Love Note From the Garden – Christmas Fern

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A fern that is native, deer resistant and evergreen – who wouldn’t want one (or a bunch) in their shade garden?

Yep, that’s me – Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) – native to the Eastern United States, thriving in dry to medium moisture in shade. Just don’t plant me in poorly drained sites, because that will rot my roots and kill me. Hey, I even look a bit tough, with leathery evergreen leaves.

If you already have a large Christmas fern, you could divide it into several plants and create a mass planting when the new growth just starts to show.

Creating a one to two foot tall clump, I would look great at the base of native azaleas, or as an evergreen backdrop to colorful coral bells. Tall daffodils can be planted among ferns, popping up as I rejuvenate myself with new spring foliage.

You know what else I can do? Stabilize a shady slope. You see, in winter my evergreen fronds lay a bit flat, holding leaves into place to create a blanket that fights erosion and eventually breaks down to create more soil  I’m sure you can think of a spot in your garden for me.

Christmas Fern

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I would call Lenten rose deer proof

It is risky to call any plant deer proof, but there are a few I would give that tag. One is Lenten Rose (Helleborus xhybridus or ), which seems like the perfect plant to me. It is evergreen, tolerates part to deep shade, resistant to deer and other pests, and blooms when few other plants bloom. Not just any flower either – sculptural, perfect blooms that entices me to pull out a sketchbook and concentrate on their beauty.

Lenten Rose is hardy from Zones 4-9 and is one of the longest blooming perennials in cultivation, with blooms that last for six weeks or more. To make it even more desirable, it is one of the earliest blooming perennials, with blooms starting as early as January in Georgia and lasting into April. Who couldn’t love a plant that blooms even before the daffodils?

Glossy, bold, leathery foliage is a year-round asset to the shade garden. Leaves are divided into seven to nine segments, falling away from the central stem like an umbrella. These coarse leaves are a great contrast with ferns and bleeding hearts. Although they are evergreen, the leaves can look a little ragged before the new growth emerges. This is just a little winter burn and aging foliage. Trimming off some of the older foliage in January or February not only makes the plants look better; it shows off the blooms better too.

The perfect spot for a Lenten Rose would be in deciduous shade, protected from the wind, in rich soil with plenty of moisture but good drainage. They would like the bank of a creek, along a woodland path. Lenten roses do better planted among hardwoods than pines, because they appreciate winter sun and pine needles accumulating around them can hinder growth. One thing Hellebores cannot take is soggy soil.

These plants are disease and pest resistant and prefer to be left alone. Once established, Lenten roses reseed to form a colony, creating a dramatic woodland groundcover that blooms in various colors. Seedlings can be dug up and moved, but established plants resent being moved or divided and may not bloom the following year.

My first few plants have reseeded to create a colony in my shade garden, with each plant producing slightly different blooms. The blooms come in many colors, including white, pale yellow, pink, maroon, purple and speckled. These are subtle, beautiful, nodding blooms on evergreen plants that are eighteen to twenty-four inches tall.

I love my colony of reseeded Lenten Roses but, oh my, what are available in nurseries now are stunning. The breeders have been working on Lenten Roses and now offer double blooms in bright colors with their faces rising upward, or pale pink fluffy blooms comparable to an English Rose, or blooms that look like they were hand painted in a porcelain factory. Just do a search on Pinterest to be amazed at the variety and beauty. These new Lenten Roses can be pricey – and worth every penny. Once in your garden, they will become your favorite plant, asking little and giving so much.

I suggest you shop for these plants locally, when they are in bloom. Then you know exactly what the bloom will look like and buy a plant that is already at blooming age.

Add Interest to Your Winter Landscape

I have met homeowners who would not consider anything but evergreens in their front yard. What a shame, because the winter landscape can be so beautiful and so dramatically different. A landscape should celebrate the seasons. Blooms, berries, sculptural forms, increased visibility and attractive foliage all add to the character of a changing landscape.

Evergreens can form a strong backbone for our plantings and should be used in a landscape, but not exclusively. Dwarf conifers and ornamental grasses can add height and form to a perennial border, balancing the profusion of color spring through fall. In winter, when the perennials are subordinate, the shape of the conifer, the sound and movement of the dry grasses and the dramatic forms of seedheads become the focus.

Two of my favorite plants to enhance the winter landscape are daffodils and Lenten roses. Both are easy to grow, long-lived, deer resistant, and bloom when we so desperately need flowers in our life.

Winter is when groundcovers, subordinate to showier blooming plants, often get noticed. Evergreen groundcovers contrast with bare trees, brown lawns, and fallen leaves. The bold foliage of cast iron plant and holly fern, the delicate texture of autumn fern, the expanse of liriope or mondo grass, the color of ajuga foliage – all more noticeable in winter.

Trees and shrubs provide winter interest in many forms: foliage, structure, blooms, and bark. The dogwood is a classic example of a combination of all four. The horizontal branching, flower buds, rugged bark, red berries and early spring blooms make this an all season (albeit fussy) plant. Leatherleaf mahonia has bold evergreen foliage, fall color, yellow spring blooms and blue summer berries. Many of the best winter plants offer much in other seasons as well.

Other trees and shrubs with interesting winter structure include the weeping yaupon holly, the wonderful variety of dwarf conifers and the pieris. Foliage interest is added with the bold mahonia and magnolia, or the colorful aucuba and loropetalum,

Trees and shrubs with a show of berries include several hollies, pyracantha, cotoneaster and burning bush. Interesting bark can be found on river birch and oakleaf hydrangea (exfoliating), crape myrtle (mottled, smooth), burning bush (winged), kerria, coral bark maple and red twig dogwood (colorful) and corkscrew willow and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (contorted). Branches of these plants are fun to bring into the house for winter arrangements.

Many trees and shrubs have winter and early spring blooms, including camellias, quince, sweet olive, deciduous magnolias (which also have fat, fuzzy buds), winter daphne, winter jasmine, witch hazel and forsythia.

Ornamental grasses are at their peak in winter, with graceful forms topped by plumes ranging from airy to massive. Enjoy these all winter, then cut them back when the daffodils bloom to encourage more compact, upright growth.

This only highlights a few of the plants that can enhance the winter landscape. There are wonderful annuals, perennials, herbs and vines that can add much to your garden in winter. More can be discovered at the library or local nursery. I recommend a stroll through a botanical garden on a warm winter day, jotting down ideas in a little notebook.

When designing your landscape for winter interest, pay particular attention to those areas visible from inside your home so that you can enjoy the show. Also pay attention to the front entry and your path from the car to the house so that interesting, fragrant and colorful plants welcome visitors and you to your home.