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Where Hardy Ferns Can Be Grown

[The Life Of A Fern]  [Where Hardy Ferns Can Be Grown]  [Ferns In The Mixed Border]  [Rockwork For Ferns]  [Hardy Ferns For Indoor Culture]  [Ferns In The Living Room During Winter]  [Fern Rockeries Indoors]  [Fern Culture Under Bell Glasses]  [Exotic Ferns Without A Greenhouse]  [Aerial Fern Culture] 

( Originally Published 1907 )

" It is the wild garden alone which leads us into the clouds." -Gibson.

The growing desire in the human mind for something straight from the heart of Nature has brought the wild garden to our doors. Hence the fern border, with its refreshing, lingering loveliness, rivals the gaily painted garden with its transient beauty.


Happy indeed is the fern culturist whose domain includes a ledge or a pile of rocks, a shaded bank, a bit of swamp and a brook, with consequent irregularity of surface, where he may successfully simulate Nature.

These ideal conditions, however, are for the favoured few. The majority of fern lovers who would be continually reminded of woodland dells which they cannot reach have only the ordinary town lot or city back yard for displaying the souvenirs of tramps abroad. Pleasing results are easily obtained under seemingly adverse conditions, and it is worth while to learn by experience how to make the most of given surroundings.


Many of our native species are so cosmopolitan in matters of location and soil that whoever wills may grow ferns; even the owner of limited grounds may have a fern border, for the narrow strip of ground between the foundation walls of a house and the channel worn by the drip from the overhanging eaves is an ideal location, available for nothing else, but replete with conditions which ferns enjoy, e. g., a cool, damp atmosphere and good drainage.

Given an eastern exposure and partial shade, the majority of our native ferns flourish under cultivation with as much grace (and with but a trifle less luxuriance) as though Nature herself had selected the environment. But it must not be inferred that the growth of ferns is regulated by the points of the compass. An eastern exposure is preferable, because partial shade is a condition in native haunts and easily simulated in a situation where extremes of sun and shade are practically out of reach.

Ferns grow with tolerable grace on the north side of a house, and may be induced to do something worth while on the west, but a southern exposure is rarely successful.


The close association in Nature of tree and fern offers a practical suggestion which the owners of old stumps and trees do well to note. The fortunate possessor of an old tree, with abutting bark-covered roots trailing over the ground, has an artistic setting. The botanist looks at the soil and tells you what ferns should be at home, and, although a natural preference is manifested, ferns possess greater adaptability than almost any other plants. Most of our common ferns will flourish in any decent soil, provided it be light and porous. Where the ground seems especially poor and hard, as it often does under trees which have absorbed the greater part of virtue and moisture for years, the top soil should be removed and replaced with something better. European growers recommend a compost of equal parts of rough peat, loam, leaf mould and coarse sand for the majority, with added loam for vigorous growing kinds, sandy peat for the most delicate, and a sprinkling of old mortar for limestone-loving ferns.

Leaf mould pure and simple in my experience is the ideal soil for nearly all save the latter class. The economical culturist learns to save all bits of waste moss and small instalments of wood's earth for the fern bed; thus in time, with little trouble, a feast of fat things may be obtained for epicurean species.

There was absolutely no special preparation of the soil, or even a formal cutting away of the sod for the luxuriant border, sections of which are shown in the illustrations (Frontis. and Plate 6). The luxuriance of this display is by no means due to careful planting, but to the fact that the soil happened to be good and other conditions right. Properly prepared beds where the environment is not as favourable are often less luxuriant.

The successful establishment of mature specimens in the home grounds depends largely upon intelligent transplanting, which necessitates a knowledge of the various forms of root growth. Fern culture is one thing and fern digging quite another, as the inexperienced find to their surprise and sorrow if an attempt to uproot a monarch of the swamp be made without the proper implements. It is worth while to sacrifice specimens from available genera in order to learn how to uproot others without disturbing the growth by loosening the soil about the plants. For instance, the root growths of the osmundas are a dense mass of wiry, fibrous matter apparently anchored to all creation; the interrupted fern (Osmunda Claytoniana) is especially trying, for the thickened rootstock, massive, with imbricated base stalks, clings so tenaciously to the earth that the amateur collector will gravely assure you on his second trip that "the proper kit for the business consists of a spade, an axe and a cross-cut saw." However, the game is really worth the candle, for once taken up and carefully reset these ferns readily establish themselves, even in a different soil, and require no further attention.

