Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ferns Part 2 – More Fabulous Ferns from Sun to Shade

by Catherine Kavassalis

Ferns add wonderful texture to the tapestry of your garden. Weave them in amongst your perennials or give them special places to showcase their grace and elegance. 

In northern temperate regions consider an easy to grow species like: Lady fern Athyrium filix-femina, the evergreen Christmas fern Polystichum acrostichoides, or a stately Wood fern like Drypoteris goldiana (seen below), the pretty Bulblet fern Cystopteris bulbifera, or one of our ‘flowering’ ferns like the Royal fern Osmunda regalis. With dozens and dozens of choices, the possible compositions with your other plants are endless.

While many temperate ferns prefer woodland conditions (e.g. part shade), they are adaptable. The rule of thumb is: more sun, more moisture. Thus something like Sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis, is happiest dancing along riverbanks in dappled sun, playing peasant beside the aptly named Royal fern, Osmunda regalis. In drier conditions, they need shade. Onoclea will cope with my fast draining sandy soil only in full shade with some supplemental watering.

Both Sensitive and Royal fern are dimorphic, having fertile fronds that are very different in appearance. They are sometimes called ‘flowering’ ferns. While Onoclea produces beautiful black beads on its fertile fronds, Osmunda sends up architecturally beautiful stems bearing wrinkled golden brown sori. 

Related to Onoclea, the Ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, also produces ‘blooms’ of dimorphic fronds that can provide a wonderful vertical backdrop to a perennial bed. It can enchant a dark corner but also withstand full sun, if moisture is sufficient. 

Ostrich Ferns massed with hosta. Private garden Mississauga, ON.

 Ostrich Ferns form a backdrop for hosta. Private garden Mississauga, ON.

Ferns are one of the perennials that form a backdrop for this pond on the Toronto Islands.

Maidenhair fern with their dark stems.

A closer look at Maidenhair ferns.

Maidenhair Fern in a private garden.

Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides (left) and a closeup showing the rachis and lime pinnules.

Northern maidenhair fern surrounded by other shade perennials in Catherine's garden in Oakville, ON. Photo by Catherine Kavassalis

In my very dry garden, the extraordinary Northern maidenhair fern Adiantum pedatum spp. pedatum is the most admired by visitors. Though she would grow best in a moist woodland, a slowly spreading clump has established in my xeriscape that is visually stunning. 

In early spring, she unfurls her deep black rachis (stems) with lime pinnules (leaflets) in front of the purple shoots of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and it only gets more sublime as the season progresses. While she was at first in full shade, a neighbor removed a tree. She has continued to thrive in part sun with supplemental water during the hottest parts of summer.

A cascade of Little Bulblet fern, Cystopteris bulbifera in the sun.
   Photo by Catherine Kavassalis

The Little Bulblet fern, Cystopteris bulbifera, has tried to rival the maidenhair by popping up next to a display of daylilies and geraniums. In full afternoon sun, this pretty fern has created a picturesque landscape that draws the eye. 

The more observant will crouch down to find the treasure the Bulblet fern bears. Curled up on the backs of fertile fronds are little gems - adorable baby ferns that can be shared with friends or used to create new drifts in the garden.

Drifts of ferns can be lovely. Roy Diblik, landscape artist and author of the book The Know Maintenance Garden, created a beautiful design using two of my favourite evergreen ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides and Dryopteris marginalis (seen below). He recommends planting these in drifts with sedges: Carex pensylvanica, C. brevior and C. grisea. Geranium maculatum, Mertensia virginica and Caulophyllum thalictroides are suggested as accents along with a few inter-planted bulbs of Narissus ‘February Gold’ and ‘Thalia’ to create a striking low maintenance fernery. Pure genius.

Lady Fern, Athyrium felix-femina' Lady-in-Red'

If you are limited on space, a pretty Lady Fern, Athyrium felix-femina takes up little room but adds effortless beauty. From the native to the many cultivars, like ‘Lady-in-Red’ or ‘Frizelliae’ there are many variants to enjoy. Lady-in-Red with its splendid red rachis can be used as a vivid accent to bring out the reds in neighbouring Red barrenwort, Epimedium × rubrum.

