed beneath a fall blooming Camellia shrub.

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I know it has been a harsh winter when deer even strip the Hellebore leaves and nibble the flowers from a thorny Mahonia shrub.  I caught a large herd of 20 or more gazing longingly into our garden, through the fence, from our neighbor’s yard this afternoon.  Individuals find their way in from time to time.  Hoof prints in the moist soil tell their never-sorry tale.

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Deer have even nibbled leaves from new English ivy plants in our garden this winter.

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What’s left behind and living feels all the more precious today.  I’m glad for the stray Vinca vine shining through the leaf litter.  The stray wild strawberry plant looks oddly elegant air planted in a rotting stump.  I feel that every evergreen shrub was planted as insurance against a frigid February like this one.

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Mountain Laurel will resume growth and bloom by mid-May.

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I’m happy to pause today to celebrate every ever-green and growing thing I see in the garden.

We’ll ignore the usual labels of ‘weed’ or ‘native,’ ‘exotic’ or ‘invasive.’  We’ll pay no mind to how large or unusual its eventual blooms might  be, or even consider whether or not we will still want to befriend it in June.

We’ll just let it warm our gardener’s hearts on this cold and windy February day, and follow its brave example of endurance through challenging times.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious, let’s infect one another!

 

Determined to Live: Ebony Spleenwort

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“Perfection is born of imperfection.”
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Richie Norton

We were surprised today to find tiny ferns growing in the cracks of an old brick wall encircling Bruton Parish church in Colonial Williamsburg.   Near the end of our walk to photograph this year’s wreathes, we were headed back to the car when tiny bits of green growing from the mortar between old bricks caught our attention.

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“Being strong is not just about your physical strength, no,
it is about your capacity to handle
difficult problem with ease.”
.
Nurudeen Ushawu

We noticed patches of moss, which is not so unusual, growing near these very persistent an determined ferns.  This part of the wall is shaded by an ancient live oak tree.   The wall itself dates to the mid-eighteenth century, and has stood through good times and dangerous times in the colonial district of Williamsburg, Virgninia.

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The Bruton Parish chuchyard, where prominent Virginians have been buried since the late 17th Century.  We found ferns growing on the outside of this wall.

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“Continuous effort –
not strength or intelligence –
is the key to unlocking our potential.”
.
Winston S. Churchill

The ferns are native to Virginia.  Commonly known as ebony spleenwort, these small ferns grow in little clusters in moist locations throughout our region.

They can be found in many shady places.  But they particularly enjoy growing on calcareous rocks and between old bricks.  Growing on a vertical wall doesn’t phase them, and they can also sometimes be found on rock walls, rotting wood and old fences.

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“Dripping water hollows out stone,
not through force but through persistence.”
.
Ovid

I admire the perseverance of such determined little plants.  Their airborne spores landed in a crack in this centuries old mortar, in a moist crevice where they began to grow.  Despite  past summers’ droughts, the tiny plants have found enough moisture to keep growing.

No gardener waters them or grooms them.  These tiny plants look out for themselves season after season.

These are evergreen ferns, and will cling to their crevice and to life no matter what weather this winter coming brings.

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“Most of the important things in the world
have been accomplished by people
who have kept on trying
when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
.
Dale Carnegie

If you love ferns growing in your garden, you might consider growing ebony spleenwort.  Please don’t collect from the wild.  The fern you dig or rip out will leave much of its roots behind.  You may or may not be able to replicate its habitat.

No, please buy a nursery grown fern and establish it in a moist, shady spot in your garden.  These ferns like lime-rich rocky soil, and you may be able to get them to establish in a rocky area, or even on a wall in your own garden.

I actually found a pair of these little ferns growing in some mulch carelessly left on top of some Juniper fronds over the summer.  They had rooted into the moist mulch, and I could easily lift them and re-plant them in soil in a shady spot nearby.  Once established, they will produce spores each year, and these spores will spread and allow for new ferns to grow nearby.

Ferns sometimes pop up as if ‘by magic’ in our area.  And natural magic it is, this miraculous journey from a tiny spore into a growing fern.  But that is another story best left for another post.

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Asplenium platyneuron, ebony spleenwort, is named for the ebony colored stipe and petiole of each frond.  This fern was once thought to have medicinal properties for curing diseases of the spleen. 

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Woodland Gnome 2017
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
.
Seneca
Many thanks to Helen Hamilton for her field guide, Ferns and Mosses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain

 

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