On landscaping with ferns and some of the many ways ferns may be used for best effect in the garden.

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Lincolnshire Today Reprint.

No doubt many keen gardeners have admired ferns for their bold forms, fine foliage and delicate shades of green, for the gentle way that they mark the seasons from the first unfurling fronds of spring, and for the subtle air of wilderness which lingers around them, imparting a special grace.

Also, no doubt, many of us have wondered how these qualities, so well displayed by plants in the wild, might be brought into the garden and used to best effect. If you will, let me say what I think we can obtain from ferns in the garden and suggest a few ideas which may encourage you.


Ferns find many uses in landscaping. Being richly associated with wilderness and everything that is natural, they can be used to bring a feeling of the wild, into any part of the garden to which they are introduced. Any corner in which they are placed immediately looks as though nature has taken a hand in the planting. They may for example be used to suggest pools and rills simply by planting them on low ground, why not cut out a narrow hollow winding down a gentle slope, and plant the sides with ferns, and you immediately suggest a rill where there never was one. This to my mind is a much more supple, satisfying and gardenesque illusion than many of the more synthetic trompe l'oeil in use. While if we are pursuing illusion, then we can get as near as possible to manufacturing woodlands as we are ever likely to, simply by planting ferns with trees, or we can create a fair impression of a mountain flora, just by combining them with rocks and alpines flowers. And as there is nothing wrong with being traditional, and as almost every one knows, the true herbaceous none evergreen types of fern, are the classic “followers on” from naturalized spring bulbs, whether they are under trees or out in the open.


Yet it has to be said that in many ways ferns are also ideal for the more formal type of garden. Particularly because being herbaceous perennials, they have a regular cycle of growth and foliage loss, which means that, their size and spread are to a large extent predictable, and that can be a really wonderful asset to have in a formal area. Because as they also neither flower nor seed, they can be used to provide just the sort of architectural features, for which we normally need, much higher maintenance shrubs and topiary. In other words for corners, edging, or dot planting to break up areas of paving, or at the sides of steps, where they will make a strong statement with their good shapes, but because of their compact habits will not quickly out grow their allotted space, or demand the need for frequent clipping.


This idea works well even on a small scale, as many of the smaller ferns such as Aspleniums, do very well if tucked into crevices. For example the little native fern Cytopteris fragillis, which never grows more than a foot high, and is usually found in the wild, growing high up in the Yorkshire Dales, where tucked into cracks in rocks it is exposed to all that the wildest weather can do, but yet it still manages to put out into the blast the most delicate foliage, of the softest and freshest green. Despite all of which, this child of wilderness, has adapted itself to life in my own garden at near sea level, and has for many years been tucked into a crevice at the side of some steps. It has never needed any care, nor given any offence in all that time, but each time I walk past it, my mind is returned once more to the wildest parts of the dales. And what more could you ask of a plant than that.


There are many ferns less than 45cm tall, some of which have a spreading habit making them useful as ground cover, readily forming a fresh and chromatically undemanding green carpet between taller flowering plants, or between the larger ferns, whose strong shapes and patterns are best displayed if emerging freely from lower growth. One of the very best of these small ferns is Gymnocarpium dryopteris, the oak fern. Only 22cm high, G. dryopteris has small, broadly triangular leafy fronds which in spring and early summer are a sparkling and vibrant green, it becomes more subdued later on in the year but is handsome to the seasons end. It may also be used with other ground cover such as Pulmonarias, through which it will happily wander; I have seen it used this way to great effect at Sissinghurst Castle. Also good is Phegopteris connectillis, the beech fern, in this case with soft blue-grey-green fronds and a little taller at 30cm. Both these ferns spread freely though not offensively, but unfortunately they require a lime free soil, preferably with some organic content, for those on a hard chalky soil, an acid bed could be the only option. Or you could try Gymnocarpium robertianum, a worthy plant and good for ground cover, but sadly it somehow lacks the pure class and ability to amaze of the others. If the drainage is good, you could use Adiantum venustum, the hardy maidenhair, as ground cover. A. venustum. always surprises those who think of maidenhairs as only tender greenhouse species, and loves to romp among rocks and stones.


