“Native Plants: Why We Love Them and How to Use Them” – Free Seminar – This Saturday at Walker Farm in Southern Vermont – Please Join Me …

May 13th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, (here a cultivar named ‘Pink Charm’), are durable, evergreen plants suitable for ledgy, exposed sites… far more hardy than their more tender cousins, the rhododendrons. To read more about Kalmia latifolia, click here.

I am very fortunate. This place in Vermont, where I live, is a true paradise and I cherish it. Every morning I wake up to the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of the Northeast American native forest. The songs of the veery, hermit and wood thrush, the mist rising from the Green River valley and the fragrance of the woodland surrounding my home relax and comfort me. Of course, I am not alone – many people, including a great number of my friends, share this passion for the native forest, and I love hearing about their woodland hikes, experiences and discoveries. I have also traveled throughout North America, and I know that every spot I have visited on this continent -as well as those I have yet to see- has it’s own unique and irreplaceable natural environment. This great love of nature is part of the reason that our native plant species are so important to me. There are many, many beautiful trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants all over the world -and I do have quite the collection of exotics growing here in my garden- but none more beautiful or important than those growing naturally outside my front door.

As is often the case with horticultural terms and phrases, native plant can have different definitions and meanings, depending upon the source of the information. In the strictest sense -and according to The New England Wild Flower Society–  when describing woody plants and perennials on this continent, the term native “refers to plants growing in North America before the European settlement”. Does this definition include species cultivars that have occurred since the European settlement through natural selection? I imagine so. But I would expect that the NEWFS definition excludes individual cultivars and hybrids created via the hand-of-man. My own definition of  native plant is somewhat looser and more tolerant of the various seedlings and crosses commonly found in gardens and in the nursery trade – but I’m no research scientist. Perhaps because one of my favorite North American native trees, Serviceberry, (Amelanchier) , is a horticultural wild-child, (freely hybridizing with neighboring species within the genus), I see the process of plant evolution as inevitable and fascinating. Mother nature seems to approve of variety, as do I !

Beautiful, spring blooming trees of the forest understory, such as North American native Halesia tetraptera, are excellent choices for home landscapes…

Beyond their obvious importance in the natural ecosystem, native plants also make fantastic additions to the garden. In fact so many North American native species, such as coral bells, (Heuchera), coneflower, (Echinacea), gayfeather, (Liatris), and cranesbill, (Geranium), have become such superstars in the nursery trade, that many gardeners have no idea that many common garden center plants are actually wild-flower cultivars. As far as I am concerned, that is good news because native plants, and nursery-grown native cultivars, provide season-spanning food and habitat for local animals and insects, and they also tend to require less water, commercial fertilizer and chemical support than imported plants. And again, I am no purist when it comes to my own garden. I have a great passion for exotic plants – especially Japanese maple! However, I make every effort to garden responsibly, both in my own private paradise, and in the various landscapes where I work as a professional gardener and designer.

This Saturday morning, (May 15, 2010, from 9:30 – 10:30), I will be presenting a free, introductory seminar on native plants for home gardeners at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. If you are in the area, and you would like to learn more about how to use some of these incredibly beautiful and hardy plants in your own landscape, please stop in and join the fun. The emphasis will be on home garden design; creating season-spanning interest, and wildlife support in your back yard oasis, by choosing trees, shrubs and perennials native to the Northeastern United States. Examples of lesser-known native plants will be on display, and free color handouts, (including design tips, plant information, and online resources), will also be provided. Visit Walker Farm online or call 802 – 254-2051 for more information.

Native Lady fern, (athyrium felix feminina), and selected cultivars such as ‘Lady in Red’, shown here, provide shady habitat for toads and frogs, and durable but delicate beauty for dappled gardens… Especially in combination with other natives such as Heuchera and Phlox divaracata.

