Beautiful and Easy: The Lady Ferns

Japanese painted fern Athyrium ‘Metallicum’ grows with silvery Rex Begonias.

When you’re planning what to plant, do your eyes sometimes glaze over while reading the growing instructions?  Does it all seem too complicated, to find some success with the plants you want to grow?  No one earns points on a tally for growing complicated plants.  Maybe that is why I love growing ferns.  Most are happy enough to find a home for their roots that they just take off, making a beautiful planting with very little effort.

Ferns are such ancient plants, appearing in the fossil record millions of years ago, long before the first tree or flower, that the same species may be native to several continents.  Take the classic lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina.  It is considered native to North America, Great Britain, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Related North American natives include the northern lady fern. Athyrium angustum (Zones 4-8), and the southern lady fern, Athyrium asplenioides (Zones 5-9).

There are nearly 200 Athyrium species, which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. Any curious gardener can fill a garden with an Athyrium collection.  There are beautiful selections more than 100 years in cultivation, and new selections regularly come on the market.

Some of the most colorful and ornamental lady ferns are native to Asia.  The most well-known, the Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum,’ has burgundy stipes and silver markings on its sometimes gray, sometimes burgundy fronds.  Another beautiful Asian fern, the eared lady fern, Athyrium otophorum, emerges greenish gold and matures to a beautiful shade of green.  All of these are hardy in our area.  

Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’

Read the rest of this post , and see more fern photos, on my new site, Our Forest Garden

Green Thumb Tip #22: Do the Math

Two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ that I picked up on an August clearance sale on Saturday are ready for division.


Every garden center offers deals in August to move out the last of their summer stock so there is room for all of those fall pansies and chrysanthemums already on their way.  You will find a very good selection of all of the major genera at most good nurseries, but now marked down 20-40%.

They may be pot bound and perhaps a little sun scorched; no worries.  With a little effort and skill you can increase that small investment many fold.  With a perennial, it is always the roots, crowns, rhizomes, tubers, or stolons that matter.  These are the parts that survive and increase year to year.  The flowers and foliage come and go with the seasons.

This late in the season, the bargain perennial you score on discount has likely had many weeks to grow and increase in its nursery pot.  That means that you can divide it into several pieces, re-pot them and grow them on so that you end up with several beautiful plants before fall really takes hold.  We still have a good eight weeks of summer growing weather, here in coastal Virginia, before we even think about a first frost.


These will grow into dense ferns, as this Japanese painted fern hybrid spreads itself around.  I like the red stems.  Because this is a deciduous hardy fern, it will fade away over the winter.  But come spring, it will reemerge with red fiddle heads.


I found two Athyrium ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns this weekend on clearance at 20% off their original price.  This is a  lady fern hybrid produced from a cross with a Japanese Painted fern.  The central stem of each frond is deep red, and I expect the fiddle heads next spring to be deep red, too.  These ferns like moist acidic soil and full to partial shade.  This fern is known for spreading rapidly, and will grow to about 24″ high and wide.

I bought these ferns because I’m planning to design some winter perennial and bulb pots in October, and think that fern fronds emerging through the daffodils will look terrific!  I want some small divisions of a Japanese painted fern hybrid to plant among the bulbs, for their red fiddleheads, and I’ll finish the pots with Violas or Heuchera divisions.

When deciding which perennials to buy this time of year, compare all of the available pots of whatever plant you are considering.  Look for ones that have multiple crowns or divisions which can be pulled apart.



You will need several clean, empty pots that are deep enough to accommodate roots of your divisions, some fresh potting soil, a clean knife or hori-hori and space to work comfortably.  I also have something to line the pots to hold the soil, like a coffee filter or paper toweling.  Your new plants will only live in these pots for a few weeks, so this is a temporary pot and can be a little rough.

I begin by guessing how many divisions are possible from the plant, and then prepare a pot for each by lining it with paper and filling it about 1/4 full of fresh potting soil.  Next, I massage the nursery pot with the mother plant to loosen up the roots, and then gently slide the root ball out of the pot.  Always work with a well-moistened root ball.  If the plant comes home dry, water it well first thing, and give it a few hours before beginning any division.



As soon as you study the roots and plant structure you will likely see where you can divide the plant so that each new division has both leaves and roots.   If the plant has rhizomes, tubers or stolons, make sure that each division has a section attached to both leaves and roots.



