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Good garden design challenges us to think in many dimensions at once.  We plan for how the plants we use will fill the space, and for how those plants will change over time.  I am still intrigued by Jennifer Smith’s article in Horticulture Magazine, The Secret to Great Garden Design, in which she describes the design principles of ‘earth, man and sky.”

In that February article, she challenges gardeners to evaluate the layers of their landscape.  There should be interest at ground level, at the height of a man, and also at the ‘ceiling’ of the garden, creating a sense of enclosure.  Finding those layers harmoniously in scale with one another, even in the winter garden, constitutes the framework of a good design.


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While this is a useful way to analyze each of the ‘rooms’ of our garden as a whole, I believe it can be applied to container plantings and container groupings as well.  Any time we choose to plant more than one plant in a container, we create a miniature landscape of sorts.  And remaining mindful of ‘earth, man and sky’ can guide us towards a more pleasing design.


In this newly planted container, the Alocasia 'Stingray' will give several feet of height, representing 'sky.' The tuberous Begonias will grow to a medium height and constitute 'man.' Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us 'Earth.'

In this newly planted container, the Alocasia ‘Stingray’ and Caladium will give several feet of height, representing ‘sky.’ The tuberous Begonias and Coleus will grow to a medium height and constitute ‘man.’ Creeping Jenny and Ajuga will cover the soil and spill over the side, giving us ‘Earth.’


Some designers advise grouping ‘thrillers, fillers and spillers’ in a container garden design.  I’ve always found this a little confusing.  What if your thrillers also spill?  Why would I want to plant a plant which merely ‘fills’ space?  What if I want to plant a single plant in a pot:  should it simply fill, or must it thrill ?


Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for 'sky,' Pelargonium and Heuchera for 'man,' and Dichondra for 'Earth.'

Another newly planted pot features Zantedeschia for ‘sky,’ Pelargonium and Heuchera for ‘man,’ and Dichondra for ‘Earth.’


Maybe you, like me, often put one plant in a pot and happily let it grow.  Over the years, I’ve moved towards planting slightly larger pots, and combining several plants in a single pot for more interesting compositions. And in composing groups of plants, I’ve given ever more attention to ground cover plants and ‘spillers.’


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There are several good reasons to include a ground cover in a landscape, as well as in a container planting.  First, it presents a more ‘finished’ appearance.  Beyond that, it protects the soil in heavy rain or overhead watering so the soil isn’t compacted or splashed up onto the plant’s foliage.  A ground cover shields the soil from direct sunlight and slows evaporation.  It also can discourage squirrels tempted to dig in your finished bed or pot!


This low pot includes both moss and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring's bulbs are dying back. I've tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.

This low pot includes moss, Sedum, and Creeping Jenny as ground cover. Spring’s bulbs are dying back. I’ve tucked a Pelargonium into the established pot for summer interest.


I nearly always finish off a newly planted basket or pot with a light covering of fine gravel.  Beyond that, I’ll also place larger decorative stones, marbles, minerals or glass in the pot.  Sometimes I’ll place these over the roots of newly planted cuttings to protect them and hold them in place as the plant begins to grow.

In recent years, I frequently establish a living ground cover, as well.  Whether moss, a low growing succulent, or a vining ‘spiller,’ this living ground cover adds color and interest to the planting.


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Repeatedly using a limited palette of color and plant material helps establish unity in a garden design.  Even a non-gardener can ‘read’ the design and understand it more easily when elements repeat.  Using a few ground covers and ‘spillers’ across many different containers helps to establish that unity.  It is economical, as well, since most of these plants root quickly and easily.  A small division will soon take off and grow into its new spot.


Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.

Autumn fern harmonizes with Creeping Jenny and Ajuga. We planted this combo last fall while re-doing a bed beneath our Camellia, and have repeated it in other areas of the garden, including pots.


I’ve used golden Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘aurea’, for several years now.  It grows so prolifically that I haven’t needed to purchase a plant since that first season.  This is a hardy perennial in our area, often turning red in cold weather.


Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the stony pond.

Creeping Jenny now surrounds our water feature. This photo from the end of April shows its growth in the shallow, stony pond.


It overwinters easily in pots or growing on the ground.  New roots grow at every leaf junction.  It will scamper up and over obstacles, and forms a thick mat, dripping down the sides of pots in golden beauty.

Another easy perennial favorite in our climate is Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina.’ 


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S. ‘Angelina’ pokes up through Ajuga in this pot. Ajuga holds its good looks all year round, blooming in mid-spring.


Any little piece of this plant which breaks off can quickly root on moist soil.  It holds its golden color throughout the year.  It also forms a thick mat and cascades over the sides of pots.  Drought tolerant and happy in full sun, it ‘volunteers’ and grows happily on in unlikely spaces.


S. 'Angelina' has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, and Ivy.

S. ‘Angelina’ has escaped its pot and fills the poor soil beside our street. Here it grows with Ajuga, Germander, Senecio cineraria and Ivy.


I noticed a beautiful silvery grey ‘spiller’ flowing from hanging baskets in Gloucester Court House last summer.  Shimmery curtains of silver hung down  several feet below the edges of their bright summer baskets along the main street of town.  From a distance, it looked almost like Spanish Moss.  But Spanish Moss is rare in our area and isn’t used in hanging baskets!


Dichondra spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.

Dichondra argentea spills from this pot, only a few weeks after planting.


I learned the designer had planted Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ around the edges of those beautiful baskets.  And oh, how cool and elegant the baskets looked hanging from the light polls along the street of this historic village!

Dichondra is grown as an annual in our Zone 7 region.  Native to the southwestern United States, it grows in full sun to part shade, and is reasonably drought tolerant.  Further south, Dichondra repens, a green leafed relative native to Australia and New Zealand,  is used as a lawn substitute ground cover.  It is a perennial in zones 10 and south.


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I’ve bought several small pots of Dichondra argentea this spring.  Each clump is easily divided into four or five smaller clumps, which may be planted around the perimeter of a pot or basket.


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These have grown very quickly for us, filling in on top of the soil, as well as draping gracefully over the container’s edge.  I intend to keep this plant in our repertoire for future years.

Other good ground covers for pots include the many Ajuga cultivars; and for shade, ivy, moss, and Leptinella.   Each of these plants gives a finished look and added elegance to an otherwise ordinary container planting.  Most will happily fill the container all winter.



Leptinella grows in the foreground, with mosses and ferns.  It will eventually form a thick mat and can be used as a ground cover in place of grass.


A beautifully glazed pot brimming with golden Lysimachia or purple Ajuga remains lovely through our mild winter months.  In fact, the only caveat for using these ground cover plants remains their hardy exuberance.  At some point, you either give them the pot, or empty it and start over with fresh potting soil.


S. 'Angelina' in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.

S. ‘Angelina’ in March grows as ground cover for a Clematis vine and early bulbs.


I’ve had to empty several pots this spring, clogged with roots from the ground cover plant.  I divide the ground cover and either add little bits back in to begin growing again around my new ‘thriller’ plant, or find places to plant it out in the garden as a permanent ground cover.

Either way it is a ‘win-win’ as these beautiful plants continue to expand and fill their niche of covering the Earth.


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Woodland Gnome 2016


Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils.  We let it run through much of the garden.  Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow.  Could this be C. 'Blue Hawaii,' back after our mild winter?

Vinca grows prolifically in our garden, blooming in early spring with the Daffodils. We let it run in many areas, where it eventually grows thick and dense. Here, a few volunteer Colocasia plants have begun to grow. Could this be C. ‘Blue Hawaii,’ back after our mild winter?




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.

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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.

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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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