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Ferns In The Mixed Border

[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 always well to emphasise marked situations by tall-growing species. Osmunda Claytoniana, which is well shown on the right of Plate I, plays an important part in the decoration of country roads and byways, but rarely shows to better advantage than in the fern border. The botanists quote the height at three feet, which, however, is often doubled in damp woodlands; four feet is the limit of the plant photographed. There is no period in the existence of this fern when it is not attractive, but it is especially so as it is unfolding in the spring. The stipe pushes up through the dead leaves, the fern wool drops away, and a symphony in green is literally unrolled before our eyes-the fertile section of an exquisite olive shade, pale green below and silvery green above, the colour deepens as full development is attained and the "brown stuff" in the midst of a luxuriant frond testifies to the unique method Nature employs for the propagation of the species, and gives rise to the common name of interrupted fern. This fern is second only to the ostrich fern (Matteuccia Struthiopteris) in stately grace and its superior beauty of colour and veining.

The most artistic effects are produced by associating contrasting species. In the second group illustrated the blue-green fronds of Goldie's shield fern (Dryopteris Goldieana) are largely in evidence. A few delicately cut fronds of the American royal fern (Osmunda pectabilis) serve as an excellent foil.The bladder fern (Filix bulbi fera) relieves the vivid green of the oak fern (Phegopteris Dryopteris), which carpets the space between the groups.

There is to my mind no happier combination in the mixed fern border than that of the ostrich and maidenhair ferns. It is impossible to find more strongly contrast ing species.As an embodiment of grace and dignity Matteuccia Struthiopteris has no peer. Perfectionof growth is reached only in swampy lowlands, the rich alluvial soil producing a grand vase-like circle of foliage often higher than a man's head; fine specimens are often found skirting dry woodlands or following the wall in an upland pasture. Thus by nature cosmopolitan, it takes kindly to the situation indicated. The fertile fronds are like nothing else under the sun. Curious stiff brown spikes appear within the verdant circle, a most unfernlike product, which claims the honour of naming the species, as botanists long ago discovered the plume-like arrangement of its divisions. The sterile fronds might share the honour, for if anything in Nature resembles a plume it is the sterile frond of an ostrich fern in June before the tips of the segments have lost their curl.

Adiantum pedatunz, growing so luxuriantly, enhances by contrast the dignity of the stately guardians overhead. The maidenhair is always beautiful in sun or shade, accepting whatever soil is offered, and, if taken up as directed, grows on with little interruption.

The chief beauty of this fern is architectural. The two branches of the stalk diverge at an angle of perhaps 50, rise obliquely, gracefully recurving until they meet again. From the outside of the curve each branch sends out from two to seven diverging branch lets of varying length. Thus the whole frond is from five or six to fifteen or even eighteen inches broad, and, while somewhat funnel shaped in the centre, radiates horizontally toward the circumference, and is the most graceful thing in the fern creation.

Another advantage in associating these two ferns in the border is that the texture of the maidenhair, although delicately membranous, is very elastic, and, therefore, holds its freshness much longer than the ostrich fern, which is often faded by midsummer. General shabbiness is evaded by breaking away the taller fronds and depending upon the maidenhair for continued beauty throughout the latter part of the season. Even the visitations of Jack Frost, which sadly humiliate more imposing genera, are received with comparative indifference because of this very elasticity.


The royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) is indispensable. The simple elegance of the species manifests itself in vernation, a period when many ferns are a trifle uncanny. No other fern is more deftly "done up," clothed with softer wool, or coloured so exquisitely as this.

Ferns in general are but symphonies in green, but here a prelude in Quaker drab runs softly into the green, which complements its colour scheme by a shading in and out of rosy fawn deepening into golden brown.

The man who considers a fern "a thing with a backbone and side members like a feather," is apt to be skeptical when assured that this "bush" is but a fern after all. Nature has a special arrangement for the fructification of each member of the genus, but the fruited panicle which crowns Osmunda spectabilis is the most graceful of all, and a plausible excuse for the misleading name of "royal flowering fern," which has been borrowed from its European prototype O. regalis.

The amateur will have no difficulty in naturalising it. Although a native of swamps and river banks, it grows also on uplands, where it loses some grace and gains rigidity enough to look "bushy." But it is always beautiful, often growing to a height of four or five feet in cultivation.


The sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is another fern valuable for lasting freshness and contrasting foliage.It is unmanageable in cultivation, as the underground rootstocks branch freely in all directions, sending up fronds without the delay of growing a caudex.

Colour and veining are fine, indeed the chief beauty of the fern is its elaborate reticulation over the smooth green surface. The fronds vary from six inches to three feet in height. In a mixed border they are a marked feature and are excellent for an independent corner.


The marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis) is the most valuable of all the wood ferns. Graceful outline, blue-green colour and rich texture characterise the species. It readily adapts itself to whatever situation is offered, and there is never a period of shabbiness until the round year is full and new life stirs within the old. It is easily recognized by the spores borne along the margin of the frond.

