Summer Solstice Wishes

Butterfly bush prepares to welcome a hungry bee.

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Today is the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.  It is a good day to celebrate our wishes, especially those wishes that have finally manifested for us. 

I first wrote and published ‘A Dirty Hands Garden Club’ in the summer of 2014, and would like to share it with you, again.  I hope that you have found your own community of gardeners, naturalists, conservationists, teachers, artists, and plant nerds, as I have so happily found mine.

WG June 2018

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Asclepias incarnata

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I would love to join  a “Dirty Hands” Garden Club;
One whose members know more about fertilizers
Than they do about wines…

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I’d want our meetings spent wandering through nurseries,
Learning from  expert gardeners,
Or building community gardens…

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Echinacea and Monarda prove beautiful native perennials in our area.

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Not frittered away in chit chat over drinks and hors d’oeuvres .

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Hibiscus syriacus and bumbly

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And all of us would be at least a little expert in something, and
Glad to share what we’ve learned;

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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And we all would love putting our hands in the dirt
To help something grow.

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Lavender is still recovering from the winter.

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My club would collect species, not dues;
Re-build ecosystems rather than plant ivy and  box.

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Caladium ‘Fannie Munson’ with Bergenia and ferns.

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We “dirty hands” gardeners can band together
In spirit, if not in four walls.

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We can share plants and insights,
Instigate, propagate, and appreciate;

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Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’

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Perhaps we can even help rehabilitate 
Some sterile lawn somewhere
Into something which nurtures beauty
And feeds souls….

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Magnolia liliiflora is giving us a second flush of bloom in early summer.

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Others can judge flowers,
Decorate homes at Christmas
And organize tours.
These things are needed, too.

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Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon, opens its first blooms of the year.

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(But I would rather be out in the garden;
Where cardinals preside over the morning meeting,
And  hummingbirds are our special guests for the day.
The daily agenda ranges from watering to transplanting;
From pruning to watching for turtles and dragonflies.)

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We  wear our muddy shoes and well worn gloves with pride,
Our spades and pruners always close at hand.

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We converse with Nature,
And re-build the web strand by strand,
Plant by plant.

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Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ with Basil

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If this invitation speaks to you,
Perhaps we can work together
From wherever we might find ourselves
Around the globe.
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Colocasia ‘Mojito’ in front with C. ‘Pink China’ behind

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We can each put our hands in the dirt
and create a garden,

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Nurture Beauty,
And restore health and vitality to our Earth,
our communities, and ourselves, together.

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Native Oakleaf Hydrangea glows in the morning Solstice sun.

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Poem by Woodland Gnome 2014
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“The Holy Land is everywhere”
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Black Elk

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

A Gardener’s Journey

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Becoming a gardener is a journey.

It is a journey of discovery; a journey of evolution.

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To begin with a bit of dirt, a splash of water and a tiny seed or leaf or stem or root, and coax that living tissue into a beautiful and productive plant, is a journey, too.

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A gardener begins with a question:  “How does that grow?”

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And every answer she discovers leads to more and more interesting questions.

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The journey lasts a lifetime.

From the first seed sown in a bit of mud as a child, to the creation and care for garden upon garden upon garden throughout one’s life; the gardener herself ripens as the journey continues.

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There are salads to grow and herbs for cooking.

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We plant flowers, fruit, mosses, ferns, roses, grasses and graceful trees to flower in early springtime.

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There are long and twisty names to learn; and knotty, weedy problems to resolve.

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We learn to shape a plant with skillful pruning.

We have soils to amend, mulch to spread, oils to spray and compost to make.

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There is always more to learn, and there are always tasks waiting for us to accomplish, along the way.

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Some gardeners choose to quietly tend their own gardens.  They make their journey largely on their knees, coaxing the earth into fertility and abundance.

They lay their daily table with the fruits of their devotion.

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Some gardeners create something new.  They play matchmaker in their beds and breed new and better and different and healthier plants to introduce to the horticultural world.

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Some design and some construct.  Others experiment with new ways to adapt to a changing environment, and find ways to increase the land’s productivity.

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Some raise quantities of plants to supply to others, and create beautiful nurseries to inspire their brother and sister gardeners.

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And some gardeners share what they have learned with others.  They pass along plants,  offer advice, and help other gardeners find answers to their questions.

