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Ferns brighten shady spots

Begonia changes its colour depending on the light conditions

Even though they may be intrepidly faithful in their attractiveness, it's easy to take no-care plants for granted. Every once in a while, it's good to praise their easy bounty.

Around five years ago, on an amble through a local nursery, I came upon an unusual fern with curly and crinkled fronds. The label described it as easy to grow and more tolerant than most ferns of dry soils. My kind of plant. The label suggested using it as an "accent" fern in the woodland or shady garden. I scooped it up.

The fern is a Dryopteris, the genus that contains by far the largest number of good garden ferns.

The species is D. filixmas, known commonly as the male fern, named for its robust nature. With some attention to watering in dry weather while it establishes, male ferns are known for thriving in dark, difficult corners and not spreading to take over a large area. The named, cultivated variety that caught my attention is 'Crispa Cristata.'

I planted the fern in a pot 30 centimetres wide and 25 cm deep and placed it by the front door, which faces north and is under a broad roof overhang. It's been there ever since.

In winter, I set the pot out in the rain once or twice to prevent the soil from drying out completely, and in late winter I clip all the old stems off at their bases.

Every year brings fresh fronds in shapely, roughly vase-shaped form. This year, a light green froth of Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria) has appeared at its base. This delicate little trailing plant, along with creeping snapdragon (Asarina procumbens), grows in a strip of rock chips against the house wall next to the door. Both pop up occasionally as selfsown plants in pots and the open garden.

Apart from the annual clipping and summer watering, I do little for the fern except the odd topping up of the planting mix with fresh mix or fish compost. In return for these little attentions, the fern sits splendidly by the door in its fancy frills all through the year.

Floral chameleon. Growing my chosen begonia variety in hanging baskets across the front of my house is actually like having a varied assortment of begonias, plant to plant, year to year. This is because of the plants' ability to create infinitely varied patterns of cream, peach, and rose.

As in the past four summers, the baskets I see from my office window hold large, tumbling clusters of big, bold blossoms, delicately coloured and fascinating in their multicoloured diversity.

I chose to go with this begonia, 'Champagne,' after observing, among an assortment of different hanging-basket begonias over the years, that this one consistently produced the most glorious display of flowers, with no huge effort on my part, for the longest time. I often have Champagne flowers into November.

I started out with five small tubers of Champagne. By this year, the tubers had grown so large that I had to divide them. I potted some of the extras to give away, and placed the two extras that I kept above a potting bench under a wisteria, just across the driveway from the other five baskets.

There, the deeper shade has altered the flower colouring dramatically. The blooms are almost pure, rich cream, with only the slightest tints of pink.

I like flowers that display diversity. Though "uniformity" may be considered a high virtue in garden design, it can also be a bit of a drag. Nature is not uniform. Its endless attraction and key to survival is diversity.

Champagne tubers are sold in some garden centres in late winter and early spring. A mail order source is Botanus.

Someone admiring the Champagne blooms recently asked about fertilizing them in summer. My reply was that I don't. I plant them with nutrient stations built into the baskets.

First, I use a planting mix of substance, combining roughly equal parts commercial planting mix and bagged, sterilized soil, with a little perlite and vermiculite added, and a slow-release, naturalsource fertilizer mixed in.

When potting, I place a layer of the mix in the basket, then a layer of fish compost (or bagged, sterilized manure), then more mix, a sprinkling of the slow-release fertilizer, and then more of the mix before settling the young, rooted plants into the baskets. This may sound fiddly, but it does produce container plants that need only watering in summer.

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