A little more visually robust in the way of ground cover are the Polypodium species: they have stout evergreen fronds which are much simpler in form than those of most ferns. There are three species native to Britain, not easy to tell apart, plus a number of hybrids between them, and some good fancy forms, for example P.‘Cornubiense’ with crispy frilly edged fronds, it is not easy to find but is well worth looking for. All the Polypodiums are worth growing: they spread slowly but give a simple modest lushness in the border, generally reaching 25 to 40cm. If they have a weakness it is their late start in the spring, when the old fronds can look tatty. The real value of Polypodiums, however, is in their ability to grow almost anywhere, sun or shade, damp or dry. This makes them ideal for use as edging; once again substituting for clipped shrubs such as box hedges . Other ferns which could be used in this role are the familiar harts tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, or Phyllitis scolopendrium, with its handsome glossy strap-like fronds, though it does not spread as obligingly as Polypodiums and you would therefore need more plants to begin with. But imagine a small formal bed containing an urn or statue edged round with Harts Tongue: wouldn’t it make a perfect Victorian picture for lovers of the period?


If those are not reasons enough, then if nothing else, ferns will make really good partners for many other plants, which if you choose the right pairings, they can be trusted not to over grow, in a way that few other plants can, and with which, especially when placed with plants that have strong shapes or colours, they will never visually clash, being in many ways often the most subtle and demure of plants. I know a garden in the Yorkshire Dales where the local greyish white rocks, emerge from a steep hillside, the ground between being carpeted with a coat of soft springy moss. Into this are planted and happily self-seeded many different candelabra type Primulas in the wide variety of bright colours common to these plants. Tall and striking in form, and perhaps even slightly strident in colour, it would be hard to find a flowering plant, which would not clash with, or detract from, them. But all that the wise gardener has scattered among them is a small collection of ferns, which it seems to me, is just enough to pull the whole scene together. Indeed, I know few more simply satisfying creations than this, made with just three ingredients: solid grey boulders, soft green cushions of ferns and, in contrast, sharp, bright and shapely Primulas, all tumbling down the slope to meet the viewer. Ideal in this role would be many of the more delicate foliaged and finely cut native ferns, such as Athyrium filix-femina the Lady Fern in its many forms, Polystichum setiferum the Soft Shield Fern, with its fine but stiff foliage, or its form 'Divisilobum Group' which is even finer.


Nor should you ever think therefore of merely limiting your ferns just to there own corners, for they are well able to stand up for themselves out in the borders alongside other plants. Though as form and shape are all important to the aesthetics of ferns, they are best if not surrounded by taller more vigorous plants, but always look well when standing above smaller and carpeting plants, which they will of course respect, being the most well mannered of plants.


Of course, while there may be many better reasons for growing ferns, they are ultimately, the best plants for difficult places especially in shade. If you have a shady corner where nothing else will grow, then a placement of ferns may well be your only answer, and they will often not only grow, but if you have made the right choice of species they will thrive. Providing as they do, good long season furnishing, just the sort of thing which is often lacking in such places, and here especially, as in the rest of the garden, as we all know, it is often worthwhile placing plants in groups of three or more. This is even more important with ferns, where their strong patterns and texture can be enhanced by repetition. There is a fine example of this at Logan Botanic garden in Galloway, where a large stand of Blechnums are used to striking effect, the even height and regular shape of the ferns setting off the even taller pattern of tree trunks behind.


You may naturally if you become enthused by ferns wish to make a collection and there are many good ways to start one. If you are a conservationist then you will be pleased to know that the list of British native ferns, is highly varied and contains many of the best garden ferns, plus many that are rare or challenging to grow, and you can do only good for our ecology if you give some of them a home. While to keep up with the fashions you could collect the many foreignspecies which are now coming in to the country, many of which offer such excitingly different exotica as coloured fronds, a thing hardly found in our native ferns. Or your preference may lead you to the many old and sometimes sadly threatened garden cultivars, many dating from the Victorian Fern Craze when ferns were the hight of gardening fashion, but which are now often in real need of good friends. And if you collect then you will probably want to display your collection in some sort of dedicated fernery. Maybe clay pots of little alpine gems and wall ferns on the bench of an alpine house, is your idea of perfection, or the fairytale wild wood can be recreated with a stumpery, of piled up logs and twisted tree roots, into which ferns are planted. Then again, perhaps you would like to go down the path to a full grown Victorian Gothic fernery complete with monstrous rocks and lead fountains, in an extravagance of kitsch fun, and between the first and last, the spectrum is delightfully infinite, with something to offer every gardener.