An excellent ground-covering choice for acidic, shady areas, native labrador violets are stunners whether blooming or not…

Clethra alnifolia, our native summersweet, is a low-maintenance shrub producing pollinator-magnet flowers in late summer…

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ is a lovely, select pink-flowering cultivar of our native summersweet shrub, shown above

Aruncus, commonly known as the ‘goat’s beard’, is a statuesque June bloomer for perennial borders and woodland edge…

Fothergilla major, (witch alder), and Lindera benzoin,(spicebush), provide a changing backdrop for gardens all season long…

By combining native shrubs and cultivars, a natural but dynamic, sustainable design can be achieved…

Fothergilla gardenii, our native witch alder, lights up the garden in spring and again in late autumn…

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For further information on native plants, I highly recommend the following books by Allan Armitage and William Cullina; two accomplished, renowned, horticulturalists and brilliant and poetic authors I admire…

William Cullina – Wildflowers

William Cullina – Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens

Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at TGE

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Ode to a Fiddlehead…

July 16th, 2009 § Comments Off on Ode to a Fiddlehead… § permalink

The woodland path at Ferncliff – Image ⓒ Michaela Medina – The Gardener’s Eden

Call me a fiddle-head, it is true. I have a long standing love-affair with ferns. Ostrich and Cinnamon, Maidenhair and Lady, Autumn and Christmas; even their names delight me, and I can never seem to get enough of this delicate, feathery species. My affection can be traced back to the summers of my childhood; those long, hot afternoons and fading twilight hours spent exploring abandoned stone foundations and hidden brooks in the forest beyond my home. There, beneath the shade of tall trees, ferns became woven crowns and verdant skirts fit for imaginary forest royalty. To my eye, when it comes to beauty in the plant world, foliage truly equals flower. What could be more beautiful than the fern? Shimmering, silver fiddleheads unfurling from damp earth, luminous feather paths winding through dark tree-trunks, and lacy plumes softening rugged outcroppings of rock and ledge; ferns possess some of the most dramatic foliage in the forest.

Native to North America, the cinnamon fern, (Osmunda cinnamonea, pictured below), is a perfect example of the long-lasting beauty of this foliage plant. In very early spring, the fuzzy, silvery-white tipped fiddle-heads of cinnamon fern emerge from the forest floor. As the first tightly wrapped heads unfurl, (reaching upward 2-4 feet), they quickly transform into stunningly beautiful, rich cinnamon stalks, followed by rapidly emerging, bright green fronds. By midsummer, the foliage of the cinnamon fern deepens to a regal emerald hue. Later, in autumn, the bold foliage turns a brilliant gold that absolutely glows in the forest. As lovely as it is in a natural setting, the cinnamon fern is also a spectacular addition to the garden. This non-aggressive plant forms thick but contained clumps of growth. As a companion to spring flowering bulbs, and a contrast to the exfoliating bark of trees, (river birch, stewartia and paperbark maple spring to mind), the design possibilities of both the lush foliage and cinnamon-colored stalks make the cinnamon fern one of my favorites.

cinnamon-fern-stalksCinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamonea) – Image: Georgian Court University

Cinnamon fern’s close relative, the interrupted fern, (Osmunda claytonia), is another gorgeous native plant. As the fiddle-heads unfurl to a height of 2-3 feet, the foliage on this fern’s upright, fertile fronds is interrupted midway by sporing pinnae. This break gives the plant its common name, ‘interrupted’ fern. The non-sporing fronds arch away from the plant dramatically, creating an attractive, flowing green mound. Interrupted ferns prefer slightly damp conditions, where they forms natural groupings in the wild. As a garden plant, the interrupted fern is endlessly useful in dappled light and partly sunny conditions. Though large, the airy fronds of this fern combine well with many trees, shrubs and perennials.

interrupted-fernInterrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)

The Christmas fern, (Polystichum acrostichoides), is an evergreen fern, and one of the most shade tolerant members of this species. Another North American native, this leathery-leafed plant can often be found carpeting steep banks in densely forested areas. As a garden plant, the soil-stabilizing qualities of Christmas fern make it an excellent choice for shady slopes and other places where erosion is a concern. In Northern woodlands, the beauty of this plant’s glossy, deep green foliage is well appreciated in late autumn and early winter, when most deciduous trees have shed their leaves and the forest floor has turned brown.