A new and valuable acquisition for cultural use is Mr. Dodge's hybrid (Dryopteris cristata X marginalis). It has the rich colour and texture of the marginal shield fern but is more erect in habit, resembling in this respect its other parent.

The simple elegance of Boott's shield fern . (Dryopteris Boottii) attracts attention in any collection. It is really one of the finest cul turable ferns. Unlike Dryopteris cristata, var. Clintoniana, with which it is often associated in wooded swamps, it retains its dignity of pose outside its natural environment.

The spinulose shield fern (Dryopteris spinulosa) and its varieties are among the most beautiful of our ferns. They are indispensable indeed, for the fern garden depends upon them for its most effective lacework. The broad spreading variety (D. spinulosa, var. dilatata) is especially handsome.


In shaded situations where tall species with simply pinnate fronds are not common,a charming effect is produced by the narrowleaved spleenwort (Asplenium angusti folium), the rarest of the tall spleenworts. There is nothing in the fern kingdom which looks so cool and refreshing on a hot day as a mass of this clear-cut, delicately made-up fern. Although rarely growing in such profusion as in the natural habitat, it is cultivable and makes a pretty addition to the wild garden. An exposed situation is not advisable, as the fonds are of so thin a texture that they are easily broken by summer storms or victimised by the earliest frosts. There seems to be an affinity between this species and the strongly contrasting Goldie's fern (Dryopteris Goldieana). When we find one we are very likely to find the other close at hand.


The lady fern (Asplenium Filix-foemina) is usually in evidence in any collection, often a chance comer. It is persistent and aggres ,sive, often crowding out more delicate species. Some forms of this most variable of all known ferns are very beautiful, but as a whole they do not merit the praise hitherto given.

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is too well known to need comment. Its mission is to cheer the winter months and enhance the beauty of other ferns by contrast.

Of the lesser growths which fill out the mixed border, a limited quantity of the bladder fern (Filix bulbi fera) gives a light and dainty touch. The oak fern (Phegopteris Dryopteris) develops early and is the greenest of all green things in Nature. The other two members of the genus are late in appearing, and consequently are valuable for freshening up the border when other species have passed their prime. The broad beech fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera) is very beautiful but often grows too tall to be considered a footnote. Phegopteris polypodioides, sometimes called the long beech fern, is more common. It has good colour, and a distinct individuality of pose which attracts attention; the leaf spread is nearly horizontal and the lower pair of pinnae are turned sharply down, which gives a sort of apologetic air unusual among ferns.


It is a deplorable fact that lack of a sense of the fitness of things cheapens the decorations of a good many lawns and gardens. It is the worst possible taste to associate our native ferns with the ordinary bedding plants. In the first place, it spoils the purpose of the wild garden, literally keeping one's thoughts at home when they long for the restfulness of a journey to Nature. In the second place, one or the other is out of harmony with the surroundings. There is a certain incongruity, unobserved by the majority perhaps, but keenly felt by those in tune with Nature.

It is true that some rather pretty effects have been produced in some of our public gardens by thoughtful selection. Double daisies and forget-me-nots lose none of their beauty if partially veiled by the maidenhair (Adiantum.) But it is a profanation of Nature to force ferns to live in the midst of gorgeous geraniums or other cultivated plants blazing with colour.

Where Nature has the selection of the floral accompaniments of ferns, her touch will be light and delicate. Wild flowers are the only permissible adjuncts of the fern border, whether as invited guests or as chance comers.

Beauty of design is often greater than that of colour, hence variety of foliage is often desirable. Orchids of any kind are especially fitting. A trillium here and there, or even a Jack-in-the-pulpit, may preach the gospel of good effect by contrast. Solomon's-seal droops gracefully beneath the interrupted fern (Osmunda Claytoniana), and is nearly as interesting in its unfolding and development. The ever present herb Robert spreads itself to the left of the oak fern, and Clintonia borealis carpets the space at the right. This wildling is not as well known as it should be. There is an aristocratic exclusiveness about it which does not appeal to those who wish for something gayer than the graceful umbel of greenish-yellow bells; however, with its orchid-like foliage, it is highly decorative indoors or out. The wild strawberry gives an ideal finish to our June picture. A mass of the foam flower (Tiarella cordi folia) is especially pleasing. Once established, it takes the situation in hand and the ferns literally rise out of the spray of bloom in selfdefence. But the daintiest conception which Nature has dropped among the ferns is the bishop's-cap (Mitella diphylla). This exquisite bit of floral conservatism is in perfect harmony with the "feathery fern, whether it groweth wild and free" or as a willing captive.


For the amateur gardener with only a. limited area there is undeniably more varied beauty and greater interest in a mixed border;but from a landscape gardener's point of view more striking effects are produced by massing one or perhaps two species. A row of well-developed ostrich ferns in front of a broad veranda or following the foundation walls of a stately mansion is truly imposing. More permanent beauty is insured if the maidenhair is associated with it. The situation, however, must be taken into consideration, for accessories that are befitting to a cottage are not of necessity in harmony with pretentious architecture.

