Ferns Are For Distinctive Foliage

Rich green ferns provide distinctive texture.

Ferns are an odd group. They lack the color or fragrance of flowers, or the branch structure of shrubbery, trees or vines. Very few turn color in autumn. They provide only green foliage. Yet, as simple as this seems, the generally evergreen foliage that ferns provide is some of the most distinctive foliage that can be found in the garden.

With few exceptions, ferns are richly deep green. Only a few are lighter green or almost yellowish. The leaves, which are known as ‘fronds’, can be soft and papery, or coarse and tough. The fronds of most ferns are pinnately divided into neatly arranged leaflets; and many ferns have leaflets that are intricately lobed. Some ferns have leaves with more palmate symmetry. A few ferns actually have undivided leaves.

(Pinnate symmetry involves a central midrib or midvein to each leaf, or a central rachis that supports lateral leaflets. Radial symmetry involves multiple midveins or rachi that radiate outward from the centers of individual leaves.)

The Australian tree fern is the largest of the common ferns. It develops a broad canopy of long fronds on top of a trunk that can launch it as high as a two story home. Both the fronds and trunk of the Tasmanian tree fern are shorter and stouter. Other tree ferns are rare. The trunks are not really stems, but are thick accumulations of roots dispersed through decomposed stem tissue.

The staghorn fern is an epiphyte that naturally clings (nonparasitically) to trunks and limbs of trees. The flared upper fronds collect foliar litter that falls from the trees above to sustain the roots within. In home gardens, it is popularly grown on wooden plaques or hung like hanging potted plants, but without a pot.

Some ferns can be grown as houseplants like the classic Boston fern, which cascades softly from a hanging pot. Maidenhair fern is popular for intricate foliage on wiry rachi (leaf stems). Squirrel foot fern has lacy foliage and interestingly fuzzy rhizomes that creep over the edge of a pot.

Since almost all ferns are understory plants that naturally live on or near a forest floor below a higher canopy of trees, they are generally quite tolerant of shade. In fact, most prefer at least some sort of partial shade. This is quite an advantage for spots in the garden that are too shady for other plants. Also, many ferns can disperse their roots into soil that is already occupied by more substantial plants, even if the more substantial plants happen to also be making the particular spot too shady for other plants. In other words, they play well with others.

However, many ferns are more demanding than other plants are in regard to soil quality and watering. They perform best with rich and well drained soil, and regular watering. Sickly ferns generally respond well to fertilizer; but too much fertilizer can burn foliage. Old leaves may need to be groomed out if they do not naturally get overwhelmed by new foliage.

Water Feature

 

Brent Green, my colleague down south, is a renowned landscape designer of the Los Angeles region. His landscapes are spectacular. You might not know it by all the mean things I say about Brent and his work, but his clients know otherwise. He makes the outdoor spaces around their urban homes seem like they are in serene and thickly forested jungles hundreds of miles away.

Well, . . . generally. That is what the landscapes look like to me. Some clients prefer simpler or sunnier gardens. What I often perceive as superfluous vegetation is there to obscure adjacent residences or other undesirable scenery. It is not as if neighboring residences are unsightly. They are obscured merely to provide privacy and a sense of solitude in a very crowded region.

While designing a landscape that is appealing to the senses, it is helpful to eliminate or at least obscure some of what is unappealing. This applies to more than visual aspects. In some urban areas, ambient noise is a constant reminder of all the hectic chaos just outside of a landscape. Dense vegetation that obscures undesirable scenery muffles some or even most, but not all of it.

That is why Brent incorporates what he refers to as ‘water features’ into many of his landscapes. The noise of the splashing water partly obscures ambient noise. Because Brent’s home is just a block from the Santa Monica Freeway, there are four small ‘water features’ in the gardens! That is excessive of course, and more than what larger landscapes in quieter neighborhoods get.

These water features seem silly to me. I find the mostly monotonous noise of the Santa Monica Freeway to be no more annoying than the sound of the splashing water. I might appreciate water features more if they did my laundry. However, there are a few water features where I work, even though ambient noise from the outside is rather minimal. There are no freeways.

Fern Dell Creek in the video above flows into the confluence where Bean Creek flows into Zayante Creek. Zayante Creek Flows into the San Lorenzo River just a short distance away. Two Redwood Springs Creeks, which are comparable to Fern Dell Creek, flow into Bean Creek just a short distance upstream from the confluence with Zayante Creek. All this water can get noisy.

Fern Dell Creek and the two Redwood Springs Creeks are short streams that flow from springs, so their minimal flow does not fluctuate much at all, even after heavy rain. Bean Creek and Zayante Creek have more substantial watersheds and carry significantly more water, especially after heavy or prolonged rain. Unlike Brent’s water features, we can not turn any of them off.