Ferns need a bit of love to branch out

The Australian tree fern requires a bit of love — and doesn’t like years as cold as 2010, recalls Peter Dowdall.

A fern yet to unfurl itself. It's normal for the fronds to die off each year as the new growth emerges.

It was way back in the early spring of 2011 and I, along with gardeners the length and breadth of Ireland were counting the cost of the damage of what was 2010. A year that will forever be remembered in this country as the year of two winters.

We experienced temperatures as low as -17C, the country closed down as not just Jack Frost but his entire extended family seemed to visit and cover the entire land with a deep duvet of white snow. It may have looked picture-postcard beautiful, but many towns and villages were completely cut off for long periods of time. Once more, nature reminded us of her power.

Many plants were destroyed in the icy spell of early 2010 and many more were knocked back, but they held on in there until later in the year when we experienced Arctic conditions again in December and on into January. Those plucky horticultural friends simply gave up as they couldn’t withstand this second and more severe onslaught of low temperatures.

Of all my losses, the plant I was most saddened to see perish was a particular tree fern. This was a specimen of Dicksonia Antarctica, the Australian tree fern which was not only over 2m in height but multi-stemmed. In other words, it had three stems of in and around the same height standing like three large fingers spread out in perfect formation to allow each one display their wonderful canopy of fronds like mighty botanical umbrellas. I hadn’t grown this plant from young — I couldn’t have for it was much older than I was. I had been in Netherlands on a work trip visiting some nurseries and in one I had seen this beauty and I just knew that I needed it, love at first sight.

So, all the way it travelled, wrapped not quite in cotton wool but in hessian sacks which had previously held coffee beans, I discovered, as there were still some left inside, perhaps from South America or similar. I do know the Dutch like their coffee and make an exceedingly good brew, but I didn’t think that the nurserymen were importing direct from the plantations. Upcycling at its best nonetheless.

When my fern arrived in Cork I was like a child on Christmas morning, unwrapping the packaging. I knew exactly where she was going and I wanted to stand her in position to see if she would look as great as she did in my mind.

I stood her in situ and sure enough, it was made for this plant. That was in early 2007. I don’t normally take time to protect plants in my garden from the weather as in my world they need to be able to survive on their own. I can’t be doing with all the mollycoddling but this time I had made an exception. I had protected the centre of each stem with straw and lifted the fronds up around this, further wrapped them with horticultural fleece, and tied it all up with twine.

Unfortunately, post-2010, not even four short years after planting, when I unwrapped her winter clothes which I had hoped would protect her, I was now looking at this magnificent plant with the fronds drooping to her side, brown like winter bracken, limp, and lifeless.

It’s normal for the fronds to die off each year as the new growth emerges from the central crown of each stem but I knew in my heart and soul that this wasn’t going to happen this year. There was the sign of new fronds in the centre furled up but I knew that during 2011 these wouldn’t unfurl as they had in my garden over the last four years and for several decades before that, first in Australia and later in Boskoop in Netherlands.

I didn’t think I would use Dicksonias or any other tree ferns again either in my or my clients’ gardens. However, time moves on and, of course, I have done and I’m so glad that I have for there is nothing else that brings such a similar presence to the garden. They have it all: Elegance, structure, texture, architecture, grace, everything.

Those winters were hopefully once or perhaps twice-in-a-lifetime occurrences and they shouldn’t put me or anyone else off planting something which brings such joy.

My Dutch friend succumbed in that winter but I never had the heart to lift her out of the ground, hoping against hope, I suppose, but now she still stands there like a piece of living sculpture, the decaying fibrous stems playing host to many new plants which call these dead stems home.

Several ground ferns are growing out of her and a few ornamental grasses and even primroses have colonised her branches and it really is a thing of beauty once more however in an entirely different way.

Get a battery boost

If like many, you’re still clearing up after Hurricane Ophelia then please do be careful using chainsaws. One slip can lead to the loss of a limb so make sure that you wear all the correct safety equipment.

I recently discovered the Stihl battery operated chainsaw. I was a bit unsure at first, would a battery operated saw give me the power needed. It hasn’t disappointed. I suppose if a battery can power a car then a chainsaw is nothing. Having to mix petrol and oil and scratch my head when the pull cord doesn’t work is now a thing of the past. I press one button and off I go.

For more information: https://www.douglasforestandgarden.ie 


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