Sunday, June 13, 2010

Finishing Touches for Lac du Papillon: Native Ferns for the Shady Woods

This weekend was a sauna, but that didn’t stop the yard work at Chateau Papillon. We finally put most of the finishing touches on Lac du Papillon, our back yard pond project, with the addition of one of the most important elements: the plants.

Most water garden books start with the assumption your pond will be in the sun; indeed, the majority of those plants so archetypically associated with ponds—cattails, water lilies, and many reedy grasses—either require or perform best in full sun.  Sun is not something we have in abundance at Chateau Papillon, though; our own yard is bordered by several established shade trees, and the back corner abuts Fairfax Villa Park and its undisturbed, towering trees.  Being near the lowest point of the surrounding terrain, the back yard does, however, have moisture in quantities rivaling its shade.

Enter then the unassuming fern: these woodland inhabitants are a natural fit for the shores of Lac du Papillon, with several native species (natives are big at Chateau Papillon) well-adapted to damp, acidic woodland soils and shade ranging from dappled to eclipse-esque in density.  Ferns also have that primitive, prehistorical aspect to them (as well they should, being one of the more common plants found as fossil form and a large part of the coal and oil we bring up from below the earth), which can instantly transform a space into some primeval jungle setting.

During last year’s abortive pond construction, we brought home a lone Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) from the garden center, then promptly got sidetracked by the unsolvable leak in our hastily-placed pond liner and our many other garden tasks.  Autumn brought its own hectic schedule, and our ostrich fern languished in a pot near the pond’s edge until winter, when not one but two blizzards of over two feet in depth each left it buried and, we worried, done in.

Springtime is associated with the archetypal memes of resurrection, rebirth, and new life for good reason, though, and the passing away of winter found our little fern survivor thriving beneath its overturned pot.

Once we finished the pond itself—and acting on the advice of the Northern Virginia Audubon Society—we paid a visit to our favorite local garden metropolis, Merrified Garden Center, in search of more ferns to bring to the back yard.  We picked out several new species to plant:

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), (pictured, right) with its uniquely broad fronds, is my favorite of the new additions.  Apparently, some consider it a weed, but I wouldn't mind this fern spreading across the newly-naturalized back corner of our yard.

The sole evergreen of the lot, Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), is one I hope does quite well, as maintaining a bit of off-season greenery in what is otherwise a rather drab section of the yard is a plus in my book.  Supposedly it is very adaptable and easy to cultivate, which make it a good plant for the shady, often-damp-but-sometimes-dry soil of our pond corner.

We do need to add a few more evergreens into the mix; research through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and several native plant guides for the region list several possibilities, including Dryopteris intermedia (the intermediate wood fern) and Dryopteris marginalis (the marginal shield fern).  Given several similarly-named ferns are considered exotic invasives in Virginia, we do have to be careful to identify any we bring home by their scientific names!

Another of my favorite ferns is the "Lady in Red" (Athyrium filix-femina), a deciduous native with striking red stems.  Like our other ferns, the Lady in Red is considered an easy-to-grow specimen which tolerates a wide range of light and moisture levels, which should work well where we planted it.  During the summer months, it should get a couple of hours a day of part-sun, and the ground will be soggy after rains but tending toward the drier side in between storms.

Our Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is another red-stemmed variety, but it's not quite as lush as the Lady in Red--though I believe one of its selling features are its spore-forming fertile fronts, which give the plant its common name and persist well into the winter as red-brown stalks.

All of these ferns are supposed to spread fairly well, even aggressively in a few cases, so we're hoping the few well-spaced specimens we planted this weekend eventually take over and carpet much of our back yard corner, draping around Lac du Papillon and making it lush where it had before been a junk space.

We didn't just add ferns around Lac du Papillon, mind you, though ferns certainly are the lion's share of our plantings by sheer number.  We also planted a couple of very nice looking False Solomon's Seals, a native wildflower which we already have a few specimens of growing naturally in our yard.  And we added a native Snakeroot as well as several Cardinal flowers and two more foamflowers.  Shrub-wise, we added a native Arrowwood Viburnum, native Oakleaf Hydrangea, two beautiful Eastern Hemlocks, and an Eastern Redcedar (Virginia Juniper).  All of these plants, to some degree or another, will do fairly well in the woodsy, damp-at-times, forest-edge conditions of our back corner (the juniper being the most dry-loving of the bunch and thus mounded up in a higher planting than the rest).  Already, we've notions of adding more viburnums and hydrangeas, and perhaps some native yews if we can find one which the pupsters don't want to chew on (they're toxic).  Not to mention another Eastern Redbud... the list goes on and on!  Gardening is something which is going to be an ongoing pastime here at Chateau Papillon.

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