Why we created a diverse 50 species collection of ferns on one modern living wall and how we did it. I’ve always been drawn to ferns. If fairies and pixies exist, they will be found sitting on a mushroom under a fern in the woods. Ferns are otherworldly and ethereal. Transporting you to another time and place.
In 2014 I planted five different types of fern and had begun making plans to expand this collection further. Much further!
A living wall with a vast collection of fern species
Inspired by the Victorian ferneries at Biddulph Grange and Cragside (and later the Chelsea Physic Garden) we made plans for our own collection, employing modern techniques. Also because they remind me of happy times playing in the woods as a child at the back of our countryside cottage – a wall helps elevate ferns above head height again.
Ferns bring a unique look to gardens, their leaves, called ‘fronds’, are often very delicate and finely cut. Despite this, they can thrive in the most difficult places where other plants can’t, like full shade. Which was perfect for the fence at the south end of our garden that casts full shade beneath it.
Ferns are tough, rarely getting diseases or major pest problems.
Importantly, for me, ferns give the feel of ‘the wild’ that no other plant can offer. Even sitting on a patio in the middle of London a fern can transport you to a woodland floor.
A diverse family of plants
Most people probably don’t realise how diverse ferns are. They come in all sizes from minute to full grown trees, and in a wide variety of shapes and even colours. Some are purple, some silver, others have leaves like holly, some look like fluffy little palm trees, and some, like our native Hart’s tongue fern, just look like pointy straps. A few fern species, believe it or not, also like growing in full sunlight.
Here’s a tiny selection to give you an idea of the variety of ferns:
Our living wall (aka the living fence)
Using fence posts and lots of my dad’s carpentry skills (and mum’s ideas!), this is what we created:
One of the brilliant things about living in a small urban space is that it forces you to make the most of the limitations. You have to get creative.
I’d realised that the side of our house was south facing getting full sun for most of the day in summer but this was also a very narrow alley. This created a thin 1.5m walkway that had a sunny side next to the house capable of supporting Dahlias, and a full shade side next to the fence.
Chris and I had seen many modern living walls around London. They look very cool and the fantastic thing about them is that they make the most of vertical space, something that is so important to use in a small garden. It means, for a plant collector like me, I could grow five to six times as many plants in one spot. Amazing!
It was a very cool prospect, being able to grow lots of shade loving plants right next to sun loving plants. To make this a reality we needed to invest in large pots for the Dahlias, and somehow build a freestanding, shelving unit for the fern living wall. After speaking to Monty, he planted the idea that we could just use pots. My mum, dad, Chris and I then literally spent months planning the thing.
We kinda winged it a bit, with our only plans being this rudimentary sketch:
But it worked. The main concept was to be able to house about 50 – 60 two litre black plastic pots. Two litres being the optimal size for many small to medium ferns suitable for a living wall. Black so they disappeared behind the ferns, plastic to better retain moisture and square so they didn’t roll around. The shelves are at 45 degrees.
What ferns are suitable?
I was recommended by Dr Dick Hayward early on to investigate Polypodiums, which can be epiphytic (can grow on other plants obtaining water and nutrients from the air). Therefore perfectly suited to the living wall conditions.
However, I wanted to expand the collection to learn much more about different ferns. So I set about researching. Reading many fern books and websites of fern specialists.
Then Nick Bailey, the head gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden stepped in, and advised us to look at the native Asplenium scolopendrium. Although one species, it has a huge variety of cultivars and is very well suited to wall life.
In the end, we decided that because the wall we’d built can hold 2 litre pots, it could support most small to medium ferns that didn’t grow much beyond 60cm tall. We started ordering young ferns online that fit the bill:
What ferns did and didn’t work?
The types of ferns we found to be winners for the fern wall (so far) are species of:
- Dryopteris (typical fern appearance and tough)
- Asplenium (Hart’s tongue ferns in many different cultivars – v. tough)
- Polypodium (largely epiphytic and tough)
- Adiantum (delicate and fluffy but small and easy to grow)
- Blechnum (some like acid conditions but perfect size for a living wall, very small)
- Cheilanthes (full sun loving, some are slightly tender and will need protection in the winter)
- Pteris (medium size with lots of narrow fronds, great for a living wall but again may need some winter protection)
- Cyrtomium (unusual holly like leaves, quite large but also quite tough)
- Polystichum (large and tough)
At the start I was adamant that I wanted a large number of Athyriums. Japanese native ferns that come in the widest variety of colours, from shades of purple, red and silver. I had visions of swathes of colour through the green ferns making an artistic statement.
