As fond as I am of ferns for shady spots in a perennial garden, there are plenty of tropical species too handsome to pass up. I have a client whose pair of Australian tree ferns flank her front door every summer; they have spent the winter in the greenhouse for the past six years. On a smaller scale, Victorian parlor ferns and Boston ferns prosper in a shady spot outdoors over the summer, and make a decent show in a cool light place indoors over the winter. Every fall we fall heir to a number of plants clients have no place for, but can’t bear to compost. Won’t we take them? Try as I can, I can’t say no to a plant in need of a home. Added to these were a number of ferns Rob grew in pots at home this year. As the dwarf crested ferns we planted 2 years ago in this antique French fountain are clearly very happy, Rob decided a fernery was in order.
Once Rob gets a theme going, he has a sure hand putting a vignette together. The fern collection is kept company with lichen encrusted sticks from Oregon and carved wood mushrooms from Belgium. The giant fronds of what we call Macho ferns from his yard arch out some 30 inches, and cascade gracefully to the floor. We have turned on our heat, but an industrial building from the 1940’s heated with old Modine greenhouse furnaces stays decidedly cool.
A chartreuse dracaena named “Janet Craig” that grew vigorously over the summer in an oak barrel is brought inside. Its fountain like habit of growth is fern like, but the texture much more simple and dramatic. I find shade loving tropicals are indispensible for growing shade containers that are fresh and lively-different than the usual. This plant will winter well here; it will make a fine centerpiece for a shade pot next summer.
A pair of woven wood chairs and a table are drawn up to the fountain wall covered in baby tears. The elements of water and moss add to the woodsy look of a fern room. I cut a hole in the ceiling here large enough to handle the roof of an old Lord and Burham greenhouse. A shop devoted to all things garden would seem lacking without water, and a space to grow plants.
As the room starts to fill up with plants, the space begins to feel like a conservatory. It is no wonder people go to great trouble and expense to have glass houses, or grow lights in the basement. I perfectly understand that feeling of being shut in, once I am shut out of the garden. These ferns make me think about having plants at home over the winter.
Small tropical ferns have amazingly intricate leaf shapes and configurations. Their appreance seems natural-as opposed to tropical. Though I have enjoyed landscapes in Florida and Georgia, they do not look like home. I am not particularly a fan of that group of tropicals I call house plants. They look so tropical-and so out of place in my northern environment. A collection of ferns skillfully grown and arranged might make you really feel you are in an indoor garden. This is an illusion any Michigan gardener would welcome. The space moves beyond appearing like a conservatory, and starts looking like a garden.
We find a home for the other bits as well. A pair of variegated Algerian ivies are so striking in a pair of old faux bois planters. A spike encircled with Cuban oregano organizes a collection of small agaves and echeverias; Rob is calling this the arid zone. An old varigated ivy single ball topiary in need of a haircut will get a winter home somewhere in this room. The climbing fig that covers the walls completes the green picture.
Designing this space, just like designing any other, relies on a cohesive selection of materials and the establishing of strong visual relationships between them. This space is beginning to feel like a refuge from a Michigan outdoors which gets less hospitable as the fall wears on. Most interior spaces have a spot or two that can support a little plant life. There are lots of ways people continue to garden even when the season wanes; this is just one of them.