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When Tamara Cox walks out into her fern garden, she feels as if she is entering another world. It is a world that is tranquil, cool and invigorating, where it’s possible to relax and unwind from the tensions of everyday life. A lot of people think ferns are difficult to grow, but Tamara says it is easy, once you know how. She suggests going and looking at places where ferns are growing naturally, and then trying to mimic the conditions they’re growing under. Once established, most ferns are actually quite hardy.

Ferneries are not as popular as they used to be, which is surprising, because ferns are very versatile and are well suited to small, shaded courtyard gardens. When planted in the ground they make excellent tall or low ground covers. Tree ferns (such as Cyathea and Dicksonia spp.) add soft, cool charm to the garden, and large tufted ferns (for example Blechnum spp.) add variety and interest. Many species also make excellent indoor plants.
Mass plant ferns for best results.

Care and maintenance

Ferns should be planted in a shady, protected site. An area which receives early morning sun or dappled shade is ideal. Ferns prefer slightly acidic soils, rich in organic matter. A thick mulch will help reduce evaporation and keep their roots cool. Fertilise in the warm months with organic or liquid fertilisers. When fertilising, always follow the instructions on the packet, and water well after application. Watering is very important. Tamara uses an irrigation system to water the ferns and also maintain a high humidity. It is turned on for ten minutes every twelve hours. Ferns growing indoors should not be placed near windows receiving afternoon sun, or near air-conditioning units. Do not use aerosol sprays around ferns. Bathrooms and kitchens, which are warm and humid, support many fern species. In other areas mist them occasionally.

Tamara’s ferns

Don visited Tamara’s garden recently to look at how to grow and use ferns. These are some of the species that feature in her tranquil garden:

Austral king fern (Todea barbara)Todeas are slow growing, long-lived terrestrial ferns. T. barbara is native to eastern Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It has fronds up to 2m (6′) long, and sometimes forms a trunk with several crowns.

Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium australasicum)Also known as Crow’s nest fern, this species has undivided, pale green leathery fronds to 1m (3′) long. It is found in Australia and the South Pacific, and grows naturally on trees or on rocks.

Hen and Chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum)This fern produces new plantlets on the ends of its fronds. It is an excellent indoor specimen and is also adaptable in many garden situations.

Water ferns (Blechnum spp.) Most species have very short creeping rhizomes or erect stems with rosettes of fishbone-type fronds. They occasionally form a short, scaly trunk. Tamara says to grow them in a semi-shaded position, and keep the water up to them.

Nardoo (Marsilea drummondii)There are about sixty species of nardoo, or water clover. The common nardoo is an Australian species which has clusters of fronds growing from long, creeping rhizomes. The fan-shaped leaflets float on the surface of the water.

Prickly rasp fern (Doodia aspera)A tough, spreading fern to 30cm (12″) tall. It grows in colonies from short, creeping rhizomes. Once established it is very tolerant of dryness and sun. The new growth is pink or red.

Tall maidenhair fern (Adiantum formosum)The giant or tall maidenhair is found in tropical and subtropical Australia and northern New Zealand. It grows to about 1.2m (4′) high, with irregularly cut fronds up to 80cm (30″) long. It needs shelter and warmth.

Further information

Tamara Cox is a member of the Fern Study Group of the Australian Plants Society (Society for Growing Australian Plants). It meets monthly, and every second month a group excursion is organised. For details contact: Peter Hind (President), 41 Miller Street, Mt Druitt, NSW, 2770. Phone: (02) 9625 8705.

For more information on the Australian Plants Society, which has branches in each state, contact the office on phone: (02) 9621 3437 or visit the website: http://farrer.csu.edu.au/ASGAP

Buying ferns

Ferns are widely available and are sold at nurseries, chain-stores, markets and through specialist growers (listed below). Often they are included in the indoor plant section but most can be grown outdoors in a sheltered spot. Assorted ferns in 200mm (8″) pots cost about $15. Hanging baskets in 300mm (12″) pots are priced at around $35. For a good range of ferns, including some unusual ferns, contact the following retail outlets and Fern Study Group members:

Nielsen’s Native Nursery
49-51 Beenleigh Redland Bay Road
Loganholme, 4129
Phone (07) 3806 1414 fax (07) 3806 1706
A good range of Australian native ferns.
Fern Study Group member, Rod Pattison
Miles Plating Road
Rochedale, 4123
Rod has a very large native fern collection and a small nursery selling native ferns. Many of the ferns are rare. Mail order available.
Rathie’s Rare Plants
Lot 5 Salston Road,
Greenbank, 4124
Phone (07) 3200 0268
Email: [email protected]
Fern Study Group member Kerry Rathie sells virtually all native ferns including mutant forms of some species. No mail orders but if unable to collect, contact Kerry regarding a possible visit to your area.
Fern Study Group member, Ian Wood, P.O. Walkerston, 4751.

Native Fern Nursery
6 Bardess Road
Farmborough Heights, 2526
Phone (02) 4271 6565
Specialising in stags, elks & tree ferns.
Palm Land
327 Mona Vale Road
Terrey Hills, 2084
Phone (02) 9450 1555
A palm nursery with a large area devoted to ferns, many Australian.
Sydney Wildflower Nursery
Veno Street, Heathcote, 2233
Phone (02) 9548 2818
A range of mainly local ferns.

Bush-House Nursery
Cobden Road, Naringal
(Postal Address: Postal Bag, Allansford, 3277)
Phone (03) 5566 2331
Contact Fern Study Group member Lorraine Deppeler for a stock list.
Prices – $3 per 4″ pot, $5 per 6″ pot and $1 per tube. Packaging and freight extra.
Ferntastic Ferns & Native Orchids
272 Humffray Street
Nth. Ballarat, 3350
Phone (03) 5332 1275
Fern Study Group member, Michael Healy, runs this small fern nursery as a hobby business. A large variety of native and exotic ferns always available. Visitors are welcome to call but phone in advance to arrange inspection.
The Refernery
Amey’s Terrace
Foster North, 3960
Phone (056) 89 1309
Range includes some cultivars. Most supplied in either tube, 4″ and 6″ sizes, or trays. The Nursery is a member of the Fern Study Group.

Further reading

‘Australian Ferns – Growing them successfully’, by Calder Chaffey. Published by Kangaroo Press, 1999 (ISBN: 086 417 9987). RRP $65.00.