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Gardening: Shady partners make for the dark corners; Ferns are surging ahead in popularity and are readily available, says Roger Clarke.

Ferns are making a comeback in a big way. A few years ago the only specimens you saw in garden centres were rogue weeds in among plants which had been in their pots too long.

As with all plants there were specialist growers but they relied upon specialist customers rather than Mondeo man.

But now most garden centres have a selection and ferns are seeing the first real upsurge in popularity since Victorian times.

With a few thousand varieties to go at you are going to be spoilt for choice and there is no better plant for brightening a gloomy path or corner.

Ferns are happy under trees growing in deep shade or even in crevices on walls which never see the sun.

Most varieties on offer are terrestrial ferns - growing in the ground - but there are also epiphytic ferns, which grow on rocks, trees, cliffs or walls, relying on rotting vegetation for nutrients.

One of the smallest ferns available is fairy moss, or fairy fern, the tiny floating fern for ponds which multiplies rapidly in summer to provide shade.

The largest you will find is the tree fern - Dicksonia antarctica which will eventually grow to about 20ft with fronds up to 10 ft long, eventually, in this case, means centuries.

Work on a foot every 5-10 years in cultivation. Like the rest of the ferns these are becoming more common in garden centres with prices starting at about pounds 20-pounds 25 for a few inches tall although you will occasionally see seedlings, or spawnlings, for about pounds 5 or so.

Male fern is the common fern and there are a number of varieties of Dryopteris available such as copper shield fern, which is also known as the Japanese red shield fern and I have even seen it sold as the painted fern.

Dryopteris erythrosora is christened with its fanciful names because the new leaves are red, unfurl as copper and then turn a deep, rich green as they mature.

I have one planted in the gloom under a tree fern where it seems quite happy. They are not huge plants, growing up to about 18in.

You will also find linear male fern in the garden centres and one or two other variations on our most common fern.

Larger ferns can look impressive and Matteuccia struthiopteris is one of the largest.

Most ferns have long unfamiliar names so look out for their common names, shuttlecock fern or ostrich fern.

This has huge, rich, deep green sterile fronds up to about 5ft long and these surround the fertile fronds, which produce spores.

These grow 18-24in long and are a lighter green, giving a two tone effect.

Another five footer is Osmunda regalis, the royal fern. The fronds on this beauty emerge a distinctive brown, turn green and fade to yellow in autumn.

Many royal ferns will also throw up a russet brown fertile pinnae, the nearest you get are the flowers with ferns, which carry the spores.

The lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina is low growing but needs moist conditions and is an attractive, delicate member of the fern movement.

If you like feely plants then Polystichum setiferum, the soft shield fern, has leaves which are deeply and intricately divided which makes them soft to the touch. These grow to about 4ft.

In general ferns prefer a moist, deep, free draining, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter in a shaded spot - look in any wooded area and see the masses of bracken to see what they like.

If you want ferns for walls then ferns such as the common polypody, Polypodium vulgare is drought tolerant and grows on rocks and trees in the wild or there is the hart's tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, which will grow happily in crevices in limestone rocks or a planting hole in a wall.

Another group of plants growing in popularity is grasses.

Sedges, rushes and cat's tails are not true grasses, although they are often bundled into the same group. They need moist soil or bog gardens.

Grasses, on the other hand, prefer a fertile soil and most are drought tolerant and rarely need watering once they have become established.

Almost everyone grows grass in their garden. If it is in the right place we call it a lawn, in the flower beds we call it a weed, but it all grows, so there should be no problem with the more decorative varieties.

These include bamboos, pampas grass at the tall end along with Calamagrostis, the feather reed grass which hails from Eastern Europe and Russia with the best being the named variety Karl Foerster.

This is a six-footer with tall, rust red flower spikes which are long lasting and popular with flower arrangers - presumably those with tall vases.

There is also a whole range of smaller varieties in a host of colours from blue to gold, green to white, including variegated forms.

Many have feathery plumes, some rising high above the plant. Some will self seed readily which means plenty of new plants on the one hand - or plenty of posh weeds on the other.

Grasses can be used as dot plants in beds and borders where their simplicity and fine leaves can set off the broader leaved border plants.

You can also produce a dramatic effect with a bed of different grasses which grow into rounded clumps with their myriad colours, textures and shapes.


Water pots, tubs and hanging baskets daily unless it rains. Remember though that baskets and containers can remain dry in the shelter of a wall even in a downpour so don't always rely on the heavens to do the job for you.

If you are feeding, particularly pot plants or containers, then make sure the roots are damp before you feed. If the soil or compost is dry then water first then feed to avoid the possibility of root scorch.

In the rest of the garden water selectively. Concentrate on plants showing stress, shallow rooted plants such as rhododendrons and those which need moist conditions.

In the vegetable garden carry on sowing stump rooted carrots, beetroot, lettuce and radish to keep crops coming in. Add a few turnips to pick at golf ball size.

Hoe in a general fertiliser around runner beans and water them well in dry weather.

If you are growing onions they are bulking up now so give them a feed to help them on their way. Don't delay though as feeding later in the summer leads to sappy growth and thick necks with bulbs which don't ripen properly.

Take cuttings of pelargoniums and fuchsias to produce reasonable size plants for overwintering - remember to label them as they all look pretty much the same without flowers.

Take semi-ripe cuttings of shrubs. These are where the base of a new shoot is starting to harden. Pull them off with a heel of older wood, trim and pot up in gritty compost and place in a cold frame or a sheltered spot out of the sun.

Cut the grass as often as you can. Mowing every few days helps keep weeds down, encourages the finer grasses and helps to thicken up and strengthen the grass.
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Author:Clarke, Roger
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 17, 1999
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