Japanese Painted Ferns

Japanese Painted Fern in a private garden in Mississauaga, ON.

Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace' (left) and Coral Bells, 
Heuchera 'Berry Marmalade'.

Or you can go exotic and use an Asian Athyrium niponicum var. pictum cultivar with a matching Heuchera, and a contrasting Hosta for simple perfection in the shade. There are now many other easy care ferns from around the world on the market, like Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, that will make you weep for more garden space. Begin with a few and soon you will be adding more and more. Ferns are simply fabulous.

Hosta 'Joy Ride' (left) and Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum 'Silver Falls'

There are now many other easy care ferns from around the world on the market, like Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, that will make you weep for more garden space. Begin with a few and soon you will be adding more and more. 

Ferns are simply fabulous.

A Selection of Ferns for Moist to Wet Soils

Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum
Native Range: North America, Asia 
Height: 30-75 cm (1-2.5 feet)
Spread: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–a woodland fern
Zone: 3-8
An unusual deciduous fern with curved reddish brown to black stems and arching compound fan shaped blades. Stunning. Most lush in humus-rich moist soils, but it adapts to average garden conditions. Best in bright shade. It is also worth finding a spot for its cousin, the dainty semi-evergreen Himalayan Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum venustum. 

Hart’s tongue, Asplenium scolopendrium

Native Range: North America, Asia 
Height: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Spread: 30-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Light & Exposure: Shade–on moist rock piles
Zone: 5-9
With its erect arching tongue-shaped leaves, this evergreen fern forms lovely clumps in deep shade. American (var. americana) plants are tetraploid and have smaller leaves than their diploid European counterparts. If seeking native species, verify the plant source at your local nursery.

Walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum
Native Range: North America
Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches)
Spread: 15-25 cm (6-9 inches)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–a moss rock fern
Zone: 5-8
This fern is characterized by pretty lance shaped leaves that arch over mossy rocks and sprout babies from their tips. An attractive colony can form over mossy rocks. Not for beginners.

Deer fern, Blechnum spicant

Native Range: Northern Hemisphere
Height: 22-45 cm (9-18 inches)
Spread: 30-60 cm (12-24 inches)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–average to moist coniferous woodlands
Zone: 5-8 
This fern forms neat tufts of  mostly evergreen leathery fronds that are simple pinnate. It spreads with creeping rhizomes. Erect fertile fronds form an attractive vertical spray surrounded by a fountain of sterile. Prefers acidic soils.

Spinulose wood fern, Dryopteris carthusiana

Native Range: Northern temperate regions
Height: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–moist woodlands and conifer plantations
Zone: 3-8 
Easily grown, this is classic clump forming woodland fern. It has bright green lace shaped bi to tripinnate fronds that are a favourite of florists for greenery. 

Male fern, Dryopteris filix‐mas 

Native Range: Northern temperate regions
Height: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Spread: 60-90 cm (2-3 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–dense forests to open woodlands
Zone: 4-8 
This is an easily grown classic vase shaped deciduous fern. Can grow in average to wet soils. It is a nice filler plant. The narrow statueque 'Barnesii' would be a nice companion beside a woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) or Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginiana). 'Fluctuosa Cristata' (also called 'Parsley') is a ruffled, dwarf cultivar that can go into dry shade or containers. A heritage variety prized by Victorian collectors, 'Grandiceps Wills,' with its bunched tasseled arching fronds, is also worth planting.

This is just a sampling, the choices are vast!

This post was written by Catherine Kavassalis

About Catherine:

Catherine Kavassalis is a passionate gardener and conservationist. A scientist, educator and inspirational speaker, Catherine endeavours to stimulate interest and awe in the living world. She is member of the Halton Master Gardener group, the Past President of Oakville Horticultural Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Royal Botanical Gardens. Catherine loves to garden and has had her own eclectic organic garden featured on several tours.

