Friday, 14 January 2022

How to tidy up the garden: Deciduous Ferns

It doesn't feel like it, but we are well past midwinter (which occurred, technically, before Christmas) and that means that Spring is very nearly here.

Well, it means that Spring is just around the corner.

OK, maybe Spring is just a far-off concept at the moment, but that's no excuse to leave your garden looking messy, and in fact, it's quite nice to wrap up well, on a cold well-past-Midwinter's day, and get outside for twenty minutes or so.

At this time of year,  the Hellebores are just starting to come into their own, so it's time to get rid of the dying Fern fronds from last year. 

How to tell if they are deciduous ferns? If the leaves have gone black and horrible, or look as though they have been flattened by an elephant, then they're deciduous!

I'm always banging on about cutting back once, cutting back hard:  and this certainly applies to Ferns. 

Once you are certain that they are “over”, cut each frond back right to the very base, right to the knobbly brown bit: don't just grab a handful of fronds and hack them off several inches above the base - all that does is leave you with a tuft of untidy dying stems to catch wind-blown leaves, and to spoil the look of the bed. 

This - left - is what I mean: what's that all about? It's neither one thing nor the other. It looks a mess, and you are still going to have to go back in at some point, and cut off all those dead bits.

So do it properly, the first time!

And, what's more to the point, if you don't cut back hard, you won't be able to see the wonderful new curly fronds as they start to unfold in spring.

So cut back right to the base: they don't need to retain the old leaves for frost protection (unless you live in a very exposed and particularly frost-prone part of the country), and leaving the dead fronds in place might be a slight benefit for over-wintering insects, but is more likely to create Slug Hotels, and personally I have quite enough slugs and snails eating away at “my” gardens, without encouraging them!

You will often read phrases like “when you see new fronds emerging, you can clear away the old fronds...” but this is really bad advice: for a start, with the old fronds cluttering up the place, you can't easily see if your new fronds are emerging. And you will then find it really difficult to gently snip off the dead fronds without damaging the tender new ones, so it's better all round to do them once they are no longer attractive to look at. 

Here - left - is one of my enormous ferns, a very old and knobbly fellow: as you can see, some of the leaves are actually still quite green, but they are lying down instead of standing up like a shuttlecock, and this means that they need to be removed.

This photo - right - shows you how hard I cut them back.

You can see that the fronds are now all removed, revealing a large number of tight, tan-coloured knobbles which are this year's new fronds, just waiting to start unrolling. 

 (It also reveals a mass of moss which I then had to carefully tease out!)

 This one, left, is a much younger and smaller fern, and I stopped to take a photo halfway through the process.

I'm not quite sure why, but I never put dead ferns onto the compost - they always go on the bonfire heap. 


I think I worry about all those spores... and I suspect that fern fronds, like Hellebore leaves, are a bit too “tough” to make good compost. Although I'd be interested to hear your comments - do you compost your fern fronds?

In the meantime, all we have to do is wait for the first of those fabulous knobbles to start unwinding itself!


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