Natural Companions

See how the plant world’s blooming buddies can turn a garden into paradise.

By Ken Druse


Ken Druse's Natural CompanionsStore-bought packets of preservative work, or you can make your own. Mix one part naturally sweetened citric soda like 7Up to three parts water for a bacteria-deterring, nutritional solution. Other home remedies also have some value. A penny in the water may help reduce fungus. Aspirin is acidic and prevents bacteria growth just like the citric acid, as does a quarter teaspoon of bleach per quart of water. Flowers will last longest if kept cool—even in cold storage, down to 38 degrees F. Keep flowers in the house out of direct sun and do not put arrangements near fruit, which gives off ethylene gas, shortening their life.

Most important: recut the stems and change the water every day. I use warm water, except for bulbs.

One Good Fern Deserves Another

We know that foliage is often more important in a garden vista than blooms are. Flowers are fleeting, but foliage lasts all season long or longer, in the case of the needle and broadleaf evergreens. There are evergreen ferns, as well, but most of the choices for our gardens die to the ground in winter and present their coiled, bishop’s crook crosiers again in spring. Most ferns come from the shaded, moist woodland areas of the world, but there are drought-tolerant ferns, desert species, and ones that grow in sunny rock crevices (Cheilanthes spp., for example). Hayscented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) also likes sun and can often be found growing in open areas like somewhat dry meadows with sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), a creeping subshrub, and little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium). In shady spots, we’re happy to have plants with large solid leaves that evolved to gather as much light as possible. Ferns, on the other hand, unfold their feathery fronds to absorb light and provide us with unmatched texture in these protected spots. There are some 12,000 fern species in the world, and these are among the oldest plants on Earth. There are ferns with colorful fronds, like the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ and other varieties). Some of the hardy ferns for gardens are evergreen; for example, the Polystichum spp. like Christmas fern. Other useful garden ferns are Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern), Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern), Dryopteris erythrosora (autumn fern), Onoclea sensibilis (sensitive fern), Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern), O. claytoniana (interrupted fern), O. regalis (royal fern), and Thelypteris noveboracensis (New York fern). Some fern allies to grow alongside these old-timers include plants that will provide contrast to their feathery foliage or produce flowers that punctuate the plantings. Worthwhile examples include Rodgersia spp., Trollius spp., Brun­nera macrophylla varieties, Omphalodes cap­padocica, hosta varieties, Carex spp., Milium effusium ‘Aureum’, Primula sieboldii, Epimedium varieties, and shade-tolerant spring-flowering bulbs. As delicate as some ferns appear, most are fairly sturdy, and a few might even become an aggressive problem. The North American species Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) has runners—just below the soil surface—that connect plant to plant. Although slow to establish like many ferns, once it gets going, ostrich fern will colonize as much territory as it can, and even choke out weeds. You may want such a species for a difficult site that is too shady for lawn yet still calls out for a blanketing cover, but be wary (or at least knowledgeable) about what you wish for.

Excerpted from Natural Companions: The Garden Lover’s Guide to Plant Combinations, by Ken Druse, botanical scans by Ellen Hoverkamp. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; March 2012; U.S. $40.00/Can. $45.00; ISBN: 978-1-58479-901-6)