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Planting a Fern Glade

Once upon a time, I got in trouble with the law for stealing a fern. This happened soon after Lou and I moved to our first house. We were much younger then and very naive. One day we were hiking at a state park when we came upon a fern glade under towering pine trees. Beams of light were streaming across the forest floor, and we stood in awe before a sea of green fronds reaching into the flickering rays.Although not the fern glade I saw so many years ago, this one located at Birmingham Botanical Gardens also has been an inspiration to me.

I wanted one of those ferns, so Lou dug up a clump for me. Looking back, I can't believe we thought it was OK to do this. (In those days we also used to cut our Christmas trees from public land along the road side, so I guess this seemed to be the same sort of thing to us.)

Back in the car, with the fern resting on my lap, we headed for home. Just before leaving the park, we pulled into the information center to get some brochures, and Lou left me sitting in the car while he went inside. The fern in my lap was huge, and I was happily imagining its new home in my yard when a park ranger knocked on my window.

I smiled at him.

"I hope you didn't get that fern from inside this park," he said grimly.

"Well, yes." 

"You know that's a two hundred dollar fine."

"Oh, no, I didn't know that. Here, you can have it back!"

The ranger confiscated the fern and let me go with only a stern lecture. But I have never forgotten the vision of the ferns we saw that day. I think Lou has never forgotten either, because it was his suggestion earlier this year that we plant a fern glade. 

I have a few ferns already, including a grouping of Autumn Fern growing in the woodland garden.These are nice, but a swath of ferns like we saw on that long ago morning — that is something to aim for!

So this week I began. I started with fourteen ferns, and they cover a small area beside a side path in the woodlands. The grouping hardly qualifies as a glade. In fact, the ferns could easily be overlooked as stray weeds! But I know they will grow and hopefully spread, and as time passes we will be clearing more land and adding to their numbers. 

These are the four types of ferns I planted:Clockwise from top left: More autumn ferns! These have been dependable in my garden and have survived several droughts; This unnamed fern was given to me by a friend. It has spread prolifically in his garden, and I hope it will do the same in mine; Holly fern has done well in other areas of my garden; Southern wood fern, Dryopteris ludoviciana, is a native that should spread well, also.

Ferns generally are easy care plants if given a good environment. We think of ferns requiring damp, shady conditions, but many will thrive in soil that is relatively dry, as long as they have free draining, loose soil. Ferns have lots of delicate roots which must spread out to prosper, so hard, compacted soil won't do. Filtered light is always best, though some can take more sun than others. Most ferns will not tolerate hot afternoon sun.

Well, as soon as my shovel pushed into the surface of the soil, it bounced right back. I think I decided to plant my fern glade on the site of an old rock quarry! I dug out as many rocks as possible, then added lots of organic soil conditioner rich in humus. I avoided tree roots as much as possible. There was plenty of pine straw and old rotted leaves in the area, and I used this to mulch around each fern as I planted it. I made sure I didn't get dirt in the crowns of the plants. I watered them well and plan to do this regularly until they become well established. Fall tends to be one of our wetter seasons, and in my mild climate the ferns should have time for their roots to establish themselves before the stress of next year's summer.

Large woodland type ferns require little maintenance and may grow happily undisturbed for many years, but if desired, older clumps may be split apart with two forks and replanted. For a neat appearance one may cut away dead or unsightly fronds in the spring. Because they don't produce flowers, ferns don't require much fertilizer. An organic fertilizer such as well rotted manure or compost may be used as a side dressing in the spring. I also like to water with an Epsom salts solution, two tablespoons per gallon of water, once as growth begins in spring and again in June. Epsom salts contain magnesium sulfate, which promotes plant growth and greening of leaves. 

I don't know that my fern glade will ever in my lifetime match the idealized one of my memory. But I dream that one day, long after other parts of my garden are gone, someone will come across an unexpected fern glade in the woodlands and stand there for a moment, holding breath in awe.

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Reader Comments (24)

I am quite sure they will be in awe with your fern glade Deb, and so will you be in a few years time, such a lovely post, you remind me of me when i was very young with the christmas tree, how naive and silly we were, of course we don't dare do such things now, and frown upon anyone else that does it.

September 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

What a lesson to learn! I remember taking a tiny fossil that I found at the gorge, then feeling so guilty, put it back. I know it is forbidden and the tiny 1/2 inch fossil had me so worked up I could not keep it. It was not like I would have been caught either, but I can not imagine your shock when they told you the fine. Fern glades are wonderful though.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

You've come a long way since your run-in with the law. I wonder if that ranger replanted that confiscated fern. Good that you're still inspired by that fern glade, and your new plantings look promising. I tell you, those autumn ferns are special; they so dramatically live up to their name.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee May

That's a tough lesson to learn, but I am glad that you didn't get fined.

