On the shady side …

Looking back through my archives, I found this piece which is still worth posting even though Debbie and Lee Miller, who operated Millhenge Ferns for 25 years, closed the business in 2013.

They’re one of the most ancient plants on the planet with fossil evidence dating back some 400 million years but longevity isn’t translating into popularity for ferns which seem to have fallen out of favour with gardeners.

“I think we take ferns for granted,” Debbie says. “They’re in the background in this country all the time, whether it’s ponga species or ground ferns.”

Ponga frond. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At its peak the nursery offered 35 varieties of fern, including exotic species, but the year before it closed was growing about 25 varieties, all native and including four tree ferns – Cyathea dealbata (silver fern), Cyathea medullaris (black tree fern or mamaku) and two wheki types, Dicksonia fibrosa and Dicksonia squarrosa.

“People tend to lump all the ponga together and think there’s only one or two,” Debbie says, “but there are about 12 commercially available and each one is different. Tree ferns are great for adding height to a garden without adding much shade.”

Shady areas are where ferns come into their own – the south side of a house, an often wasted garden space, is tailor-made for ferns, according to Debbie.

“They don’t like to be in the dark but most do need shade from heavy sun, although some will tolerate even that.”

The only must-have is a damp root system. “If that is sorted they can put up with a lot on top,” Debbie says. “If you mulch them and keep the roots happy you can grow them in full sun.

Hen and chickens fern (Asplenium bulbiferum), a plant that produces spores as well as plantlets on its graceful fronds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Ferns are especially good in the Western Bay because they give a tropical look to a garden without being hard to grow – Asplenium oblongifolium, for instance, is very glossy, while Asplenium haurakiensis is very finely serrated.”

Ferns don’t flower, instead setting seed, called spores on “fertile” fronds – the spores are distributed by wind but need to land on a damp surface for germination to take place.

The fertile fronds tend to go “off” once the spores have been released but apart from perhaps tidying these, the plants need little maintenance.

Fertile fronds on Microsorum pustulatum (hound’s tongue), a fern that thrives in the driest of spots. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This piece, first published in The Bay of Plenty Times, appears with permission.

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