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Ferns for the West: these get by with less water.

Ferns for the West: these get by with less water

These ferns get by with a lot less waterthan most. In the coastal fog belt, an ideal climate for ferns, you could almost call them drought tolerant. With good soil, a protected site, and fog, established plants often thrive even if watered as seldom as every two to four weeks during summer. In a pinch, some can survive longer, but they'll look stressed. Young or recently moved plants, of course, will need frequent watering the first summer or two.

The hotter and drier your climate, themore moisture and the cooler and shadier a site these and any ferns will need--but the kinds shown here will still hold up better in summer than more fragile ones.

The two largest, shown at far right, arefrost-hardy natives. Others can't reliably withstand more than light frosts. But the sheltered areas where ferns grow best are often significantly warmer in winter than surrounding sites out in the open. Shady areas east and north of a house or wall are ideal, or bright shade beneath a tree that can take regular watering (not native oaks). To keep fronds green and untattered, shelter them from wind.

Keeping ferns happy

If your soil is heavy and clayish, aerate itand improve drainage by working amendments into the top 10 to 15 inches. Long-lasting amendments such as fine bark or perlite are most effective for permanent plantings. Compost also helps. Add as much as 50 percent by volume of these or similar amendments.

Planted in well-prepared soil, many fernsgrow fairly quickly; space those discussed here 2 to 4 feet apart, allowing ample space for them to reach mature size.

The first year or two, check often to besure roots stay damp. If necessary, apply water directly to the original root ball with a trickling hose or drip emitters. Particularly in Southern California and the desert, avoid frequent sprinklings that wet only the leaves and soil surface--they contribute to salt buildup. Instead, soak thoroughly, then let soil get barely damp or even slightly dry before watering again.

Reduce water loss with a 1- to 3-inch-thickmulch of fine bark, decomposed leaves, or similar material.

To keep foliage a healthy green, feedingonce or twice a year is usually ample. Start in early spring. For speedier growth, you can feed more often--every three to six weeks until fall. In either case, use a mild fertilizer such as fish emulsion at half strength and apply it to the soil around roots, not on fronds. Stop feeding and reduce watering during winter when growth is slow.

Three creepers stay close to the ground

Squirrel's foot fern (Davallia trichomanoides).Its finely cut, shiny fronds and furry feet are popular in hanging baskets and indoors, but few think to turn it loose outside. Let it creep along the edge of a raised planter, over rotting logs, or into niches of rock walls. Less than a foot tall, it grows well in both bright and dim shade, and thrives with less humidity than many ferns. In frost-free areas, it appears evergreen because new growth fills out as old fronds shed.

A number of similar ferns go by the commonname squirrel's foot; D. trichomanoides is the most reliable of these outdoors. Unlike the others, it can take occasional nights slightly below freezing, but fronds will die back until the weather warms again.

Southern sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia,often sold as N. exaltata). One of the toughest and most adaptable ferns for mild-winter climates, it can take full sun in the fog belt or fairly dark shade in the desert. Heavy, clayish soil will slow but not halt its spread; under favorable conditions it may invade other parts of the garden. It can survive infrequent watering but will look ragged by midsummer. It can take only light frosts.

Japanese felt fern (Pyrrosia lingua, oftensold as Cyclophorus lingua). Usually sold as a hanging basket plant; in mild climates, you can turn this creeper loose to crawl over logs or to carpet small areas. With good soil and care, roots can spread about 6 inches each year.

These clumpers grow tall

Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum).A staple of northern gardens, it can take deep shade or bright light, ample water, or, once established, considerable drought--particularly near the coast. In Southern California and the desert, its sensitivity to salt and heat make other choices more rewarding.

Leatherleaf fern (Rumohraadiantiformis, often sold as Aspidium capense). Delicate but amazingly durable, this fern is a favorite of florists. It grows in shade or bright, diffused light, takes temperatures down to about 24|.

Giant chain fern(Woodwardia fimbriata, sometimes sold as W. chamissoi or W. radicans). In mild winters, well-cared-for plants stay green; in cold winters, fronds die back. Give them bright shade. Although far more luxuriant with ample water, in the fog belt of northern California well-established plants can usually survive the summer with little or no supplemental watering.

Photo: Squirrel's foot fern: light greenplumes 8 inches tall travel on furry feet

Photo: Platoons ofSouthern sword fern march across the slope, unfazed by August heat in Riverside

Photo: Japanese felt fern: shiny leatheryblades 7 inches high unfurl along wiry tendrils

Photo: Southern swordfern: tough enough for desert gardens, 1-to 3-foot fronds spread by slender threads

Photo: Orderly clumps ofWestern sword fern reach 3 to 4 feet tall in the fog belt with only moderate watering

Photo: Leatherleaf fern: light greenfronds 3 feet tall grow from clumps at least that wide

Photo: Western sword fern:adaptable native of redwood groves, it can stretch to 5 feet tall in wet years; shrink to 1 foot during droughts

Photo: Giant chain fern:light green fronds commonly 6 feet tall are evergreen in mild winters, deciduous elsewhere
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Date:May 1, 1987
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