This was not meant to be. Athyriums are acid loving plants, and although they can tolerate neutral growing conditions, they will not survive alkaline. Where we live in London, the soil is actually neutral to acid. However, being in pots the ferns had to be watered and sadly, our mains water is extremely alkaline.
Very quickly, all of the Athryriums (about 20 in total) declined and died. It was very depressing. If you have access to pure rain water, this would solve the problem. Unfortunately we don’t because our gutters are connected to the mains as well.
Also, ferns that love extremely damp conditions aren’t really suitable either. Being in pots on a wall exposed to warm conditions in summer as well as wind, inevitably there are times when the pots dry out, even for only a day. This can be enough to seriously harm the plants.
Finally, our other learning was that, in our case, the top shelf is exposed to direct sun. Eek – ferns need full shade. Thankfully, after some reading, I discovered Cheilanthes, that are sun loving ferns.
The ones that didn’t work at all for us were Athyriums (every single one died) because it needs acid conditions and Thelypteris because it needs very damp conditions and two plants died after one day of drying out.
The finished result
We are over the moon with our fernery. I love the fact that we found at least 50 species and other cultivars that grow happily in it. Which makes for an incredibly interesting addition to the garden.
It looks great from inside the house looking out onto it, especially in winter.
There are things we’ll change in 2016, primarily rearranging them to make it look more designed. When Monty Don saw it, we didn’t have time to arrange it properly so it looks a bit chaotic rather than a design feature.
But it does feel jungly, especially when standing next to it:
A fern fanatatic’s dream realised
As part of our flat renovations, I’d been dreaming for years (we rented the flat for 5 years before buying it) of adding doors where the bedroom window is at the end of the walkway. Allowing people to step down into a tropical walkway, completely surrounded by plants.
The full list of ferns
Below is the full list of ferns we researched, grew and are now still alive! Under the list are some close ups of some ferns. I won’t go into detail on all of them here, I’ll save that for further updates throughout the year.
- Adiantum aleuticum ‘Imbricatum’
- Adiantum pedatum ‘Imbricatum’
- Adiantum pedatum ‘Miss Sharples’
- Adiantum pedatum (aeluticum)
- Adiantum venustum
- Asplenium scolopendrium
- Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Angustatum’
- Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Crested Form’
- Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Crispum Moly’
- Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Fimbriata’
- Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Kaye’s Lacerated’ AGM
- Asplenium trichomanes
- Athyrium ‘Oceans Fury’
- Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’
- Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’
- Blechnum spicant AGM
- Blechnum penna-marina
- Blechnum penna-marina BR68
- Cheilanthes lanosa
- Cheilanthes tomentosa
- Cyrtomium falcatum
- Cyrtomium fortunei AGM
- Cyrtomium macrophyllum
- Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata Angustata’ AGM
- Dryopteris championii
- Dryopteris cycadina AGM
- Dryopteris dilatata ‘Crispa Whiteside’ AGM
- Dryopteris erythrosora AGM
- Dryopteris erythrosora var. prolifera
- Dryopteris filix-mas
- Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Linearis Polydactyla’
- Dryopteris lepidopoda
- Dryopteris sieboldii
- Dryopteris wallichiana AGM
- Gymnocarpium dryopteris
- Polypodium cambricum ‘Macrostachyon’
- Polypodium cambricum ‘Pulcherrimum Addison’
- Polypodium interjectum
- Polypodium scouleri
- Polypodium vulgare
- Polypodium vulgare ‘Bifidomultifidum’
- Polypodium cambricum ‘Whitley Giant’
- Polystichum braunii
- Polystichum munitum
- Polystichum polyblepharum
- Polystichum setiferum
- Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’
- Pteris cretica ‘Wimsettii’
- Thelypteris palustris
- Thelypteris decursive-pinnata