“I al­ways wanted my own wood­land” Ferns and shade-lov­ing peren­ni­als grace this sooth­ing, leafy wood­land glade in Cam­bridgeshire

Ferns and shade-lov­ing peren­ni­als give this leafy gar­den its sooth­ing at­mos­phere. Owner Colin Small ex­plains how he planted his wood­land glade

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This lush and leafy wood­land gar­den is full of ferns and shade-lov­ing flow­ers. The sooth­ing pal­ette of greens makes it a tran­quil plot that’s easy on the eye. “When we first moved here in 1992 it was all very dif­fer­ent,” says owner Colin Small, who lives here with his wife Sheila. “There was a 30ft-high ley­landii hedge that ran down the right-hand side and across the mid­dle of the gar­den, starv­ing the other plants of light. There was a weep­ing wil­low and var­i­ous shrubs, but oth­er­wise that was it. The grass was dead un­der the ley­landii and the top of the gar­den was cov­ered with bindweed, so we re­ally did have to start from scratch.” Felling the ley­landii was a pri­or­ity. “It took me a week­end to cut down 40 of them us­ing a chain­saw,” says Colin. “We hired a shred­der for the fo­liage and chopped up the tree trunks into fire­wood. We planted a wild hedge for pri­vacy in­stead.” SHADE LOVERS (clock­wise from above left) Yel­low ligu­laria and gold-stemmed bam­boo, Phyl­lostachys aurea, with ferns; ley­landii logs cre­ate bor­der edg­ing, with cy­athea and dick­so­nia tree ferns be­hind; strappy fo­liage of Beschorne­ria yuc­coides, Sam­bu­cus ni­gra and or­ange cro­cos­mia; prop­a­gat­ing ferns takes pa­tience; Colin’s fern­ery; ferns tol­er­ate a bit of dry shade

The pre­vi­ous owner was some­thing of an am­a­teur car me­chanic. “When we be­gan dig­ging over the top of the gar­den we found all sorts of buried car parts, such as en­gines and gear boxes,” says Colin. “We had to clear that as well as the bindweed, and ended up with a whole skip-full of rub­bish. “To smother any re­turn­ing bindweed I laid old car­pet and cov­ered it with the top­soil ex­ca­vated from my new pond. Some of these raised beds are now edged with old tree trunks to en­hance the wood­land feel.” The soil here is heavy clay, so Colin lay­ers on ex­tra home­made leaf­mould ev­ery year to boost fer­til­ity, im­prove soil struc­ture and hold in mois­ture.

“It took me a week­end to cut down 40 ley­landii with my chain­saw”

WOOD­LAND PATH (clock­wise from above) Colin’s jun­gle in­cludes Kirengeshoma pal­mata and Polystichum setiferum ferns ‘Plu­mo­sum Group’ and ‘Green Lace’ with Poly­podium cam­bricum ‘Richard Kayse’; catalpa arches over pot­ted cro­cos­mia, lilies and salvias; phy­to­lacca (poke­weed)

Next Colin set about plant­ing broadleaf trees. “I’d al­ways wanted to grow my own wood­land,” he ex­plains. “I’ve planted all sorts of trees and 25 years on they’re nice and ma­ture. I’ve got Robinia pseu­doa­ca­cia, two dif­fer­ent paulow­n­ias, the In­dian bean tree Catalpa bignon­ioides, hazel, na­tive dog­wood Cornus san­guinea and a cou­ple of ac­ers that give a re­ally good au­tumn show.” Un­der­neath these are es­tab­lished colonies of starry white wood anemones that flower from March to April, and del­i­cate blue­bells bloom­ing April and May. Oh, and there’s a vast num­ber of ferns... “I don’t re­ally know how my fern col­lec­tion be­gan,” says Colin. “Many years ago I grew salvias – prob­a­bly as many as 100 dif­fer­ent types. Then I went away one winter week­end and the green­house heater ran out of paraf­fin... There was a frost that night and it killed them all. “I stopped col­lect­ing plants for a while but as the gar­den be­came shadier I even­tu­ally be­gan to grow one or two ferns, and then one or two more and the whole thing es­ca­lated. Now I’ve got about 300.” A mem­ber of the Bri­tish Pteri­do­log­i­cal So­ci­ety (for fel­low fern-aholics), Colin can iden­tify most fern gen­era from 20 paces. “I can recog­nise a few from a dis­tance but what you re­ally need with ferns is to get right up close to see the lit­tle dif­fer­ences,” he says. To­day Colin fo­cuses his at­ten­tions on the more un­usual cul­ti­vars and has prop­a­gated many from spores. “I’m friendly with An­gela Tandy at Fi­brex Nurs­eries – she gives me un­usual plants from time to time.” Some of Colin’s more un­usual spec­i­mens in­clude blech­nums, B. wattsii (hard water fern), B. dis­color (crown fern) and B. tab­u­lare (Table Moun­tain blech­num). “They all have trunks and are mainly ten­der,” he says. “I’ve also got Todea bar­bara (king fern, na­tive to Aus­tralia). We went to see an an­cient one at Ascog Hall on the Isle of Bute that’s more than 1,000 years old. Its rhi­zome was so big it looked like a rock. Even ferns dat­ing back to Vic­to­rian times can weigh as much as a tonne.”

“What you re­ally need with ferns is to get right up close to see the lit­tle dif­fer­ences”

Colin grows his own tree ferns such as cy­ath­eas and Dick­so­nia antarc­tica. He’s built a spe­cial 5m (16ft)-tall fern­ery be­hind the house in which to over­win­ter these larger, more ten­der pot­ted ferns. “It’s also use­ful for prop­a­ga­tion when I run out of space in the green­house,” he says. “Grow­ing ferns from spores is a slow process though. I’m only just pot­ting up plugs that I sowed four years ago.” Colin’s leafy, north-fac­ing gar­den is per­fect for grow­ing other shade-lovers too. As com­pan­ion plants for his ferns he has un­usual wood­lan­ders such as beesia (a leafy mem­ber of the but­ter­cup fam­ily), del­i­cate van­cou­ve­ria and Podophyl­lum pelta­tum, which has flow­ers re­sem­bling a small white helle­bore. “I have hostas too,” he says. “I use slug pel­lets in early spring and my wife Sheila goes on reg­u­lar sor­ties up the gar­den with her se­ca­teurs to deal with the enor­mous Span­ish slugs. The frogs used to eat them, but then the great crested newts ate all the frogspawn.” The front gar­den is Sheila’s do­main. “It’s re­ally sunny and she grows laven­der, gauras and heucheras,” says Colin. “She’s also grown a gi­ant beschorne­ria – a bit like a yucca, with enor­mous great flower spikes in red or yel­low. The big­gest one was 12ft tall and flopped right over the drive­way so we couldn’t park the car for a week!”

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