Friday, July 3, 2015

Ferns: A Love Story

I love ferns. I’ve always been drawn to them by their softness and quiet beauty. As children, my sister Kris and I spent many hours in the scrap of woods behind our house, gathering fern fronds. They were an essential part of our games. They made lovely fans for our dolls, and glorious plumes for their hats.

An early memory I have is of a neighbor, Mrs. Cowie, coming over and digging ferns in our woods to plant in her yard. Mom helped her, and they emerged from the woods carrying lush green burdens, great clumps of lady fern and Southern wood fern (though I didn’t know these names back then). Mrs. Cowie was so pleased and grateful that she came back the next day with a homemade cinnamon cake, still warm, for a thank-you. And so I learned the value of ferns. That cinnamon cake was the most delightful food I’d ever tasted. (At our house sweets were a very, very special, rare treat.)

Kris and I started keeping our own gardens when I was about 11. We had a spot in the very back of the backyard that we called our “estate.” It had round and square beds, some outlined with mushroom-studded logs and some with seashells. It also had two ponds about the size of baby pools, and one of the ponds had a short path, paved with pebbles, leading up to it. There was a little iron gate at the start of the path, and I remember planting Japanese climbing fern (a horrible invasive, I now know) next to the gate and carefully winding its tendrils around the posts and bars. I thought the climbing fern looked like green lace.

On my 16th birthday, I got my first “boughten" plant (as Mom used to say). All my other plants had been rooted from cuttings or dug in the woods. The gift was from my parents, a bird’s-nest fern from Tallahassee Nurseries, glossy green and gorgeous, nestled in a terracotta pot. For many years it grew on the back porch, getting bigger and bigger and making me so proud. And then it abruptly and mysteriously died. It was like a pet dying, like a loved one dying. Mom and I grieved.

When Rob and I bought our first house, in Atlanta, I was able to start my first real, adult garden. Of course, the first plants I bought were ferns (autumn ferns) to cover the ugly, bare slope at the front edge of the front yard. The ferns thrived and soon the house seemed to be floating on a sort of heavenly green cloud. We lived in a busy inner-city neighborhood, so people were constantly passing by our yard—and often they'd compliment us on our ferns. There was a nice homeless man named Tye who would forget the word “ferns” and call them “fairies,” and I always found his mistake quite touching and flattering, because I thought it showed how delicate and ethereal and magical our ferns probably seemed to him.

Here in Quincy now, I grow all kinds of ferns—autumn, lady, Southern wood, Dixie wood, royal, Christmas, chain, holly, and Japanese painted, to name a few. They provide shelter for toads and box turtles and other small wildlife. And they’re simply beautiful, in their soft, subtle, ferny way.

I’m not that good with indoor plants, but I do grow some ferns in pots in the sunroom and on the breezeway as well as in the yard. My indoor ferns usually do pretty well until they get really big and cushiony and my cats start napping on them. Then I have to move them outside and let them rest in a cat-free environment, and sometimes they can recover and sometimes they can't. My cats have ruined quite a few maidenhairs, lemon buttons, and fluffy ruffles, but I guess I can’t really blame them. I understand. Ferns are pretty hard to resist.

As kids, Kris and I loved to pose our toys and take pictures of them. Here's our dear teddy bear Fenna waiting by the fern-accented gate at our "estate."

My first house, in Atlanta, with its rows of autumn ferns

Here in Quincy: Sad cat statue and chain ferns

A Boston fern on the front porch
Beds full of mixed ferns


  1. A lovely post of these wonderful plants. I have several different kinds, although I don't know the names of most of them. They sure can take over an area, and mostly I just let them do their thing, why fight them.

    Have a lovely holiday weekend ~ FlowerLady

  2. Oh my goodness, I have visited your blog many times, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I've been a little reluctant to leave comments, before I knew what I was doing.

    Your home and grounds are absolutely lovely! Your ferns are just beautiful, they have a way of making an area just seem cooler. All that lush green, I suppose.

    I hope you enjoy your front porch as much as I do mine. Happy gardening.

  3. The ferns in front of your Atlanta home are stunning. Ferns do add a softness to the garden that is very pleasing. Love the simplicity of a garden with lots of ferns.