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Some ferns for the trough or rock garden.

Often when people think of ferns, they think first, and mainly, of the larger wood ferns, and sometimes regrettably only of these. This is a shame because the ferns are an incredibly large and diverse group of plants, with many species, which are suited to nearly every type of environment found on earth. And in the garden to miss out the smaller and alpine types, is to miss out on growing some of the most interesting and beautiful of all plants.

It would I think be hard for me to do without a rock /concrete trough or two or perhaps a small rockery, in any garden, and if it were to be only a very small trough or rockery with room for only one small fern, then that fern would have to be, Asplenium trichomanes, the Maidenhair Spleenwort. Because this is a little fern that has nearly everything. Firstly it is small and neat, usually about ten centimetres high, though it may be double that if well grown. The fronds have smart black stems in the centre with a single row of glossy green, nearly round, leaflets (pinna) on each side. This gives the plant a jewel like quality which stands out well, especially against a background of the stones where it is most often found growing. Secondly the fern is very hardy and evergreen with no real off season, not even in the depths of winter, when it still seems to glow brightly and look cheerful. And thirdly it is very easy to grow, perhaps indeed the easiest of all the Aspleniums to grow, as it only asks for good drainage (like all alpine or rockery type plants) and given this it will live happily with rich feed or poor, sun or part shade, rain, hail, wind or snow etc.. In addition to this there are several varieties and sub species, including a rather good crested form called ‘Grandiceps’, what more could you ask for?

Asplenium trichomanes belongs obviously to the Asplenium genera, or if you like is a Spleenwort, (which means the same in English). The spleenworts are so called because certain members of the group were used in traditional medicine, to treat cases of enlarged spleen. Of more interest to modern gardeners is the fact that the spleenworts generally are all small neat plants, which like to grow in dry stony places such as, drystone walls and crevices in rock faces. The tiny A. ruta-muraria or wall rue is another lovely species in this genera. Often found growing in dry walls, the foliage resembles that of Blue Rue, hence the name. However though a beautiful delicate little plant, that would be lovely in a pot, Wall Rue is very difficult to grow. And this is despite the fact that it is one of the most common spleenworts to find in the wild, eventually finding nearly every dry wall and inserting itself into the joints .

Very different however from all the spleenworts in both appearance and ease of cultivation is Phylitis scolopendrium, or the Harts Tongue Fern, the well known British native fern with smooth, glossy strap shaped leaves. Yet Harts tongue, is closely enough related to the spleenworts to hybridise with many of them. It also appreciates much the same sort of conditions, especially good drainage, as many of the spleenworts; though it does not like to dry out completely. The north face of a rockery suits it very well, since here it can get both free drainage and a cool root, run both of which it likes, though it is very tolerant and will grow quite well in an ordinary border. For taking the small amount of trouble that Harts Tongue requires therefore the rewards are quite splendid. Since it is a plant, which makes a strong statement with a foliage effect, like no other hardy plant, and it does this throughout the year, being consistently evergreen. Harts tongue has a number of varieties well worth the gardeners interest, the ‘Crispum’ and ‘Undulatum’ forms, with crispy wavy edges to the leaves are very fine. While the cut leaved and crested forms such as ‘Ramosum’ and ‘Cristatum’ provide the gardener with curiosities, of a sort, that nothing else can, surely match. Making Harts Tongue therefore a very under rated garden plant well worth seeking out. If planting on rockeries is of no interest, why not plant it as an edging round a small border, as you would with dwarf box as Harts Tongue would need no clipping, would remain all winter, stand a little shade and not spread into the other plants, at least not this last for many years. This is quite a good way to use many ferns incidentally Polypodiums having been recommended for this before. Though they too will make good rockery ferns.

Lastly please let me tell you about something rather special, a delicate, fine foliaged fern, called, Cystopteris fragillis or the Brittle Bladder Fern. This fern has elegant, light green, fronds of about 30cm in length which are as finely textured as any fern you might succeed with in the garden. Yet despite this, in the wild, you will most often find it growing high in the hills. Often in narrow joints between rocks where it is exposed to the worst that the weather can throw at it. I have a small plant in the garden, beside some steps and every time I walk down them, it is a fresh bright green reminder of the Yorkshire dales. Cystopteris f. does need a well drained site and at low altitude some shade may be needed but, this should really be all, for a little breath of fresh air.