Home & Garden

Ferns: Think of them as fronds with benefits

The deer fern, or Blechnum spicant, is an evergreen that is among the more than 150 varies of ferns growing at Whitehall House & Gardens in Louisville. It is hosting a talk next weekend by national fern expert Sue Olsen.
The deer fern, or Blechnum spicant, is an evergreen that is among the more than 150 varies of ferns growing at Whitehall House & Gardens in Louisville. It is hosting a talk next weekend by national fern expert Sue Olsen. Whitehall

Imagine a fern garden, and you're transported to a lush, woodland glade with sun-dappled shade and the splashing sounds of a nearby waterfall. Interested in making that scene a reality in your garden? Sue Olsen, a pteridologist, as those who study ferns are called, will speak about ferns next weekend in Louisville.

She will present her talk, "Ferns for All Seasons," on June 22 at Louisville's historic Whitehall House and Gardens.

"She is the No. 1 fern expert in the U.S.," said Whitehall's landscape director, Michael Hayman.

The venue is appropriate because it's home to the Ralph Archer Woodland Fern Garden, where more than 150 woodland plant varieties grow. Styled after a Victorian stumpery, it has tree stumps and felled log sections from rot-resistant trees, including Osage orange, red cedar and black locust, installed to create rustic landscape features. The Archer garden is an official display garden of a group that Olsen helped start, the Hardy Fern Foundation. Tours will be given after Olsen's talk.

With ferns, it's not about flowers — it's about foliage. Instead of a brilliant display of sizzling blossom color, ferns pull you in for a cool, closer look at their intricate leaf patterns and textures.

Olsen, who lives in Bellevue, Wash., became interested in ferns as a home gardener. While landscaping her home about 40 years ago, she was drawn to some autumn ferns in the botanical gardens at Seattle's Ballard Locks.

At that time, these colorful evergreen ferns were not as commonly available as they are now. When she asked the curator where to buy them, he gave her a fertile frond, or leaf, and suggested she use the seeds, called spores, to grow her own. As a novice, she succeeded not only in propagating about 300 ferns from that frond but in starting her life's work.

Olsen has become a leading authority on fern cultivation. She developed a mail-order business (Foliage Gardens Fern Nursery), wrote a comprehensive reference book (Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, Timber Press) and established the Hardy Fern Foundation, which has expanded to international membership.

Of her upcoming Kentucky visit, Olsen said, "I will basically be showing pictures of ferns that should be suitable for your area, cold and hot."

How does a Kentucky gardener grow luscious ferns similar to the ones found in Olsen's native Pacific Northwest?

"As for improved survival, I strongly recommend mulching for both cold and heat protection," she said. She suggests leaf litter and compost as suitable for that purpose, and that in winter, a layer of snow is good mulch.

Hayman says watering during droughts helps ferns survive.

"By watering, we keep the ferns from going dormant and keep the garden looking good much longer into summer and fall," he said.

His list of best-performing fern varieties at Whitehall includes: maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), Lady in Red lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina subsp. angustum f. rubellum), Brilliance Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora 'Brilliance'), Dixie wood fern (Dryopteris x australis) and Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

Hayman credits self-proclaimed "fernatic" Ralph Archer, for whom Whitehall's garden is named, for his dedicated work developing the garden and for supplying hundreds of the founding plants.

A team of Whitehall gardeners, Jefferson County master gardeners, Greenhaven Tree Care and Munchkin Nursery have been the primary partners in maintaining the garden. Leslie Pancratz keeps records of the ferns.


'Ferns for All Seasons'

What: Talk and slide presentation by national fern expert Sue Olsen. Tours of the Ralph Archer Woodland Fern Garden will follow.

When: 10 a.m. June 22

Where: Whitehall House & Gardens, 3110 Lexington Rd., Louisville

Cost: $15. Reservations not required.

Learn more: (502) 897-2944, whitehall@historichomes.org, Historichomes.org

Also: While visiting Whitehall, tour the rest of the garden. Whitehall's landscape director, Michael Hayman, suggests seeing the hydrangeas in the Formal Garden, which should be close to peak next week, and Annie's Garden, with its meandering paths and fairy-tale trees that look good spring, summer and fall. A sycamore with chalk-white bark between Annie's Garden and the Formal Gardens is spectacular.


Websites of interest to "fernatics":

Foliage Gardens Fern Nursery: Foliagegardens.com

Hardy Fern Foundation: Hardyferns.org

American Fern Society: Amerfernsoc.org

British Pteridological Society: Nhm.ac.uk/hosted-sites/bps