Some plants, like my ferns, can be gently pulled and teased apart by hand.  Other plants may need to be cut into divisions.  Make sure that your blade is clean before you begin work on each plant by wiping it with a Lysol or other disinfectant wipe, washing it in hot soapy water, or even spraying it with a spray disinfectant.  This will control the spread of any bacteria or fungi  that may be on your tools.


Notice where there are spaces between sections where you can begin to pull the plant apart.


I like to work as quickly as I can so the roots don’t dry out, and usually pot up each division as I cut it free.  Position the roots in the new nursery pot so that the plant’s crown will be about an inch below the rim of the pot, and gently fill around the root ball with fresh potting soil.  Firm the soil as you go so that the division will stand up and not flop over and the soil is firm around the roots.



Water each newly planted division after you pot it, keeping in mind that your fresh potting soil may not be holding much water.  It is good to do this on a rainy day and let the divisions sit out in a gentle rain.  Always take care to keep newly divided perennials in a shady place for at least a day as they recover and settle in their roots.

I wouldn’t put even full sun perennials back into full sun for at least a week, to give them a chance to adjust.  Since I’m working with ferns, I’ll put them in full shade for the first week or so, and then move them to brighter, partial shade.  It is very important to keep the soil moist, but not wet, as plants begin to grow their new root systems.

I like to water newly divided plants with Neptune’s Harvest seaweed and fish emulsion right after they are divided, and then every couple of weeks as they grow on.  You might also sprinkle the soil with Osmocote time release fertilizer to help the plants recover and begin growing again.

The plan is to stimulate growth over these last few weeks of summer, and then plant the divisions into garden beds or pots several weeks before the first frost.  You want to allow a few weeks for any newly planted perennial to grow roots beyond the planting hole, out into the surrounding soil, before the ground freezes.  This helps reduce heaving when the ground freezes hard, because the plant is anchored by its roots.



I bought two plants, and ended up with nine divisions.   This is why I always save plastic nursery flats and nursery pots that come home with me on my plant hunting trips.  There are so many ways to reuse these very useful tools!  All nine of my new divisions are nestled into sturdy flats, where they will be easy to move and manage as I grow them on through September.

Unless you have unlimited funds for gardening, do the math.  Shop the seasonal bargains, and then use those bargain plants to make many more.  Whether you divide them, take cuttings to root from leggy plants, or gather their seeds- many plants on sale now offer abundant material that a thoughtful gardener can use to increase her collection and fill her garden with more texture and color.

Plant more plants!



Woodland Gnome 2018

“Green Thumb” Tips: 

Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what you know from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I’ll update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about gardens and gardening.
Green Thumb Tip #16: Diversify!
Green Thumb Tip #17: Give Them Time
Green Thumb Tip # 18: Edit!
Green Thumb Tip #19:  Focus on Foliage
Green Thumb Tip #20:  Go With the Flow
Green Thumb Tip #21:  The Mid-Summer Snack


The Gift

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Friends gave us an Amaryllis bulb for the holidays.  A perfect gift (for me at least) as I love them, and never purchased one this fall.

Amaryllis bulbs often come in neat kits, with instructions, pot and peat included.


The perfect gift for the holidays, from much loved friends and neighbors.

The perfect gift for the holidays  from much loved friends and neighbors.


If you buy your own kit, take a look at the bulb to make sure it is alive.  Do you see how some of the roots are hydrated, and a bud pokes up from the bulb’s neck?  This is a good bulb.

You’ll find the “soil” at the bottom of the pot.  Every bit of moisture has been dried out of this peat, compressed into a thin disc.

After soaking in warm water for several hours the peat expands and will fill the pot.   But I’ll leave that bit of fun for another day….


This healthy bulb shows the critical signs of growth:  a few plump roots and tips of new growth.  This bud will open into many gorgeous flowers in a few weeks.

This healthy bulb shows the critical signs of growth: a few plump roots and tips of new growth. This bud will open into many gorgeous flowers in a few weeks.


I love Amaryllis mixed into larger plantings.     When in bloom, Amaryllis can be breathtakingly beautiful.

They make a huge floral splash for a few weeks as the buds open.  The flowers are long-lived, but like every other flower, eventually they fade.

And then what do you do? 

Their leaves, often two feet long or more, live on for quite a while re-fueling the bulb to bloom again next year.

Some folks probably chuck the bulb once the bloom is finished… but you know I’m not going to do that!

And so I like to grow the bulb as an element of an arrangement rather than as a single bulb in a pot.


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There is something interesting to look at as the bulb begins to grow, and there is something interesting to look at as the bulb’s foliage finishes.

