But one of the greatest delights of a fernery in London or suburban gardens is the opportunity it gives of growing wild flowers. There are so many of these one longs to have, but there is no room for them. In the herbaceous border they would be pulled up as weeds, and on the rockery they would overgrow the other things. What the dear weeds want is a place where they can rest harmless and unmolested. The outdoor fernery is their Promised Land; there they are good and happy. Many a wilding has a home in ours.
Sometimes we wonder how they get there, for generally they are not of our own planting. Some, of course, are "stowaways" - vagrants that have travelled with Fern-roots sent from far; others may be wind or bird-sown - there is no lack of bird-life in suburban gardens. Any way, the weeds are welcome. Amongst the strangers are Wind-flowers, wild Hyacinth, Wood-violets, and Celandine. Enchanter's Night-shade is a visitor that is inclined to be too pushful, but we like a little left, to study its life-history as related so delightfully by Grant Allen. Under the Osmundas there is a carpet of Oak and Beech Fern, but below the hardy common Ferns we let the Alpine Strawberry run about - how bright its scarlet berries in the cool green leaves! - and Wood-sorrel, that most engaging weed, claimed by many as the true Shamrock of St. Patrick. There is no wild flower more interesting; its triune leaflets are so sensitive, closing if startled, or if the wind be chill, and on hot summer afternoons it is amusing to listen for the cracking of its tiny artillery as the seed-pods burst, to fling their harmless contents all around.
In very early spring Blue-bells and the constant Primrose find warm corners on our Fern-bank, and show bright faces sooner than elsewhere. It is here the "spotted Orchis takes his annual step across the earth" - why is this plant so walkative? Wood-sanicle is another weed we allow no one to pull up; it is to us a living lyric of copse and woodland. Such simple plants are doubly sweet when growing in the small surburban garden, houses to right of us, houses to left of us, and houses over the way.
And now a word or two to those who fear to make a fernery too near the house. Here is an extract from my garden log-book, written in December 1901: "The Fern-bank against the Ivied wall is looking almost as well as in August The plants are simply revelling in the moist still air. The undergrowth of Oak, Beech, Limestone and Bladder Fern is gone, and some of the Lady Fern is yellowing, but the Hart's-tongues are greener than ever; their bosses show up well, and the Male Fern and hardy Polystichums and Polypodies are still flourishing, many of them growing from a centre like gigantic shuttlecocks. The .Osmunda is a little withered, but in its golden yellow stage is very lovely." The present prevailing fashion of a lingering autumn and mild December leaves the Fern-bank beautiful through October, November, and the months that follow, till the very hard frosts come, which nowadays is generally not till the days have begun to lengthen. In sheltered corners many plants are green the whole year round. So things go on till January, when some few heads are lying low, but even then the bank is quaintly pretty.
February is, I admit, the least attractive month for the Ferns themselves, but by that time the little lowly flowers that grow among them are coming up, and a careful look will show how fast the fronds are spreading and thickening amid the Wood-violets' gentle blue and the pale stars of the Primrose. May is here the most amusing month; in their growing-up stage Ferns are funnier than schoolboys, and more uncouth. How tall and lanky is this pale Osmunda; he has shot up too quickly, and there is nothing but a little bullet head at the top of every attenuated stalk. He bends this backwards, the colour changes, and lo! the round ball opens into the splendour of branching leaves. Warm rain of a day or two will do this and many another miracle will it work; the rolled-up, wriggling snakes and viperlings that hid away in white and woolly fleeces, and seemed so frightened of coming out too soon, one by one now show themselves to be the Scolopendrimus, Aspleniums, Polypodiums and Poly-stichums that were so beautiful last July - it would really be mean to remind them in summer-time of how they looked while yet unfledged.
The Osmunda In May
The great charm of a fernery, well kept and long-established, is now forgotten by most, for it is seldom seen. What we do see in many a London and suburban garden is the extinct or neglected fernery, an arid spot, most likely under a tree or trees, which have drained every drop of moisture from the soil. People have such odd notions about Ferns; they do not discriminate. All kinds are lumped together, and expected to look after themselves and do all right, if they are given a few stones or a clinker or two to play with. I do not think under trees the very best place for Ferns, for the trees get all the moisture. When we know that one fair-sized Oak tree will draw up as much as a hundred and twenty-three tons of water in a season, we cannot wonder that there is not much left to nourish the plants beneath; and then the rain, the kindly rain that drops from heaven upon the earth beneath, how are the poor overshadowed Ferns to get that? Speaking generally, all Ferns like shade and moisture, but different members of the Fern family show as many individual tastes and likes and dislikes as we should find in any school or nursery.
Some are for the cool depths of the woodland, some for the breezy heath or open moor; others sun themselves like chameleons on a dry and stony wall, where they live on nothing but lime and light; and there are the lake-lovers, who, poet-like, would sit with their feet in the brook, and gaze at the blue of the sky; and the mountain-climbers who hide under the slates of Skiddaw; and the roadside Ferns that grow beneath, and sometimes upon, the bossy branches of Elms and Oaks. These hardy hedge-haunters were for a long time the only Ferns that would not grow for us; at last we discovered the reason why. They will not drink anything but soft water, sooner would they die.
All the other Ferns I have mentioned live as happily in a suburban garden as they did in their native haunts, and attain to an even greater size and luxuriance. They give no trouble, most of them do not mind hard water, but this is much better if sprayed or sprinkled than if hosed. Sprinklers can be bought for a shilling or two at any ironmonger's shop, and are most useful. Even the Holly fern, and the Hay-scented, and the pretty Polystichumproliferum that most people consider a greenhouse plant, come up every year, punctual as the morning sunshine, and want nothing but water, and some fresh leaf-mould to grow into, now and then. Sometimes in the autumn we scatter them with dead leaves, and always leave the fronds to wither as they will; no tidying up is allowed. Here Nature holds her sway, and the touch of wildness in an otherwise well-ordered garden is refreshing.