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It is all a part of the journey:  Asking, learning, propagating, teaching, sowing, amending, pruning and investing one’s energy in making something grow; making a place more beautiful.

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A gardener works to heal the planet.  We create beautiful spaces for people and safe spaces for wildlife.

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We nurture plants to cleanse the air and perfume it.  We plant to build and hold the soil and purify the water.

We feed our families and ourselves.

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If you find yourself somewhere along this path, then you are on a journey of happiness and good fortune.

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Root something; share something. 

And feel your own roots and branches expanding ever further into this beautiful world we share.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Wildlife Wednesday

July 13, 2016 garden close ups 032

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“Mindfulness is not the path of chasing.

It is the path of beautification.

When flowers blossom, the fragrance spreads,

and the bees come.”

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Amit Ray

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 030

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“We need to return to harmony with Nature

and with each other,

to become what humans were destined to be,

builders of gardens and Shires,

hobbits (if you will),

not Masters over creatures great and small.”

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Steve Bivans

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 024

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2016

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 027

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“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’

and sitting in the shade.”

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Rudyard Kipling

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 004

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“It is not reasonable that art should win

the place of honor over our great and powerful

mother Nature. We have so overloaded

the beauty and richness of her works

by our inventions that we have quite smothered her.”

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Michel de Montaigne

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July 13, 2016 garden close ups 002

Leaves

Ginger Lilies and Rosemary

Ginger Lilies and Rosemary

In autumn our thoughts turn towards leaves.  We admire them, and then we rake them.  Leaves are so much a part of our world, and we rarely give them a thought during the rest of the year.

Forsythia leaves, with the buds of next spring's yellow flowers already visible.

Forsythia leaves, with the buds of next spring’s yellow flowers already visible.

But leaves are the key to our survival as a species.  Have you ever looked at them in that light?

Leaves are the key to transforming the sun’s energy into matter to support the web of life on Earth.

Think of it:  spinach, kale, lettuce, grass.  We eat leaves directly, but many of the animals we eat depend upon leaves for their own sustenance.

Evergreen, Camellia is closely related to plants from which we make tea

Evergreen, Camellia is closely related to plants from which we make tea

Every time we take a slice of cheese or pour milk into our coffee, we benefit from the goat or cow who grazed on grass and hay.

When we eat a banana, we benefit from the sugars produced by banana leaves and stored in the fruit.  It’s the same with apples, plums, okra, and squash.  Every bean is full of sugars produced by leaves and stored in the cotyledons to nourish the embryonic plant nestled between them.  Every potato grows in the soil as its leaves produce sugars in the sun.

Autumn  fern and Hellebores will both remain green through winter.

Autumn fern and Hellebores will both remain green through winter.

Not only does all food originate from sugars produced in a leaf, but so does the very air we breathe.  Each leaf is covered with tiny stomata which breathe in the carbon dioxide we exhale.  The carbon goes to build sugar molecules, and the extra oxygen is exhaled through the stomata for our benefit.  The leaves filter our air, trapping harmful compounds as they return the oxygen we take from it in every moment.

Culinary sage and violas

Culinary sage and violas

Water, absorbed deep in the Earth through the roots, travels throughout the plant.  Water not needed in sugar production is released back into the air as water vapor or as oxygen through the plant’s leaves.  Thus water is recycled from ground, to sky; and our atmosphere can produce sweet rain and winter snow.  Without leaves, this wouldn’t be possible.

Nov 2 2013 garden 002

Leaves are essential to our existence.  We depend on the leaves of herbs to season our food and heal our bodies.  We drink tea made from leaves.  We make paper, cover roofs, wrap food, and poultice wounds.

We compost leaves to build our soil; plant grass to control erosion and carpet our gardens; and live in the shade and shelter given by leafy trees around our homes.

Leaves are a remarkable part of our lives.  And now we watch as they turn bright colors or shrivel into grey.  We see them falling on the wind.  They puddle in brown piles around our yards and porches.  We rake, we blow, we bag, we mulch.

Crepe Myrtle

Crepe Myrtle

Let us also appreciate the contributions they make to life on planet Earth, the blue and green planet where leaves sustain all life.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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Geranium

Returning to the Parkway

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Canadian Geese, gulls, a Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret peacefully share this lagoon near Jamestown Island. The masts of replicas of the historic ships which brought the first group of colonists to James Towne are visible across the Colonial Parkway. Click on any photo to enlarge it.

