"Wood-sorrel and wild violet Ease my soul's fret."
"How I do envy you your bank of Ferns " is the remark made to me almost daily during the summer months when the green background of our outdoor fernery looks so pretty as it throws up the colours of the flowerbeds on the little lawn that flanks it. This is the brightest bit of the whole garden, and its beauty is very largely due to the Ferns. Then we get talking about Ferns, and everybody says, "What a pity Ferns are out of fashion." This is what I think. There was a Fern-craze about five and thirty years ago, when crinolines were worn, and long riding-habits, and every drawing-room had its tank of sea-flowers; but times have changed, and the day of the outdoor fernery is over. One reason given for its disappearance is what people say is its untidiness. "We cannot have Ferns near the house, because they look ragged in autumn and winter." This is what I am told so constantly, but do not agree with at all. In the first place, to my way of thinking, Ferns are picturesque all the year round, not less so when they are brown and yellow than at the time of their greenest luxuriance, and hardy Ferns are the very best things in the world for Londoners to cultivate, because their foliage is so tolerant of smoke-poison, even in the most aggravated form of it known as "urban fog." No town nor suburban garden, however unfavourably placed, need be without its Ferns.
A Town Fernery
It was against a blank wall facing east, in a brand-new garden of the suburbs, that our own fernery was started, and turned despair into delight. This part of the garden had looked so hopeless. What were we to do with it? We knew that flowers would not bloom there, and yet we wanted something cheerful to look at, because the door-windows of our favourite sitting-rooms "gave on to it," as the French say, and it would always be in sight. Then some one suggested ferns, and it was felt at once the right note had been struck. Between the house and the wall there was chaos for about sixty-five feet; then the bare wall. Behind that in the next-door garden were an Oak and one or two Apple trees, that gave some shelter. Beside the house we made a terrace, high and dry, and planted a Magnolia against the wall, and Rose trees. Then came a gravel path, and beyond the path we laid a little lawn; this left room for a four or five-foot border by the wall. Here was to be the fernery.
Good drainage was secured by digging down and filling up with crocks and broken tiles and cinders. Then we got together a goodly store of stones, tree-stumps, and gnarled roots, choosing Oak when possible, because of all woods it is the least liable to decay. Oak will even resist damp, though damp is a thing a fernery should never be. That is the mistake most people make. Ferns want a great deal of water, but never to be water-logged - always dewy, fresh, and sprinkled. Now it was time to think about the soil. We got in leaf-mould, loam, and a little peat, which in those days was easier to get than it is now. The building up of all these good materials was a pleasant task. It is so nice to work with one's gardeners. We cannot expect them to have the same cultivated tastes as some of ourselves, who have travelled, and read, and thought, and got out of old grooves; but they can do the hard work, and are quick to take ideas. Our Fern-bank was not allowed to be grotto-y. Not a scrap of clinker, nor a flint, nor a shell - least of all a fossil - was permitted to come near it. We waved the border up and down in quite irregular fashion with hills and dales and comfortable crannies to hold the plants when they should come.
A month or two had to pass before we could plant, and this was fortunate in a way, as things could settle down. We had made the fernery in the spring, and in the autumn we furnished it - a good time for doing so, for in the autumn holidays one finds so many treasures to bring home in box or basket. This was what we did; and besides that, had ordered a good many beautiful and hardy Ferns from some growers in the south of England.
I do think this is such a good plan. The more frequented country places have been so depleted by the careless Fern-hunter and the over-zealous field-class, that really there are now few wild Ferns to spare. Whenever I come across any, growing in all their beauty, my impulse is to leave them, not to take them away, especially delicate Ferns like Tricomanes, or the Sea or Bladder Spleenwort; nor would I ever rifle a lake-side of the Royal Osmunda, unless in Ireland, where it might be growing like a weed. Quits common things we may take a portion of, with care - not the whole root - the Male and Lady-Fern for instance, the Blecknums, the Hart's-tongues from the well-side, and the Polypodies of the wood and hedgerow. Ferns can be moved and planted with safety either in spring or autumn. In the garden for dividing and replanting, we find February the best month.
In making a Fern-bank it must never be forgotten that, though the hardy kinds stand cold well, they do hate draught. We carried our border round a little at both ends, and planted shrubs so as to make it quite a cosy corner. The wall itself had been stocked with climbers Ivy, Virginian Creeper, and some Briar Roses and Honeysuckle - the latter not with the hope of flowers, but for a change of foliage. In October the brown and yellowing fronds, with green and gold and red and crimson leaves behind them, are splendid. Our ugly patch is now the best part of the garden - the flower-beds on the turf a little formal, perhaps, but always bright either with spring or summer flowers. Both grass and blossoms are in clover here; they get a sideways benefit from the constant spraying of the bank, and the close-cut turf grows very fine and soft, keeping its greenness through the hottest weather.
Has any one noticed the beauty of the growth of fresh young pale-green Fern-fronds, among the old dark foliage? Sometimes we secure this by leaving the Fern-bank for a dry hot day or two without much water, then we give it a deluge over-night Next day new growth begins to show, and the fernery, so far from being cross at so much teasing, puts on its fairest smiles, and looks prettier than ever.