THE ATTRACTION OF FERNS

As I said at the time …

It took eight springs in this household before we were finally greeted by a sequence of designed abundance. First, the pussy willow cuttings. Then the succession of flowering: snow lily, crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, forsythia, marsh marigold, tulip, forget-me-not, sweet woodruff, rhododendron, iris, mountain laurel. Accompanied by asparagus, rebounding after a season of root virus.

That’s not to say that any of it’s as orderly or magazine perfect as my wife would like. One neighbor jested our style’s too organic for that. Actually, it’s more like our budget.

Still, it’s quite an improvement over what we encountered when we first moved in and discovered most of our property was wet clay and neglected. Some portions had been landscaped with black plastic covered with gravel, which only worsened the water problems – extending to our cellar. Other portions were heavily shaded, with several nasty box elders and then a dead elm to be taken out.

While most of the garden has been my wife’s project – leaving to me the actual construction of raised beds and pathways, as well as the composting – I lay claim to a few exceptions: the asparagus bed and two small, heavily shaded panels behind the lilacs. The latter, each about forty square feet, are separated by a wood-chip passage. In our first year here, I shoveled off the gravel and dug up the plastic on one side of the pathway and began our attempts to plant ferns in the beds. Later, I dug up the pathway itself, removing the plastic and replacing the gravel with wood chips. The other panel would follow a year or two later.

I envisioned the footpath leading between two lush expanses of fiddleheads – woodland greenery right at home. A taste of deep forest.

The reality was that nothing wanted to grow there. We enhanced the soil repeated. Bought a few commercial fern varieties, which never quite caught on. My wife stuck in some other plants – lilies of the valley, wild ginger, lungwort, jack-in-the-pulpit – and they’ve taken hold. We transplanted ferns from the woods behind our best friends’ house at the time. Next year, I dug up more from along my commute, as well as the first of several seasons from another friend’s forest. Even so, come springtime, squirrels or slugs would mow down the rising green scrolls, while the surviving fronds remained tenuous and “went down,” as they say, earlier in the summer than I would have liked. In other words, forest undergrowth is hardly as natural as it would appear.

But this spring was different. In the older bed, the ferns came in thick and gorgeous – and after a few of the first fiddlehead stalks were leveled, we encased the plants in chicken wire to ward off predators. It worked. In the newer bed, which still has plenty of room to grow, one can see progress. “It’s where the other bed was last year,” we say, meaning we expect it to catch up. No, it’s not the uniform deck of fiddleheads I expected, nor is it the waist high ferns of a forest where a friend lived last year. Rather, it’s a celebration – at least six varieties (we’re not technical; fern identification is quite tricky) – with Rachel’s other plants and a few star flowers and Solomon’s seals thrown in.

* * *

What fascinates me is the variety of the fronds themselves, and how they now spread through in the bed. Some are fine-toothed, while others are broad. Some are bright green, while others show more blue or red. Some shoot upward, while others spray outward. If some are finely etched, others are painted with a broad brush. There are degrees of delicacy, fragility, and geometric interlocking arcs and angles. While the asparagus comes to replicate a tall fern with its feathery fronds, it spikes from the ground, unlike the uncoiling fern stems. This unfurling, in fact, seems to suspend time in space, especially in a few precious weeks when spring is taking hold. There’s something modest in the way ferns float only a foot or two above the ground or the way they crowd in along a wall or fence; something amazing, too, when they take hold in a boulder or cliff. When I gaze at my two fern beds, I must acknowledge that despite all my labors, this is what I have, or at least what’s survived. It wasn’t the plan, exactly. Maybe that’s what makes it all the more remarkable in my eyes.

A bigger question asks just where my fondness for ferns originates. I don’t remember them from the woods in my native Ohio or boyhood backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. I acknowledged them in the glen at the back of a farm I inhabited while living Upstate New York, and later at the ashram in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. I do remember being stung by the scorn of a Californian while hiking in southern Indiana, and then being enchanted in the array within rainforest in Washington State. Returning east, I kept Boston ferns in my apartment windows, vowing if I ever owned property again, I’d have ferns.

So memories and associations fit in here. Tastes of the past, and souvenirs of discovery. A reminder, too, of how forest touches my soul. My wife is moved more by flowers. I, by the gentleness of ferns.

3 thoughts on “THE ATTRACTION OF FERNS

  1. I love ferns too. I grew up playing on a small hillside of them, crawling deep into the cool shade they provided and have loved their particular beauty since. Living in Hawaii now after years in the desert, I’m delighted to have ferns again! So happy your garden is responding to your efforts – maybe some photos? Though your words do paint a lovely image.

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