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

Six on Saturday: No Mercy

Not so long ago a seedling, and now a towering oak tree giving shade and sheltering wildlife

An oak takes a long time to grow from a sprout to a tree.  Or so we think.  This morning I’m standing below oak trees that I either planted, or spared, when they were just seedlings. 

We had been here a few years.  Oaks fell in a storm, taking understory trees with them, and leaving a wide, sunny patch in the upper garden.  The character of the garden had changed entirely, and eventually I took it in hand and planted the bones of what we have today. 

Two little ‘live oaks’ arrived from the Arbor Day Foundation, and I planted them across from one another on either side of the new, gaping hole of a full sun in what had been a shade garden.  Then the deer found them and grazed what little new growth they had.  I planted deterrent plants and supports around one of them, which has stretched to at least three times my height.  The other?  Well, It is in a shadier place, without as much protection, and the deer still find it from time to time.  It isn’t quite head high. 

Oh, and those two ‘live oaks’ apparently weren’t.  The still small one has the traditional strappy leaves of a Quercus virginiana.  Live oaks are notoriously slow to grow.  The other, now tall one?  I’m still trying to figure it out.  It is a semi-evergreen red oak, but not our Virginia live oak.

The sapling sprouted within the drip line of our remaining double trunked swamp chestnut oak, Quercus michauxii.  I was curious about it, and just thrilled to have it after losing so many other trees.  I procrastinated on moving it, left it be, and now it stretches to nearly 30 feet tall in not quite 10 years.  And curiously, it’s a different oak species altogether.  It must have blown in on the wind, or come with a squirrel or a blue jay to rest among the roots of the huge mother tree that now dominates that part of our yard.

Yellow Flag Iris overtaken by Akebia vines

Read the rest of this post, and view more photos on my new website, Our Forest Garden

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

I love finding mountain laurel growing in large, lovely masses in the wild.  Its creamy pink flowers glow softly in the forest.  Wild mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, sometimes covers the undeveloped banks of creeks and rivers in Eastern Virginia.  It grows as an understory shrub in our oak and pine forests. 

These evergreen, wild looking shrubs, almost small trees, simply blend into the fabric of the woods through much of the year before bursting into bloom in late April and early May, suddenly elegant and beautiful.  Wild mountain laurel usually has white or pink flowers.  Some cultivars in the nursery trade have been selected for darker flowers of purple, red or maroon.  Ours are probably wild ones, since most of the flowers are white.

Early American botanists first recorded mountain laurel, then called “Spoonwood,” in 1624.  Carl Linnaeus named the shrub for Peter Kalm, a Swede, who explored eastern North America in search of new and useful plants in 1747-51.  Mountain laurel, one of the most ornamental native plants growing along the east coast of North America, was collected by Kalm to export to gardeners in Europe. 

Mountain laurel grows from Maine to Florida in Zones 5-9.  It even grows east along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to eastern Louisiana. But it isn’t generally found near the coast south of Virginia.  It prefers the coolness of the mountains, and its southern range moves ever further west, at elevation, following the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.

Mountain laurel, part of the Ericacea family of plants, is related more closely to blueberries than to bay laurel, which is native to Europe.  It prefers moist, acidic soil and requires at least partial shade.  Although the shrubs flower more abundantly in bright shade than deep, Kalmia don’t like growing in full sun where summers grow hot.  These plants are best mulched, and fertilized, with shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch.

Read More on Our Forest Garden

Mountain Laurel, April 2017

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore….

Lantana attracts butterflies and birds. Deer never touch it.

When I began gardening here in a forested community in the autumn of 2009, my earliest efforts resulted in unexpected frustration as deer, rabbits, moles and voles ate much of what I planted. I still remember planting a flat of perennial Phlox plants and finding them gone the following morning, nothing left but holes where they had been planted only hours before.

Even plants that I expected to be ‘deer proof,’ like a new hedge of hybrid blue holly shrubs, died within months from the stress or repeated grazing. That frustration set me on a path to re-learn how to garden in such a ‘wildlife friendly’ environment.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is an heirloom Narcissus, dating to at least 1916. It grows here with lambs ears and Siberian squill, all unattractive to deer and rabbits.

Over a decade later, I’m still learning. But I’ve discovered a growing list of plants that the deer in our area leave strictly alone; plants that can be planted with confidence that they’ll be left alone for the gardener to enjoy. But ‘deer proof’ isn’t the only quality I’m looking for in plants. I also want beautiful plants that are reasonably easy to grow, persistent and that will support other wildlife. I want functional plants that serve a variety of purposes within the novel ecosystem of our community.