christmas-fernChristmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

It is easy to understand how the enormous, feathery plumes of Ostrich fern, (Matteuccia pensylvanica, pictured below), earned their name.  This gorgeous fern is also one of my favorites, and placed with care, it can be a fantastic garden plant. Ostrich fern spreads by aggressive rhizomes, making it useful as a ground cover in damp areas. If planted in a dry spot, (as it is in my secret garden), however, Ostrich fern is mild mannered and easily contained. In it’s ideal conditions, (moist, dappled shade), this fern can reach nearly six-feet in height. And although there is no autumn color, if the plant receives ample moisture, it will remain attractive and green through late autumn.

naturally-occuring-ostrich-fern-at-ferncliffOstrich Fern (Matteuccia pensylvanica) is a member of the cliff fern family.

The delicate and airy, native maidenhair fern, (Adiantum pedatum), and lady fern, (Athyrium felix-feminina), are commonly used in gardens, and with good reason. Both of these plants are not only beautiful but tough, tolerating a wide variety of soil conditions and changing light. Although both ferns prefer dappled shade and moist soil, they will succeed under less favorable circumstances, and need not be coddled. Lady fern in particular has become popular with commercial growers, and it seems a new variety is available whenever I pick up a magazine or catalogue. Beyond the commonly available lady fern, (a member of my favorite group, the cliff ferns), I have come to enjoy the sanguine stems of Athyrium felix-feminina, “Lady in red”, as they emerge along my garden wall.

lady-fernLady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) ‘Lady in Red’ and companion Huechera ‘Green Spice’

maiden-hair-fernThe northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) planted with Hosta.

Many of the other ferns native to North America, such as the bracken fern, (Pteridium aquilinum), and hay-scented fern,(Dennstaedtia puctilobula), are lovely in naturalized settings, or singular landscape uses, but are far too aggressive for mixed borders or perennial gardens. Hay-scented fern forms dense carpets, and it is particularly beautiful and useful along woodland paths, hedges, walks and driveways, and beneath dense foliage trees.

natural-grouping-of-bracken-fern-at-ferncliffBracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) beautiful in naturalized areas, is an aggressive spreader.

natural-grouping-of-hay-scented-bracken-and-interrupted-fern-at-ferncliffA natural grouping of hay-scented, bracken and interrupted ferns in the forest at Ferncliff.

In addition to the many ferns native to North America, introduced garden ferns and hybrids, such as the Japanese painted fern, (Athyrium nipponicum, “Pictum”), are spectacular plants for light to dense shade situations. Beautiful, subtle color variations in fern foliage can be played against one another and in combination with other plants to create breathtakingly beautiful patterns. A ground-cover of perennial ferns can become a living tapestry to be enjoyed throughout the growing season, year after year. Athyrium x “Ghost” is a particularly beautiful fern, and I have found the color varies a bit by placement and light. The frosty white fronds are stunning at twilight in darker corners of my garden.

Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ planted to with Hosta ‘August Moon’ , Astilbe, Lamium and Cryptotaenia japonica

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’, planted with Cryptotaenia japonica ‘Atropurpurea’

japanese-painted-fernJapanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’, nestled beside Hosta and seeded Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’

Having named my garden Ferncliff, it should come as no surprise that I am a true fern-fanatic. When designing gardens here and elsewhere, I am always on the look-out for new ways to use ferns in garden settings. Ferns are remarkably versatile plants; softening formal designs and lending elegance to modest buildings and simple features. Ferns can be planted in urns to flatter classical architecture, or in geometrically precise planters to harmonize with more modern landscapes. The airy quality of ferns provides movement in shady nooks with the slightest breeze, and the textural qualities of fronds enliven the edge of still or slow-moving water features and smooth wall surfaces. The possibilities of ferns are limited only by imagination.

fern-in-courtyardOstrich Fern, (Matteuccia pensylvanica), softening the edge of the secret garden at Ferncliff.

For more information on ferns, see Martin Rickard’s The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns, (copyright 2000, Timber Press).

Image of Cinnamon Fern: Georgian Court University

Article and all other photographs copyright 2009 Michaela Medina – The Gardener’s Eden


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