This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
SIDE yards that revel in sunshine are few and far between on many city streets, and as a natural consequence flowering plants in shady corners often turn out to be miserable failures. Nevertheless, there are possibilities in the gardening art even in the shadiest of side or back yards, and one of the most interesting and beautiful of these possibilities is found in the form of a fern garden, in which are planted some of our native ferns. Many of these ferns are procurable by means of an excursion to the suburban woods or else through the medium of a dealer. The best time for transplanting them is in the spring or early summer, though some of the stronger-growing species may be moved from their woodland home at almost any time during the growing season, provided a good-sized ball of earth is taken up with the roots.
A glimpse of the wild gardening in a wooded ravine. Ostrich fern, trillium, Virginia cowslip, and lady's-slipper.
But the soil in the side yard is not infrequently ill suited to encourage the growth of tender plants. Too much subsoil thrown up at the time of housebuilding, and too much coal ashes and other refuse mixed in at the time of grading, combine to produce a condition far from favourable for our proposed fern garden. "Lacking in humus" is what the agricultural scientists would be likely to say about such a soil, and it is humus or decayed vegetable matter, such as leaves, roots, and twigs, that forms the greater portion of the natural soil in which the wild ferns are found growing so luxuriantly. Where the side yard presents these poverty-stricken conditions of soil, it would pay to make a little preparation before planting the ferns, by digging out the proposed bed to a depth of one foot, or perhaps fifteen inches, and then filling it in with some good garden soil or else woods' earth. The ferns should not be buried too deeply in planting, but have the soil pressed firmly around the roots. The crown or center of growth should be just about at the surface of the soil.
The maidenhair is one of the choicest of our native ferns, but transplanted specimens seldom thrive as well as those in the woods. Success is generally had in proportion to the accuracy with which one can reproduce the natural conditions.
The climbing or Hartford fern (Lygodium paltnatum) does not require the exclusion of direct sunshine to the same degree as does the maidenhair, and while the earth in which it grows is always moist, yet the wooded upland in which it is sheltered presents some entirely changed characteristics that the observant explorer is quick to note for future reference. This plant is very rare, and should never be taken from the woods. It should be purchased of a nurseryman who will guarantee that the plants are cultivated by him, not taken from the wild.
The walking leaf.
Asplenium Trichomanes, the fern which the English call "maidenhair." It is also native to the United States.
Copyright, 1901. G. A. Woolson.
Maidenhair ferns naturalised on the Hunnewell estate at Wellesley.
Then there is that singular member among our native ferns the peculiar habit of which gave rise to the Indian designation of " walking leaf."
The walking fern is seldom met with in considerable numbers in any one place. The long, narrow leaves of this fern are shaped somewhat like an elongated arrow-head, the point of which seems to seek the earth from which it sprung; and when this leaf completes its growth and its slender tip is resting on the ground, roots are emitted, a new bud forms, and soon we find a young plant attached to the leaf-tip of the parent, and in its turn reaching out with tiny stride toward new territory. The "walking leaf" is perhaps less happy under cultivation than are other and stronger-growing species, but owing to its singular habit this plant has much attraction for the plant collector, and once discovered is seldom allowed to rest in the shady quietness of its native woods.
But these already mentioned may be classed among the modest and retiring members of the great fern family, and there are a number of others that are much more obtrusive, presenting themselves in great masses of feathery foliage that almost give a tropical aspect to what are generally looked upon as merely "sprout," or second-growth woods, in prosaic New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
Among these ferns of greater growth is found the common "brake" (Pteris aquilina), a species that is now very common in many portions of our country, though in reality an emigrant rather than a native American, for the bracken is supposed to have been introduced from Europe. The foliage of this noble fern rises to a height of four or five feet, is much divided into narrow segments, and is of a very pleasing light green throughout the summer; but as autumn approaches the leaves are seen to turn gradually to a bright yellow, and from this to brown, for this fern is not an evergreen.
Christmas fern, showing last year's fronds and new fiddleheads.
The cinnamon fern.
Open glades in the woods often provide the abiding place for this fern, where its sturdy foliage gets a fair amount of sunshine, and at the same time sufficient moisture to furnish sustenance for its abundant roots. The "royal fern" (Osmunda regalis), also known as "flowering fern" owing to the peculiar manner in which the fertile fronds are thrown up in the center of the plant's growth, is more of a swamp-lover, and is often found growing in a rather wet bottom. Fortunately, the "royal fern" is not an extremely difficult subject to transplant from the woods to the home grounds, but a moist bottom and a partial shelter from sunshine are requisites for the best progress of the transplanted specimen.
The cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) is another interesting member of this family, and shows great ability to adapt itself to its surroundings; for while its most natural habitat is a somewhat swampy field, or along the outer edge of a swamp, yet this same cinnamon fern has been found in considerable numbers on a very dry and stony bank beside a dusty road in Delaware.
Then there is the "Christmas fern," the long and narrow fronds of which remind one of the sword ferns, and are used in vast quantities by florists all over the land as a groundwork or backing for floral designs. These fronds are gathered by the million, in Michigan and other of the northern States, in the fall, and are carefully packed away in cold storage by the wholesale dealers until such time as the market demands them.
The clenched fists of expanding ferns.
The botanist, with his knapsack for the reception of choice specimens, does but little harm to our native flora, and the specimens he captures are taken in the interests of science, but what can be said for the botanical pot-hunter, so to speak, who ships fern fronds to the number of 3,000,000 per annum to one of our large cities?
The blue asters among the ferns.