I began writing about these special plants for a local garden newsletter in May of 2021. The original set of nine articles has been republished here, with articles about additional plants on my ‘deer proof’ planting list added from time to time. I hope these articles will prove helpful to others who are trying to enjoy a garden where deer roam freely.

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel May 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scarlet Buckeye April 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore:  Narcissus March 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Ajuga February 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mahonia January 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Hellebores December 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Italian Arum November 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Evergreen Ferns October 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Rosemary September 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scented Geraniums August 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Verbena July 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Agastache June 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Calla Lily May 2021

Crossing the Line: When Plants Become Invasive

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’ grows with English ivy. Ivy is considered a highly invasive plant.

There is a long history of botanists and horticulturalists traveling around the world in search of new, beautiful and useful species of plants.  It is an essential part of our nation’s history to both send native American species to Europe, and to seek out and grow imported species here. 

You’ll hear wonderful stories of early colonists risking their lives and freedom to bring back some rice, or a tea shrub, or some other potentially productive and lucrative plant encountered on their travels, to put into production here in the ‘New World.’  Tony Avent of Plant Delights near Raleigh is one of many contemporary horticulturalists still importing new plants from elsewhere.

One of the trees imported from Asia was the white mulberry tree, Morus alba.  They were supposed to form the beginnings of a silk industry here in Virginia.  Sadly, the silkworm industry never took off in Virginia.  Worse, the white mulberry became an invasive species, even hybridizing with our native red mulberry.  But who knew that would happen in the Eighteenth Century?

Another Asian tree imported during the Colonial era, to potentially support silkworms, is the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera, formerly known as Morus papyrifera.  You may have noticed these odd-looking trees lining Francis Street near the Colonial Capitol building.  They are not considered invasive, but the silkworms didn’t care for them.  In China, they were used in the production of early paper products.

It may take only a few decades for a wonderful new plant introduction to cause enough problems in its new environment to find itself reclassified as an invasive nuisance plant. The very qualities that make a new introduction exciting and marketable may also make it harmful to its new ecosystem.

Read more and see more photos of Virginia’s invasive plants on Our Forest Garden. All new posts now go to the new website. Have you followed it, yet?

See Virginia’s Invasive Plant List

Six on Saturday: With Patience and Flexibility….

Turneric in bloom with elephant ears

It’s finally raining. Cool, soft rain has been falling for several hours now with more on the way. It is such a relief, because I’ve been pulling hoses and carrying full buckets of water nearly every day for the past several weeks to keep the pots and certain parts of the gardens watered. It has been hot and muggy, which has encouraged all of the flowers and elephant ears to push out new flowers and growth and stay beautiful longer than usual; so long as they can stay hydrated. Otherwise, we have drooping stems and crispy leaves.

I’ve been doing July chores in October.  And even as we admire the lushness, my thoughts have already turned to changing out plants for the winter, planting bulbs and cutting back. 

I dug out the first Caladiums and Callas this week, laying the bulbs in a cardboard flat to dry.  I replaced the Caladiums with soft pink snapdragons to bloom on into the winter and again in earliest spring.  Trays of ferns and herbs are marshalled, ready to begin new lives in pots as soon as I lift out the summer tenants.

And here into the second week of October I’m still waiting to find that particular variety of Panola that blends pink and burgundy and softest yellow in each ruffled blossom.   My planting visions are filled with this warm palette of color to brighten winter pots. 

Climate confusion affects us all.  Butterflies linger a bit longer.  Trees remain green well into ‘autumn.’ It is still too warm to plant most of the winter ornamentals that usually fill nurseries and garden centers in October.  Gardening trains us in patience and flexibility.  And appreciation for even the smallest bit of beauty.

Read more and see four more photos on my newer website, Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday:  For the Birds

Our upper garden at the end of September is a haven for wildlife

A cold front this week blessed us with cooler temperatures and lower humidity.  The oppressive summer air was blown out to sea, and what followed feels crisp and clean.  I can see a few scarlet leaves and scarlet dogwood berries in the trees near my window, a sure sign that the season has turned, and the equinox is behind us now.

Each day will be minutes shorter now.  Mornings come later, but the cool comfortable hours for gardening last deep into the afternoon.  I’m drawn out again and again to tweak this or that and to capture a few photos.  Colors have grown bright and intense after days of rain and real relief from summer’s heat.

