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Green Acre #337: The Forgiveness of Ferns

These sturdy fronds bridge the pond in the Cavanaugh backyard, enhancing both parts of the small installation. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

 THE FERNS by the small backyard pond are ravishing this year. Planted a few seasons ago, they grew from a patch of pleasing frills to a leggy frond border that sprawls across the water, nearly reaching the other side (not a big reach), like a lacy bridge. While the fern cuts the expanse of water, it gives the pond a stronger presence, and a more realistic one than you might expect from what is, in fact, a rubber tub. 

They’re lovely in the sun, reflecting cool above the black pond; the handful of goldfish that have escaped the raccoon flit and glint about. The ferns are just as charming in the rain, a moody mini meadow. While I’d prefer a swimming pool, even a trough to wallow in in the heat, just looking at ferns is cooling, like a bit of forest, if you’ve got blinders on. 

I don’t think we bought these ferns, which I suspect are some variety of maidenhair. I imagine they arrived thus: We’re driving along a country road and I yell Stop and My Prince hops out of the car and (with who knows what, since we don’t normally travel with a pick and shovel) manages to unearth a clump. We then return home and I wave my arms about over the pond and he digs a fine hole.  

There are other ferns spotted about the back garden. A fine upright asparagus fern, planted in a small urn, is flinging delicate foliage. A Mother’s Day gift from My Prince, it can grow six feet this way and that, if I give it more room. Scattered about are large pots of the more usual drooping sort of asparagus fern, which is great as a filler in the ground and in containers. 

My hanging Boston ferns are coming back, one more rapidly than the other, who knows why. These are such a nuisance to winter over, demanding water and then leaking all over the solarium floor. If I had my druthers I’d ditch them each fall and buy new each spring, but My Prince likes to nurse them back to health, which sometimes works. 

We’re lucky enough to have a smidge of sun here and there, so the ferns by the pond make a hedge for a hibiscus and a new pittosporum which, with any luck, will grow from a tidy mound to a well-rounded shrub, flowering in springtime with tiny orange-scented blossoms—not a showpiece flower, rather one that tantalizes with scent strong enough to delight the back porch, not overpower the spaghetti bolognese, should we be eating outdoors. 

For those with really dense shade, ferns can be the entire show. There’s a small front garden a few blocks away that is shrouded by a giant evergreen tree, under which tiers of maidenhair fern put on a showy display throughout the year, layering down the slightly sloping front yard to the stone retaining wall. One needs nothing more to enchant a spot that’s so devoid of sunlight that few plants have the wherewithal to grow.  

Ferns also lend themselves brilliantly to flower arrangements, as a nest for blossoms or standing on their own. Treated well, they’re far from the ho-hum ferns usually stuck in gift bunches. Soft, light green Lady Ferns and the particularly hardy Male Ferns can grow three to five feet. Pull the lower leaves so you have a naked stalk, arrange in a tall vase, and poof! An extravagant display for the foyer that will last for weeks. Shorter stems are delightful in small vases and containers, such as empty perfume bottles: Set them on the dining table or the mantel, intersperse with tea lights, and you have a miniature indoor garden.  

Generally, ferns are trouble free, and multiply like weeds with minimal care. Water, mulch, that’s about it. You can hack apart a large clump in spring and plant the pieces without worry. The Wild Seed Project has growing tips (if you insist) and photos of several varieties. If you’re after rare beauties, Plant Delights in Raleigh, North Carolina, should have quite a few to tickle your fancy. Open only occasionally to the public, this online nursery specializes in rare, unique and native plants—and has a wonderfully witty catalogue that reads like J. Peterman for the garden muckabout.  


One thought on “Green Acre #337: The Forgiveness of Ferns

  1. Lauren says:

    Thanks for this wonderful piece in defense of ferns! I agree, they are a great shade garden plant with all the attributes you so ably denote.
    Their other wonderful attribute is that they are totally deer resistant and for so many people in our region that is a crucial quality.

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