The most regal member of the fern family, the ostrich fern (Matteuccia Struthiopteris), is less difficult to transplant because the short, thickened caudex is firmly anchored to the earth by slender stolons, all heavily fringed with delicate rootlets. A circle should be cut several inches from the crown with a knife or a sharp spade; this severs the stolons but does not materially disturb the plant if it is then carefully lifted. On the other hand, Goldie's fern (Dryopteris Goldieana), one of the finest of New England ferns-often growing to a height of four feet, with handsome fronds a foot broad-is easily uprooted by the hand alone. The spinulose shield ferns (Dryopteris spinulosa) give themselves up in like manner.

Ferns which spring from an underground branching rootstock that sends up but one frond in a place, such as the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), the hay-scented fern (Dennstxdtia punctilobula) and maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum), are quite likely to be disturbed unless a section of turf is carefully cut and lifted. This form of root growth never runs deep, hence a sharp, flat trowel is in most cases equal to the occasion.

Many of the dainty cliff dwellers have tenacious and far-reaching roots, therefore require great care to be of cultural service.

Fortunately, many of them, like the purple cliff brake (Pellaea atropurpurea), are also found growing on disintegrating limestone ledges, loose sections of which can often be pulled away, laying bare the thread of life reaching for hidden springs within.

The common polopody (Polypodium vulgare) is an exception to this mode, as the entire mass of growth is anchored by tiny rootlets to the surface of rocks only. Sections for transplanting should be cut, not pulled, from the beautiful mat which Nature flings down here and there.


The majority of unsuccessful attempts to make ferns live even after they have been properly uprooted are due to over-zealous efforts rather than careless planting. Nature has different standards for different genera, and we have but to observe how far above the surface she carries the crowns of her ferns or buries her rootstocks beneath. A common fault of the amateur culturist is to plant too deep and so cause the crown to rot. Of the two extremes it is better to "dig a hole and stick them in," for slipshod planting will at least insure admission of air to the roots, a necessity indicated by the porosity of the various soils in which ferns naturally grow.

The soil should never be packed hard about ferns, unless temporarily so about large specimens, which need to be held in position until the roots have time to gain a foothold.


Another frequent cause of failure lies in selecting for a sunny location on the lawn plants which have grown in deep woods. Many species have so wide a range that individual plants may usually be found growing naturally in the same degree of sun or shade to which they are to be subjected in cultivation.

If the culturist will observe Nature always, and follow her lead, gross mistakes like that of planting a rock fern in damp leaf mould will be avoided.

Nature may have "method in her madness," oftentimes hidden beneath charming confusion, for the aim of true art is to conceal itself; therefore the goddess who rules the woods flings her "lacework" about in an apparently reckless manner. Had we the earth to choose from, assuredly no set rules could be given for the selection and arrangement of ferns for the border or other situations. However, a few hints from experience may be of service.


Collectors of ferns may be classed under three heads: scientific, commercial and cultural. To be able to add new facts to a known science is the aim of all biologists. Anatomical peculiarities can only be demonstrated by the investigation of many specimens regardless of life and beauty thus sacrificed; hence extinction of species often follow over-zealous efforts. The commercial collector sees only possible dollars and cents in each rare plant he happens to find. Granted that the collection and sale of living plants or herbarium specimens is lawful, there is no excuse for exterminating rare finds for greed of gain. Not long ago a successful collector of this class told me of the rare luck he had in finding a dozen or more plants of a choice variety not then noted in the state in which it grew, and indeed only two other stations were on record. This man dug up over half the plants before discretion overtook him, and he left a few roots but carried off all the fronds.The ruthless annihilation of so much natural beauty, simply because herbarium specimens brought a few cents more in the market if a little fringe of rootlets adhered to the lifeless fronds, is deplorable.

The culturist is more likely to have a keen appreciation of the real beauty of the ferns and wild flowers than collectors of either of the other classes. He wishes to make them grow where they can be studied and enjoyed with less trouble than in their native haunts. Cultural experience not only teaches the value of the individual plant but discreet selection, for only certain forms and stages of growth will fit into the various places which he wishes to fill; these he learns to tell at a glance without reckless waste of raw material.

But the gospel of moderation is everywhere in order, for vandals are in our midst under every guise. There is no end to the wanton destruction of plant life by persons having no real interest in Nature, but who ruthlessly pull up that which attracts the eye for the moment and as quickly throw it aside. Granted that none of us own the wild things growing, and that nobody can "stake a claim," yet the smallest soul among us should feel conscience-stricken for spoiling, even for a laudable purpose, gems of art which Nature has taken years to perfect.

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