Even as the wheel of the year turns towards winter, we enjoy the culmination of a fruitful summer.  Beautyberries glow purple, inviting the many birds filling our garden to feast on them and spread their seeds.  Goldfinches fly up from stands of Rudbeckia to safer perches in the trees at our approach.  We find partially eaten hickory nuts and exploded beech nut hulls on the driveway, dropped by birds and squirrels.

It is a season of abundance for all the wild creatures our garden supports.  Nectar rich flowers open daily, pushing against one another in their expansive growth.  It is hard to walk through the upper garden now.  The paths have filled with fallen stems, and I rarely cut back some faded something to make the way easier for our passage.

Read more, here…. on my new website, Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.

Six on Saturday: Early Autumn Beauty

Dark form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectars on butterfly bush

… While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia.   The plants are tired.  We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale.    Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny.  There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.

So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges.  Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season…

See today’s photos and read more on Our Forest Garden, which is a continuation of A Forest Garden. I hope you will follow the new site so you don’t miss any new posts.

Providing Habitat for Native Bees

The original Pollinator Palace at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden has been renovated this month. Read more here

Did you know the majority of bees that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers do not live in hives and do not produce honey? 

Hive-dwelling honey-producing bees did not even exist in North America until they were brought here by European immigrants in the early 1600’s.  That means the honeybee, which has become important to commercial agriculture and has captured press attention due to hive collapse, is not a native insect species.   

There are roughly 4,000 species of native bees and they are all in grave peril because all of them are in population decline. 

Informed  gardeners know and love native bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf cutter bees and sweat bees, to name only a few.  This branch of entomology is still expanding as scientists are now beginning to understand just how important native bee are to healthy ecosystems.  Many native bee species haven’t yet been thoroughly studied.

There are things that gardeners and enthusiasts can easily do to support our native bees.  A gardener’s  most important role in protecting and supporting bees (and other pollinators) is to grow plenty of flowers to provide them with nectar and pollen.  Bees come out earlier in the springtime now than in previous years, and so it is helpful to provide early blooms to feed them.

 Flowers vary in the quality and nutritional value of their pollen.  Native plants provide the highest quality food for native bees.

Any gardener who supports wildlife simply must not use pesticides or other chemicals in the garden that will poison them.  Pesticides and herbicides get into the ecosystem of the garden and have a profound impact on pollinators, birds and small mammals, in addition to the problem insects they target.

Bumble bees are probably the largest and most recognizable of our native bees because they are large and easily observed.  They are ‘generalists’ and will visit almost any blooming flower.  While other bee species will only forage from one type of plant at a time and may prefer certain flower species or flower forms, bumblebees will freely visit most flowers in bloom.   Bumblebees often live in communities underground with a queen and her daughters managing the hive and caring for the young.

While some native bees prefer to live in the ground, many other species are solitary, and make nests to lay their eggs in wood or the dried stems of plants.  When we thoroughly clean up our gardens each fall, cutting the drying, dying stems of perennials, picking up all the sticks and raking all the leaves, we also dispose of many larval bees and other important insects.

Read more at Our Forest Garden

Six on Saturday: Spring in Our ‘Novel’ Garden

When we first moved to this garden nearly 12 years ago, we were delighted to find daffodils blooming our first spring, in a lush mass across a bank in the front yard.  We watched in wonder as their buds opened, revealing their varied forms and colors. 

Our next door neighbors, an English couple, also love daffies and plant a fresh lot of bulbs each fall to add to their springtime display.  Daffodils are heirloom plants, blooming for many decades after they are planted.  They divide each summer and sometimes their seeds are spread around, allowing for natural hybrids and unpredictable spread. Their bright yellows, whites and golds light up our woodlands before the first buds of Forsythia or wild deerberries begin their bloom.

Read more and see more garden photos

Have you visited my new website, Our Forest Garden?

This is a continuation of A Forest Garden, with additional storage space for fresh photos. You’ll also find a library of directories that make it easy for you to find information published here over the past 7 years.

Directories to previous posts on the site include:

On Gardening

Trees and Shrubs

Ferns and Mosses

Green Thumb Tips

Choosing Native Plants

Good Garden Books

Begonias

Caladiums and other Aroids

Herbs

The new site is still a work in progress, and I hope you will visit and have a look at the new format. Please bookmark or follow Our Forest Garden to continue to receive notice of new posts as they are published.

-WG March 2021

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

Please visit and follow Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues to see all new posts since January 8, 2021.

A new site allows me to continue posting new content since after more than 1700 posts there is no more room on this site.  -WG

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