A practical idea is suggested by Mr. Newman's story of the impression which fine specimens of the royal fern (Osmunda regalis), fringing the river between the Lakes of Killarney, made upon Sir Walter Scott. Scarcely a word had the novelist uttered in praise of the scenery, but at this point he stopped the rowers and exclaimed, "This is worth coming to see." Few of us are fortunate enough to possess a river to fringe, but fine specimens are also seen on the uplands, which is conclusive evidence that the flowering fern, (Osmunda), is worth looking at in any situation and easy of culture. A few welldisposed plants create a display unrivalled for simple elegance among the ferns. Our native species O: spectabilis is an excellent counterpart of the European one.

The boulder or hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is considered one of the most decorative of the entire fern family. Growing as it does from an extensively creeping rootstock, it is unmanageable in a limited border, but it is a good fern for massing in the open. The effect of the shimmering fronds, so "delicately wrought and sweet of scent," flanked by evergreens, is highly artistic.

The sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) makes a fine bit of colour, grown en masse in a damp corner.

For a dry, stony bank there is nothing better than the marginal shield Dryopteris marginalis. The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is equally fine for low massing.

Extensive grounds which are fortunate enough to possess a wooded border in which pine trees are intermingled are sure of an effective setting for fern pictures. Note the simplicity of design in the perfect medallion of shield ferns (Dryopteris marginalis) spread in the carpet of pine needles . Another choice bit of art is the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), deep green and glossy, on a tawny background. Both pictures may be easily copied if only a pine tree is at hand to furnish the needles.

Braun's holly fern (Polystichum Braunii) is remarkably fine, grown as a specimen plant in a damp, shady corner. The fronds are beautiful in outline, long and tapering, rich and glossy in texture and finish, deep green above and pale green beneath. It is especially attractive as it develops, not only because the stalks are densely clothed with golden-brown scales but because the crosiers execute a double curve before they assume the graceful pose of maturity. It is sometimes called the prickly shield fern.

A single vase of ostrich ferns or regal osmundas on each side of an entrance, thus serving as sentinels, combine grace and dignity befitting the situation.

In shady street parks I have seen ovals filled with stately ostrich ferns (Matteuccia Struthiopteris), which were quite as imposing as the red cannas in neighbouring sections. The ferns were closely set and enclosed with wire netting, so that the winds had no put-' chase; without these precautions the first storm of summer would have taken the grandeur out of them on short notice.

The maidenhair (fldiantum pedatum) is a safe fern for this purpose and very artistic, if foiled by a few plants of the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

A strikingly beautiful effect is produced by sowing, seeds of the scarlet field poppy in beds of the hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia.) Both are airy and light, and in no way interfere with each other's growth, and the contrast of the intense red against the pale-green fronds is superb. This is perhaps the one exception where gayety among the ferns is permissible.


Once established, the care of ferns is practically nothing. My ferns are rarely watered, and never with the hose, unless a small stream is turned on and the hose allowed to lie on the ground for the purpose of soaking the roots in extremely dry weather.

One application of the full spray is as disastrous as a tornado. I have had the beauty of many choice ferns spoiled for the season by the veering of the wind which blew the spray from a hose, supposed to be out of reach, upon them. Even the maidenhair, that so-called voucher for the purity of waters near which it grows, turns brown and withers.

Now and then an elimination of undesirable weeds is imperative, and a little thinning out of over-zealous species like the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and the bladder fern (Filix bulbi fera). Careful shearing of grass is also necessary where we compromise 'twixt Nature and Art.

In the fall preservation is effected by packing deciduous fronds over their own roots and allowing some of the dead leaves which have blown among the ferns to remain as they do in Nature.

This is all very well for the ferns, but dead leaves blowing about the lawn after fall cleaning are objectionable. This is obviated by spreading evergreens over the fern beds and borders; these serve to hold the leaves in place and to cover all that is unsightly.

Discretion must be used in removing the boughs in the spring; in a sheltered situation there is little danger of being too previous, as ferns are not easily spring killed; but there is danger in delay after life stirs, for the delicate crosiers are sure to be broken or beheaded in a belated cleaning.It is granted that this is not in accordance with Nature, but an instance of the adaptability of wildlings to conventional life.


Chief of these are the neighbour's dogs, which revel in the cool shade of house walls and settle themselves in the midst of the border with aggravating complacency. Wise fern growers keep the remedy to themselves.

Of no less importance are the neighbour's hens, which also require prompt and efficient attention to offset their fundamental efforts.

Ferns in cultivation have the same natural leaf-eating enemy that makes such havoc with certain species in the woods, a small green worm that appears early and often mars the beauty of fine planrs for the season. It is well to anticipate the arrival of the despoiler by dusting the fronds with hellebore. A solution is better if the thief is at work, as the powder does not easily wash off after its mission is accomplished.

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