I adore ferns, and have started a collection over the years, and I can't get over how large the ones we transplanted from the pots into a garden bed got this summer. They really seem to like this place.

Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

Ferns are such lovely plants, adding texture to the shade. The four that you have will soon settle in and start reproducing themselves. We have quite a few different ones here, its amazing the different shapes and textures of the fronds. Your woodland is already beautiful , the fern glade will be the icing on the cake.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

I, too, think fern glades are magical. Although your story surprised me! What a confession! Funny, though, that the ranger allowed you to just give it back! ha! Although I love ferns, they don't do well here. I found out why in your sentence "Ferns have lots of delicate roots which must spread out to prosper, so hard, compacted soil won't do." Nothing with delicate roots can survive here! ;) I hope your ferns grow and multiply faster than you think they will and in 10 years or so you have the glade of your dreams.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

Your post reminded me of two things. Once when I was a clild we would go to the local woods and pick bunches of bluebells to take home, on one occasion a park warden came up and took away my carefully collected bunch and tore them in half. Yes he was right to tell me it was wrong to collect wild flowers even if there were thousands of them but I was only about 7 or 8 and I really didn’t understand that he would destroy the flowers rather than let me enjoy them. The second reminder was when I saw the fern glade at Sissinghurst castle in spring; just as the new fronds were pushing up they were backlit by the late afternoon sun and seemed completely luminous, just perfect. Enjoy your glade as it grows it will be beautiful. Christina

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Deb -- loved your photo of the fern glade. We have about a quarter acre that we left as woodland. It has all kinds of ferns in it that we did not plant. The cinnamon fern is the most spectacular looking when it "blooms" but they are ALL beautiful.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Jones

I am holding my breath in awe --- just at the idea of your fern glade to be. I too have seen large woodland swaths that catch the dappled light on the floor of the forest, and it is just as memorable as you describe. It's thrilling to think you will create a space like that. I really want to do something similar, but have no glade or tall trees that will suit a fern garden. Yours will fill in and spread and you'll have a beautiful floor of green sunlight snatching fronds before you know it.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

If you put in hay scented ferns and ostrich ferns, you will have a glade in no time flat. They spread aggressively, and ostrich ferns even took out a small field of Japanese knotweed in a part shade, moist area on our property.

Deb, thanks for the lesson in law. I am often tempted to do the same thing -- although not stealing plants does make sense. Also, thanks for this post. I have some ferns planted in my perennial bed -- and they seem to thrive on neglect. They get some water and they seem happy. Too happy, because the clump is overgrown and I know I need to divide them -- but I'm not ashamed to admit this: I'm afraid. You've given me courage. :)

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

I adore our local nature center just to see these fern galdes. I had often wanted a fern garden but lack the right conditions. I look forward to seeing more of yours.

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

Of course, someone will, Deb! And that someone will be touched by the beauty of the glade, and that someone will get kinder and nicer... and beauty will save the world!

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

A Fern glade in your woodland garden will look superb! And these will all be "legal" ferns so no ranger can reprimand you :)
I admire your energy so late in the season. Even though this is a perfect time of year to get out there and divide and replant, I seem to have run out of get-up-and-go!!

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAstrid

Ah, the impetuous things we do without thinking when we were younger :) Your own personal, law-abiding glade will look glorious, I'm sure!

September 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

Great story Debs and a fern glade would look lovely in your garden indeed!

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

I love fern and every year am surprised at how many I have. I seem to acquire a few more each year and now they are self-seeding which is good. The idea of a glade is wonderful, I dont think I have the space. Have you placed it so the sun will illuminate it. I think you will be surprised how quickly they will grow

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

I love the idea of a fern glade. So cool and beautiful. I think it will be the perfect compliment to your woodland garden. I haven't had much luck with ferns in my garden. Our soil is just too heavy.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

I'm with Lee and wonder if the ranger replanted the fern. lol

I've seen Southern Wood Fern at the Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill and it's lovely. They have big swaths of it there. I'm sure your fern glade will look wonderful as it continues to grow!

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

We have a grove of wild Ostrich ferns within walking distance of the house. I like to visit especially in spring, because as you say, it is so magical it takes your breath away.

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Ah, you brought back memories there Deb, We got right into gardening in our mid twenties and I can recall a Sunday afternoon in the countryside doing exactly the same thing. Even then it felt wrong but was a guilty pleasure which as you say would not dream of doing it now. I share your enthusiasm for Ferns and have quite a lot of them.

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

Guilty - mine was a primrose!!

Great post - autumn fern is one of my favorites too

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

Well, lesson learned...and I'm glad it didn't cause you to abandon your vision of a fern glade. It's going to look so-o-o-o good!

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlower Pot

Hopefully that person wont steal one of your ferns!
Lovely story.

September 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g
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