The Rattlesnake Fern
Be not alarmed by the rattlesnake fern (Botrychium vir-ginianum, 5 in.-2 ft.) which has no special affinity for its namesake. This charming yet stately little plant is common and happy in rich shady woods. Here the plumelike sporophyll springs stiffly up amidst a cluster of sterile fronds. This fern fruits when small as well as large.
The royal fern (Osmunda regalis, 4-6 ft.) is a tall dramatic one with great high fronds. The root of it, as with some of the other osmundas, is the source of the familiar orchid potting material. It is most at home along the banks of streams where it rises in dignity to wave its dense and lovely fronds in the breeze. The spring fronds are golden brown and appear in clusters from the midst of its cushion of black wiry "osmunda" root.
The sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis, 3 ft.) is sensitive to frost, not to human touch. At the first real cold snap in the fall it folds up for the season. The coarse erect fronds are thin in texture. The sporophyll appears in midsummer. The dark green berry-like nubs on it are actually rolled-up pinnules holding spore cases. Do examine these delicate forms under a magnifying glass.
The toothed wood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa, or Aspidium spinulosum, 3 ft.) has graceful curving fronds and interesting scaly stems. You may wander through great stretches of it enjoying the feel of feathery fronds on bare legs, and stirred by the rhythmic swaying patterns created in the gentlest breeze. Notice how the fronds spring up in an almost perfect circle from the ground. This fern loves to find a decaying old tree stump to grow in.
Ferns may be dug in the woods spring or fall. There are also a number of mail-order growers that specialize. If you bring your own from the woods, observe the direction they face and plant them so they face likewise. Your success is assured if you can match up the new location in your garden (including soil and exposure) with the spot where you found them. However, it is heartening to know that many ferns grow in more than one type of soil and location. They are far more adaptable than we give them credit for. This is one factor that makes them easy to transplant and grow.
Also note, as you dig, how shallow the roots of ferns are. Set them likewise in your garden. In general, a northern exposure is ideal; east or west is also fine, and, occasionally, for some few ferns, a southern slope.
While ferns need moisture in the soil they never want sog-giness. Good drainage is vital. For most species a safe rule is: Filtered sunlight or none at all. Ferns require absolutely no upkeep. Their roots are too near the surface for cultivation. Nature keeps a fine, cool, leaf mulch over the ground all year.
These constantly rotting leaves contribute to soil enrichment. The old fronds of some sorts brown and drop during the summer. If you are the neat type these can be trimmed away. We like this rusty brown note amongst the midsummer greens, so we don't bother to trim.
Ideal fern soil is, of course, woods soil. If you should want to create a fernery in a place where you must change the soil, the perfect mixture is equal parts sand, garden soil, peat moss and leaf mold. If you have no peat, change the mixture to two parts leaf mold. Of course if you plant ferns in an area similar to where you found them in the woods, you need move no soil, and do nothing further. Just let them take over.
But, on general principles, carry a bushel basket and shovel in the trunk of your car. We enjoy exploring woods and always have an eye out for some old decaying stump to scoop out for our newly planted ferns at home. Also valuable is the rich black leaf mold just under the leaf surface of the forest floor. In our wanderings we are often stopped by the beauty of a fern shape silhouetted against an old tumbling stone wall, or against the dark still waters of a stream. And we may pause to admire that one yellow frond curving up against a rough-textured tree trunk, and reflecting one small flicker of filtered sunlight.
Not only for their beauty, great as it is, but also because of almost no upkeep, ferns are for you. In other words, if you, like we, are pining to be a lazy gardener, plant ferns!