Monday, January 20, 2014 5 comments

Home fernishings

Scientists tell us that ferns have been around for as long as 400 million years.  

Eons ago, before much of anything interesting existed, ferns covered much of the prehistoric terrain. In the company of club moss, horsetails and other ancient plants, ferns flourished, died and decayed, creating a cycle that possibly contributed to the formation of rich coal deposits.

Because they were hardy and adaptable, ferns evolved in all but the world’s most hostile climates. Along the way, a host of diverse varieties appeared -- some were water babies, others epiphytic. 

More than 10,000 species of ferns have been identified, and many more await discovery. Approximately 200 species, including the familiar Christmas fern we have here in the mountains, still populate the temperate areas of the United States.

Prior to the 18th century, naturalists knew little about the intimate activities of ferns. Spores were not associated with reproduction, and since no one ever observed any seeds, people concluded ferns possessed supernatural powers. In time, the delicate plants were linked to good luck and the ability to make one’s self invisible.

In medical circles, ferns were used to treat lunacy, stop bleeding and cure baldness. Ferns were also employed to deter witches and predict the future. Even in recent times, a relative of the decorative rabbit’s-foot fern has been touted as a potential cure for cancer. 

Today, for the most part, ferns are valued as airy, ornamental accents – when they decide to cooperate. Modern in-house fern cultivation is about as predictable as it was in the 1840s when plant enthusiasts first attempted to grow ferns indoors. The Victorians quickly discovered what we know all too well in 2014: some ferns make it; others don’t.

So if ferns have been around for more than 400 million years, why can’t most of us keep a plant with such a track record looking good for even a few weeks? The answer isn’t as complicated as it seems. The fact is we can successfully raise ferns – if and when.

If we have the proper light, and when we select the right plant. If we provide adequate humidity, and when we water at the correct times. It can be a delicate balancing act.

Experts agree that light and humidity are the keys to success. In most homes across the country, humidity levels hover around 25 percent. A 40 to 75 percent level is necessary to keep ferns fit and healthy. In addition, ferns despise cave-like conditions. They need light – bright light, and a dose of liquid houseplant fertilizer monthly, except in winter.

In choosing the right home for your ferns, your best bet is a well-lit bathroom. The Boston, staghorn, maidenhair, button, petticoat, and “footed” ferns are all ideal for the bath area. The Boston fern and rabbit’s-foot fern in particular will thrive in a bathroom with good southern exposure.

In other areas of the house, choose a window with bright afternoon sun and set the plant on a tray of pebbles to increase humidity. The tray should be as big as the spread of the plant so water can evaporate around the leaves. For homes with bright morning light, the bird’s-nest and holly fern are good choices.

Once you have the right humidity, the right light and the right fern, you must tackle the tricky watering problem. Plant manuals plainly state that when leaves turn yellow or brown, the fern is a victim of over- or underwatering. Which one? You can either cut back or step up your watering program. If the plant dies, you guessed wrong.   

To avoid these problems, try filling your plant saucer to the brim with water, then let your fern sip it up all week. Since most ferns come from moist environments, they don’t mind having their feet wet. As an alternate method, water your plants thoroughly until the excess runs into the saucer two or three times a week. 

Whichever method you choose, mist your plants occasionally and be sure to give them a dose of fish emulsion monthly. They’ll thank you for it.

By now, you may be agreeing with the experts that raising ferns is definitely a challenge and probably an art. Then why do so many of us still feel compelled to adopt a fussy fern?
The answer begins at the garden center. Every fern on display looks lush, green and irresistible. It’s easy to envision one of these healthy specimens gracing some lackluster corner of the den or bathroom. So home it goes. Then, even if it eventually winds up looking like a faded watercolor, the desire to try again triumphs.

Hope continues because they’re beautiful, they’re unique, and because no summer porch is truly complete without the delicate presence of at least one Boston fern.
But mostly, we will keep attempting to tame the fractious fern because, despite our 21st century know-how, there is something magical about a plant that has survived since long before the dinosaurs.

And no doubt, with or without our help, ferns will be around for another 400 million years.


Sunday, January 5, 2014 9 comments

Farewell 2013. Thanks for the memories.

The roses almost floated away with 30+ inches of rain in July

When I was a kid I used to hear people say how quickly time passed as they grew older. And my reply was always “are you kidding? It’s at least a million years between Christmas and summer vacation.”

Now that I am approaching a certain age, it seems those folks were right. If pressed for an explanation, I could not tell you what happened to 2013. I remember falling asleep before the ball dropped in Times Square to end 2012. And I recall watching it drop the other evening to usher in the New Year.

Luckily I have my photos to nudge my memory as to what happened in between. 

I discovered some new waterfalls while walking this past winter. No worries about bears and snakes so I feel confident about wandering around in the woods.

My Shortia bloomed along with a host of other new wildflowers including Soloman's Seal and Shooting Stars.

Shooting Star

Soloman's Seal is a native that blooms in April and May

Shortia Galacifolia

We visited Christopher Carrie and his wonderful Mother Bulbarella and enjoyed an afternoon seeing their wildflowers and spectacular rhododendrons.
Rhododendrons thrive outside Clyde

A fox, barred owl, turkeys and assorted bears stopped by this summer.

One of our more interesting visitors

Memorial Day was memorable at the Biltmore where I was greeted by the intoxicating scent of over 2500 roses and did research for an article on the International Rose Trials. (I am now on the judging panel which is quite an honor.)

Doug Gifford invited us back to see his unforgettable mountain garden and once again, we were gobsmacked.

In early October I once again judged the Garden Club of Virginia Show at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond. A perfect bloom of Randy Scott stole the show, but the Butterflies Live! exhibit stole my heart.

The Conservatory at Lewis Ginter

A Chocolate Pansy landed on my sleeve – that means good luck!

My iBook The Dirt Diaries earned a 5-star rating in early October!


 A new adventure for the Hunts! Dear friends invited us to join them for a few days in Nantucket, an area of the country I'd never visited. What a feast for the senses.

Virtually every home and business displayed spectacular window boxes
Cranberries are still harvested from this bog

We'd had so much fun in New York last December. we decided to go back for the sights, the sounds, the lights. And an encore performance of A Prairie Home Companion.

The fabulous Garrison Keillor talks about Lake Woebegone

Bright lights, big city
The  tree beside the skating rink at Bryant Park

Of course all year long I looked for birds who were willing  to have their picture made. Some cooperated, others skedaddled. That is only appropriate because for me, this year simply flew away.