The Colonial Parkway, between our neighborhood and Jamestown, was closed during the recent government shut down.  It was a poignant reminder, very close to home, of the pain and life-altering harm inflicted on millions of American families by the idiocy of a small group of self-absorbed political ideologues who have taken prevarication and short sighted self interest to a new level of social and political chicanery.  October 18 parkway 018My heart goes out to everyone across the country who suffered harm, in whatever form, over the last few weeks as a result of this carefully calculated madness.  My firmly held belief is that enough wise and good hearted people have observed this psycho-drama closely enough to see the truth of it, and that will be reflected in the weeks ahead as we have the opportunity to vote our consciences.

You may be surprised to find political and social comment on a blog devoted to gardening.  Or you may not, when you realize that gardening is a metaphor for living our lives.  We plant, we tend, we encourage, we prune, and we weed.  We water and fertilize what we want to grow, and we smother or pluck out  what we want to discourage both from our gardens and from our lives.  We very carefully choose what we bring home to plant in our gardens, and ruthlessly dig out those plants which don’t properly fill our needs.

Great blue heron, gulls, and Canadian Geese enjoy their afternoon by the creek near Jamestown Island.

Great blue heron, gulls, and Canadian Geese enjoy their afternoon by the creek near Jamestown Island.

Golden grasses shine in the afternoon sunlight along the bank of the James River.

Golden grasses shine in the afternoon sunlight along the bank of the James River.

Gardening is a political act.  It expresses our belief in our own power to create the environment in which we want to live.  It is an expression of our  self confidence and our optimism; our hope for the future; our willingness to nurture something over time; and to create abundance we will share with others.  It is also an act of social responsibility as we demonstrate our willingness to cut the grass, kill the poison ivy, pick up the trash, and contribute to the health and beauty of our community.  Gardeners observe closely,  plan, act, and deeply appreciate both the fruits of our own efforts and the abundant gifts of nature found growing in our gardens.

Which brings us back to the Parkway.  Finally. 

We missed our frequent drives through the National Park right outside our back door.  It is a peaceful place, left mostly in the state it would have been after the colonists arrived- except for the modern road and bridges, of course.  There are marshes, meadows, forest,  the James River, public beaches and a private dairy farm along the route.  It is a place to watch the full moon rise, the sun set, storms approach, and the seasons change.  Drives along the Colonial Parkway are engraved into our routine; and their loss, though minor in the scheme of things, was a daily reminder of how all politics is local.

The Jamestown Ferry crosses the James River to take travelers from Jamestown to Surry.

The Jamestown Ferry crosses the James River to take travelers from Jamestown to Surry.

The Parkway re-opened on Thursday, and we made our first trip on Friday.  The first surprise is that work along the Parkway didn’t stop while it was closed.  There was evidence everywhere of continuing efforts to limb up trees, clean up brush, harden the banks of College Creek near the bridges,and to keep the meadows mowed.  In fact, traffic was stopped while heavy equipment blocked the bridge as work continued.  That means that local workers probably remained employed and busy during the shutdown.October 18 parkway 005

The second surprise was the abundance of birds along the way.  We see Canadian Geese year round in Williamsburg, but this was the first heron we’ve seen for a while.  The birds had free access to the marshes, creeks, and the river even as the cars and buses stopped driving through the park.

The final surprise was our total joy in the drive.  What had become routine was savored, seen with fresh eyes, and deeply appreciated.  Disrupting the routine is good, even if the mechanism in this case was not.  Every one of us has had our routine disrupted this month- and many of us have been threatened with even greater disruption to our lives and livelihoods.

Perhaps we’ll all take a moment to look around with fresh eyes, with gardener’s eyes, and spruce up our gardens a little this autumn.

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The James River

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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.

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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  http://homesteadgardencenter.com/

Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC  http://plantdelights.com/

Lowes Home Improvement Store in Williamsburg, VA

Forest Lane Botanicals in Williamsburg, VA  http://forestlanebotanicals.com/

For More information: 

Williamsburg Botanical Garden   http://www.williamsburgbotanicalgarden.org/wordpress/?page_id=322

Virginia Native Plant List:   http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/documents/natvfgv.pdf

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