I incorporated this lovely bulb into another riff on my mossy garden theme.

The container has been sitting in the basement since I purchased it off a clearance shelf for a dollar or two several years ago.  It is pretty shallow for a large bulb, but that is OK because Amaryllis don’t need to be planted deeply.


This bowl has no drainage.  I'm using dried spaghum moss to absorb  and then release moisture as needed.  A small bed of pebbles will hold the bulb.

This bowl has no drainage. I’m using dried sphagnum moss to absorb and then release moisture as needed. A small bed of pebbles will hold the bulb.


A bed of dried sphagnum moss in the bottom will wick up water, releasing it back slowly as needed.  A small bed of stones lifts the base of the bulb a little above the bottom of the container to give the roots a head start.  They will grow horizontally into the potting soil as they develop.


The fern's pot is also deeper than this bowl.  I gently pulled the roots of the fern out to the side to make it fit.  This fern spreads with underground rhizomes.  Pulling it apart  in this way encourages it to spread more quickly.

The fern’s pot is also deeper than this bowl. I gently pulled the roots of the fern out to the side to make it fit. This fern spreads with underground rhizomes. Pulling it apart in this way encourages it to spread more quickly.


A lady fern ( adopted yesterday from  Home Depot)  gives some mass, presently towering over the bulb.  The Amaryllis will quickly catch up, towering over the fern before it blooms.


Offsets are already forming from rhizomes off of the main fern clump.

Offsets are already forming from rhizomes off of the main fern clump.  This potting soil has slow release fertilizer and perlite mixed in for drainage.  It will support all of the plants better than the pure peat which came with the kit.


I hope the fern will fill in quickly to balance the height of the bloom scape.

And finally, I went digging in a pot out in the garden where some strawberry begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera,  and spikemoss, Selaginella, still survive.


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I dug up more little divisions to bring inside.


Spikemoss spills over the side of the container.  Moss and lichens cover the potting soil.

Spikemoss spills over the side of the container. Moss and lichens cover the potting soil.  Tiny pebbles fill in cracks and seems.


These are both hardy to Zone 7, but  the deep freeze coming this week  won’t make them happy.   I was glad to rescue them for a garden inside where it’s warm.

The ground cover is all mosses and lichens dug from the garden.  These add such interesting texture and color to the design.  There are endless combinations of mosses and lichens growing together, and all are wonderful viewed close up.


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An Amaryllis becomes very top heavy as it grows.  Many people stake them once they reach 12″-14″ tall.  I plan to try a different approach.

I’ve brought up a tall, clear glass hurricane globe, which I’ll place into this little garden as the bulb begins to grow.  It will make its own little “terrarium” like environment and will also support the Amaryllis, corralling both leaves and bloom scape.

The globe is so tall that it looked a little strange when I fitted it in earlier today.  But once the Amaryllis starts its stretch, I think it will work just fine.

The dish garden sits on a mirrored buffet in the dining room.  It gets bright light from several directions for most of the day.  We will enjoy watching this little garden grow.


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A dynamic mix, it will change every few days. 

When the weather settles enough to move the Amaryllis outside later in the spring, I’ll move all of the other plants back out into the garden to enjoy another growing season in the sun, wind and rain.  But until then, we’ll enjoy a close up view of their progress.

Any garden of moss needs high humidity and frequent misting and watering.

Please remember that moss plants are so primitive they have no roots or vascular system.  Each cell must absorb the water it needs from its environment.  That is why moss thrives in  rain! 


The mossy groundcover is a patchwork of small pieces.  Pebbles placed along their edges not only hides the seams and fills spaces, they also help conserve moisture so the moss stays moist, longer.

The mossy groundcover is a patchwork of small pieces. Pebbles placed along their edges not only hide the seams and fills spaces, they also help conserve moisture so the moss stays moist, longer.


Ferns are thirsty, too, as is the Amaryllis.  This little planting will need water every couple of days.

Moss thrive in acidic conditions.  Diluted brewed tea (no sugar or cream, please) feeds the plants and keeps their environment acidic.  I dilute whatever tea is left in the pot before washing it, and share this cold brew among different plants each day.  Any planting with ferns or moss will appreciate “a cuppa” from time to time.

Amaryllis kits remain popular gifts.  Maybe you received one, too.  These beautiful flowers charm us year after year with their bright winter blooms.

And like all bulbs, they grow as if by magic.  Just anchor them in medium, add water, and prepare to be amazed with their beauty!


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Woodland Gnome 2015


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Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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