The Marsh Shield-fern of gentian meadows is the perfect small fern for a bit of wet ground, and is the green to be used with all wild flowers of like places. One day last autumn I had a bouquet of grass-of-Parnassus, ladies' tresses, and gentian massed thickly with these ferns, and the posey lived for days on the sunny window shelf of the den (for gentians close their eyes in shade), - a bit of the September marshland brought indoors.
The two Beech-ferns, the long and the broad, you may grow on the knoll; give the long the dampest spots, and place the broad where it is quite dry. As the root-stocks of both these are somewhat frail, I would advise you to peg them down with hairpins and cover well with earth. By the way, I always use wire hairpins to hold down creeping rootstocks of every kind; it keeps them from springing up and drying before the rootlets have a chance to grasp the soil.
The roots of Maidenhair should always be treated in this way, as they dry out very quickly. This most distinctive of our New England ferns will grow between the rocks of your knoll, as well as in deep nooks in the fence. It seems to love rich side-hill woods and craves a rock behind its back, and if you are only careful about the soil, you can have miniature forests of it with little trouble. As for maidenhair, all its uses are beauty!
Give me a bouquet of perfect wild rosebuds within a deep fringe of maidenhair to set in a crystal jar where I may watch the deep pink petals unfold and show the golden stars within; let me breathe their first breath of perfume, and you may keep all the greenhouse orchids that are grown.
Though you can have a variety of ferns in other locations, those that will thrive best on the knoll and keep it ever green and in touch with laurel and hemlock, are but five, - the Christmas fern, the Marginal Shield-fern, the common Rock Polypody, the Ebony Spleen wort, and the Spinulose Wood-fern. Of the first pair it is impossible to have too many. The Christmas fern, with its glistening leaves of holly green, has a stout, creeping rootstock, which must be firmly secured, a few stones being added temporarily to the hairpins to give weight The Evergreen Wood-fern and Ebony Spleen wort, having short rootstocks,can be tucked into sufficiently deep holes between rocks or in the hollows left by small decayed stumps, while the transplanting of the Rock Polypody is an act where luck, recklessness, and a pinch of magic must all be combined.
You will find vast mats of these leathery little Poly-podys growing with rock-selaginella on the great boulders of the river woods. As these are to be split up for masonry, the experiment of transferring the polypody is no sin, though it savours somewhat of the process of skin-grafting. Evan and I have tried the experiment successfully, so that it is no fable. We had a bit of shady bank at home that proved by the mosses that grew on it that it was moistened from beneath the year through. The protecting shade was of tall hickories, and a rock ledge some twenty feet high shielded it from the south and east. We scraped the moss from a circle of about six feet and loosened the surface of the earth only, and very carefully. Then we spread some moist leaf-mould on the rough but flat surface of a partly exposed rock. Going to a near-by bit of woods that was being despoiled, as in your valley, we chose two great mats of polypody and moss that had no piercing twigs to break the fabric, and carefully peeled them from the rocks, as you would bark from a tree, the matted rootstocks weaving all together. Moistening these thoroughly, we wrapped them in a horse blanket and hurried home. The earth and rock already prepared were sprinkled with water and the fern fabric applied and gently but firmly pressed down, that resting on the earth being held by the ever useful hairpin!
The rock graft was more difficult, but after many failures by way of stones that rolled off, a coarse network of cords was put across and fastened to whatever twigs or roots came in the way. Naturally a period of constant sprinkling followed, and for that season the rock graft seemed decidedly homesick, but the next spring resignation had set in, and two years later the poly-podys had completely adopted the new location and were prepared to appropriate the whole of it
So you see that there are comparatively only a few ferns, after all, that are of great value to The Garden, You, and I, and likewise there are but a few rules for their transplanting, viz.: -
Don't bother about the tops, for new ones will grow, but look to the roots, and do not let them be exposed to the air or become dry in travel. Examine the quality of soil from which you have taken the ferns, and if you have none like it nearer home, take some with you for a starter! Never dig up more on one day than you can plant during the next, and above all remember that if a fern is worth tramping the countryside for, it is worth careful planting, and that the moral remarks made about the care in setting out of roses apply with double force to the handling of delicate wild flowers and ferns.
Good luck to your knoll, Mary Penrose, and to your fern fence, if that fancy pleases you. May the magic of fern seed fill your eyes and let you see visions, the goodly things of heart's desire, when, all being accomplished, you pause and look at the work of your hands.
"And nimble fay and pranksome elf Flash vaguely past at every turn, Or, weird and wee, sits Puck himself, With legs akimbo, on a fern!"