For more on cultural conditions of ferns, visit the authoritative Hardy Fern Foundation 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Getting to Know Ferns

by Catherine Kavassalis

Ferns are extraordinary plants. From deserts to the arctic, ferns grow around the globe, with some 12,000 species in 45 families. They share a truly ancient lineage tracing back more than 400 million years. 

Ferns mixed with Solomon Seal in the display garden at Lost Horizons.

Newly emerging Ostrich ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris

Dryopteris filis-mas 'Crispa Cristata'

Ferns and other shade lovers in the display garden at Lost Horizons.

Over that expanse of time, great diversity has evolved. From the minuscule pond plants to towering trees, ferns come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. While most ferns are terrestrial, some live on rock cliffs, others on trees and still others underwater. 

Some may live for decades underground, like the Adder’s tongue Ophioglossum reticulatum. That outstanding fern has the highest chromosome count of any known living organism – up to 1,260 chromosomes (compare that to 46 in people). 

With such extraordinary variety, the fascinating lives of ferns are worth getting to know.

The underside of a Japanese Beech Fern, Phegopteris decursive-pinnata.

The underside of a Barnes Narrow Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas 'Barnesii'.

The feathery fern that comes to mind when we picture a fern belongs to the plant in its spore-producing phase. This sporophyte is only half the story. 

Unlike most plants, ferns can live two quite distinct lives. A fern in the sporophyte phase can reproduce vegetatively (clones) or it can release spores. Unlike seeds, spores have just one set of chromosomes. 

These haploid spores can still transform into small plants. But these plantlets, called gametophytes, look nothing like their parents. They are small, easily overlooked, and often resemble little green hearts. 

Though a few ferns will stay in this phase indefinitely (like the Weft Fern - Trichomanes intricatum in Ohio), most will grow sex organs that produce ova (eggs) and sperm.  Those flagellated sperm need the right conditions to swim to an egg on a different gametophyte. Only once an egg is fertilized can a new sporophyte develop. It is really quite remarkable.

If I had to choose one fern to grow, it would be a Royal fern (Osmundaceae). Why? Fossils of royal ferns dating back over 200 million years show that these ferns have changed little over time and were underfoot while dinosaurs trotted about the land. 

How cool to grow a Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) and watch little ruby throated hummingbirds collect the downy wool (indument) to line their nests knowing that Jurassic birds may once have flown above this same fern. Alas, I have trouble growing Cinnamon fern in my dry sandy yard. Like most ferns native to North American woodlands, it prefers moist soil in shade or part shade. 

I am able to grow its beautiful cousin, Royal fern, Osmunda regalis in a manufactured bog (pond liner under ground) with the prehistoric looking Equisetum hymenales. This horsetail fern is easy to grow in any water holding container and makes a very attractive display on decks in full sun or tucked into perennial borders. 

Consider adding aquatic four leaf clover ferns (Marsilea sp.) or one of the lovely aquatics like Salvinia molesta or Azolla filiculoides. BUT KEEP THESE AWAY FROM WATERWAYS, AS THEY ARE HIGHLY INVASIVE!!!

A Selection of Ferns for Average to Dry Soils 

It should be noted that the division of ferns into two lists, one with recommendations for ferns for average to dry soils and another for ferns for moist conditions (in part 2), is somewhat arbitrary. There are many other conditions at play (soil texture and drainage, soil/rock/substrate temperature, slope, air flow, light intensity, etc.), so please bear that in mind.

