Perfect day for planting a fern bed

When is the best time to plant? We say spring or fall, and those are good times for a perennial, shrub or tree to make a transition from one growing environment to another. In spring, the plant is in good condition when you buy it from the garden centre, and it’s revving up to jump into the race for maximum growth over the summer. In fall, the plant can settle in for winter’s long rest, and be in place and ready for action the next year. 


But these rules really date back to a time before all stock was potted. Bare-root planting is done when the plant is dormant, before it leafs out. Now, you can plant any time the ground is unfrozen. 

There are variables. The first is whether the plant is healthy: after four months in a garden centre, it may be root-bound (it has grown too big for its pot), or it may have been neglected, most likely through inadequate watering. Some fall flowering stock is freshly arrived in fall, but for the most part, what’s on offer has been sitting there since April.

The second is the weather. I generally avoid planting in August, a hard month for plants with searing sun and little precipitation. The third is TLC.

If you’re available to erect a shade screen, water regularly and monitor for general well-being, the plant is better off in the ground at your place than in a pot in a garden centre. So, if you are are going to be at the same location as the plant for the next two months, and you feel you can provide as good care as the staff in the garden centre (not hard), get that plant and get it started on its new life. 

It was my good luck that, five days after I started work – in heat that hovered around 30 degrees - on a shaded jumble of weeds on both sides of a path (that had disappeared), the area was finally clear today and I was able to complete the planting under gentle rain with the temperature down to a pleasant 20 Celsius. 

I started taking an interest in ferns last year and this summer amassed a small collection purchased here and there, whenever I spotted a native fern. Since I’m new to ferns, this meant writing the names of the ferns down, going home, looking them up and returning to complete the purchase the next day. It would make life much easier if suppliers included the area the plant is native to on its label. Because then I wouldn’t have bought the Asplenium scolopendrium which showed up in my hurried research as native and EXTREMELY RARE! Endangered, in fact. I rushed back and purchased three. And then started to have doubts, which were subsequently confirmed when local naturalist Bob Bowles mentioned how sad it is that the Walker Quarry expansion near Duntroon was approved (the decision has since been appealed). That's because – as he testified at a municipal board hearing – the area has a very rare colony (possibly the largest in the world) of American Hart’s Tongue Fern. What about my three ferns? They, he explained, are the common European Hart’s Tongue. More research: our Hart’s Tongue is properly called A. scolopendrium var. Americanum. It truly is buyer beware in this game, fortunately, the garden centre took my three imposters back. 

So now, in addition to Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), I have:

-Cinnamon Fern (Osmundia cinnamonea): it looks a little rough as it’s been sitting in a pot since early June and clearly doesn’t like to. It gets its name from fertile fronds that look like sticks of cinnamon before they unfurl. It will grow two to four feet tall.

-Leatherwood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis): it has held up well for two months in a pot. Very pleasing dark green fronds, it won’t be as tall as the Cinnamon fern.

-Purple-stemmed Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis purpurascens): I love the well-defined fronds of the Royal Fern. The purple stems are a bonus. This one can grow to five feet – I give it lots of room.

-Hayscented Fern (Dennstaedtia Punctilobulia): The label says “vigorous.” Consider this word to be code for invasive thug. That’s not always a bad thing. The write-up on the Whiteflower Farm website says: “Extremely useful as a ground cover for sun or shade -- just don't expect it to be a nice neighbour to choice little shade plants. Reserve Hay-scented Ferns (so called because the 36in fronds do indeed smell of hay when bruised) for locations where you need to cover large expanses quickly and inexpensively with something deer-resistant, attractive, and undemanding.” I have just the spot, where it can fight it out with an invasive shrub, the name of which I have forgotten but the sight of which will annoy me forever. Hayscented gets even more room than Royal.

The bed looks a little empty because of the space I have left for each fern – but I am confident they will rise to the task of filling it. My only concern is that it may be a little dry. I will be spreading a layer of leaf mold to retain moisture, and in the future, from time to time when drought hits, these guys will get a watering. 

For now, the rain continues to fall, and I couldn’t have picked a better day for a mid-summer planting. 

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