Maidenhair Spleenwort Fern, Asplenium trichomanes 
Native Range: Six distinct taxa around the globe
Height: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches)
Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade–Xeric 
Zone: 3-9
This dainty evergreen fern has striking black stems and round pinnules. It forms irregular clumps. Great for rock gardens. It is a variable fern with six subspecies; some thrive in acidic soils (ssp. trichomanes) others alkaline (ssp. quadrivalens). Incredibly tough once established.
Lady Fern Athyrium filix-femina (Northeast)
Native Range: North America, Asia 
Height: 30-100 cm (1-3 feet)
Spread: 30-75 cm (1-1.25 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade (tolerates part-sun with watering) 
Zone: 4-8
This is an easy-care classic fern from with finely divided light green fronds growing in attractive clumps. Recommended cultivars include: ‘Encourage,' 'Victoriae,' and ssp. cyclosorum.

Japanese Painted Ferns, Athyrium niponicum 
Native Range: Asia 
Height: 20-45 cm (1-1.5 feet)
Spread: 30-60 cm (1-2 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade (tolerates part-sun with watering) 
Zone: 3-8
Known for its pastel coloured gray-green fronds with reddish midribs, this deciduous fern with arching fronds should grace every shade garden. Recommended cultivars include: ‘Pictum,’ and ‘Pewter Lace,’ ‘Silver Falls.’
Hybrid Lady Fern ‘Branford’ (Hybrid A. filix-femina x A. niponicum)
Height: 30-60 cm (1-2 feet)
Spread: 30-60 cm (1-2 feet)
Light & Exposure: Part-shade to shade (drought tolerant
Zone: 4-8 
‘Branford’ was the “best looking” fern in late August after severe drought in the Chicago Botanic Garden trials (2015). It forms verdant mounds with wine colored stems and makes an attractive groundcover. ‘Ghost’ is a slower growing hybrid cultivar with silvery foliage, but it is not as drought tolerant as ‘Branford.’

This post was written by Catherine Kavassalis

About Catherine:

Catherine Kavassalis is a passionate gardener and conservationist. A scientist, educator and inspirational speaker, Catherine endeavours to stimulate interest and awe in the living world. She is member of the Halton Master Gardener group, the Past President of Oakville Horticultural Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Royal Botanical Gardens. Catherine loves to garden and has had her own eclectic organic garden featured on several tours.

For more on cultural conditions of ferns, visit the authoritative Hardy Fern Foundation 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

At Your Service; Serviceberries are not just for the birds!

by Signe Langford

Also known as Saskatoon berry and June berry, these tasty tidbits got the name Serviceberry from settler days; when the trees were in bloom, it meant the traveling church services were coming to town.

I love this shrubby tree so much I could have acres and acres of it; and if I had acres and acres of it, I’d still want more. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and they bloom early, which is nice for the pollinators. The fruit is delicious and prolific; the berries are prized by robins, waxwings, and squirrels, so any I can’t reach get eaten up, while any windfalls go to my hungry hens. And in the fall, the leaves turn pretty yellowy-red-orange.

Photograph by Signe Langford

The berry isn’t strongly flavoured like a raspberry; it’s more subtle, somewhere between cherry and blueberry. The riper it is, the softer, darker, and more flavourful it becomes. When I crunch down on the tiny seeds, my mouth fills with the taste of marzipan, which is a real treat! The berries are perfect for jams, compotes, pancakes, fruit salads; really, anywhere you might include blueberries or cherries. But, more often than not, I simply stand under my trees, picking and eating, and giving the squirrels the stink eye.

In the garden, it’s pretty tolerant, but it does best with lots of sun, and it doesn’t like being thirsty. Treat it like a shrub or tree and prune it into the desired habit. Plant several, about two to three feet apart for a beautiful edible fence.

Photographs by Signe Langford

Serviceberry 101

Amelanchier alnifolia–Alder-leafed Serviceberry, Saskatoon berry
A. canadensis–Shadblow, Shadbush
A. laevis—Allegheny Serviceberry
A. stolonifera–Running Serviceberry
Zones 3–9
Height to 25 ft/7.5 m
Spread to 30 ft/10 m
Sun to part shade
Acidic, fertile, moist, well-draining soil (A. alnifolia tolerates alkaline soil)

Photograph by Signe Langford

Serviceberry Lemon Olive Oil Pancakes

Baking sweet things with olive oil is something that many of us North Americans come to later in life…usually after someone from Italy, Greece, the Middle East, or North Africa smacks us upside the head! Seriously, baking with olive oil is worth a little smack upside the head.

These easy pancakes are lemony and rich and generously studded with serviceberries. If you can’t find Serviceberries or Saskatoons, blueberries will do nicely.

If maple sugar is unavailable, use brown sugar.


1–1 1/3 cups (250–330 mL) flour

¼ cup (60 mL) sugar

3 Tbsp (45 mL) maple sugar

2 tsp (10 mL) baking powder

½ tsp (2 mL) sea salt

1 cup (250 mL) whole milk, buttermilk, or plain kefir

3 Tbsp (45 mL) lemon olive oil, plus more for frying

1 free-run egg

1 cup (250 mL) fresh or frozen serviceberries


Preheat oven to 200F (100C) and leave a baking sheet or oven-proof dish in there to keep pancakes warm, batch by batch.

In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a small bowl, beat egg thoroughly then add milk (or buttermilk), oil, and combine thoroughly.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly add the egg-milk mixture. Add the melted butter and vanilla. Stir quickly until ingredients are just mixed and batter is still lumpy in appearance. Add the berries and fold in, just to combine.

Drop by quarter cupfuls on an oiled, medium-hot pancake griddle or non-stick pan; cook until bubbles appear on top and the under-side is golden brown. Turn and brown the other side.

Serve with butter and maple syrup.

Serves 2 – 4

This post was written by Signe Langford

Signe Langford is a restaurant-chef-turned-writer who tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes. She is a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Life, Canadian Living and Garden Making magazines. In 2105, Signe published her first book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden- with 100 Recipes

Raised in the town of Hudson, Quebec Signe grew up surrounded by an ever changing menagerie of critters, both wild and domestic, and her special affection for all feathered creatures has never flagged. At present, she shares a downtown Toronto Victorian with a tiny flock of laying hens. For more stories and recipes please visit

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Through the Garden Gate 2018: Toronto's Largest Tour of Private Gardens Explores 19 Gardens In Winfield Estate

This year Through the Garden Gate will explore 19 gardens in Windfields Estate (west of Leslie Street and North of Lawrence Avenue). The Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG), which is right next door to this neighbourhood, will serve as this year's tour headquarters.

This self-guided tour invites participants to discover the gardens at their own pace following a map and garden guide that contains descriptions of each featured garden. A complimentary shuttle bus service is available for participants to “hop on and hop off” along the route.

Knowledgeable Toronto Master Gardeners will be stationed in each garden to answer questions about the plants and the design features. Each garden highlights interesting plants andgarden design lessons including:

• How to create a certified wildlife habitat
• What plants to use in a shade garden
• Ways to use colour to marry your house and garden
• How to deal with elevation changes or a sloping landscape
• How to create a dog-friendly garden
• What plants to choose plants for all-season bloom

Tour headquarters

The tour headquarters is located at the Toronto Botanical Garden (777 Lawrence Avenue East), at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Leslie Street. As well as visiting the 19 gardens on the tour, ticket holders can also enjoy a stroll through the beautiful display gardens,  do a little shopping at the Garden Shop and enjoy lunch at the TBG CafĂ©.

For a different way of experiencing the gardens, join this guided tour and pedal around the route accompanied by a Master Gardener on wheels. Snacks, picnic lunch and a glass of Biodynamic Bubbly is included. This group bike tour is conducted in partnership with Toronto Bicycle Tours and is suitable for beginner to advanced riders.
$99/person + taxes (Optional bike rental $50 + taxes)

One-Day Pass: Public $45 / TBG Members $40
Two-Day Pass: Public $65 / TBG Members $60
Students $25 (With ID, One-Day Pass Only)
Tax included. Tickets are limited, advance purchase recommended.

For more information or to purchase tickets contact 416-397-1341