Let me just preface this post by saying that I had a great day! I had nearly an entire, uninterrupted day to do something I have wanted to do for months – build some fern tables! Ever since I first saw one – or more so, three – at Joy Creek earlier this spring, I have been hoarding plants suitable for such a thing. Les mots du temps every time I saw something I liked, have been ” Oooh – I can put that in a fern table!” Well, the months rolled by, and my collection grew – very much at the expense of walkable space in my little garden. I never seemed to have time to actually spend productive time out there (other than watering, to keep the contents of all those little pots alive – no less create fern tables. This first Saturday of October, 2017, will go down in history as the day Anna actually got to play in her own yard for a change. Oh, the bliss!!!
But, let’s backtrack… On July 2nd, Richie Steffen (Director/Curator at the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden and the guy that made the fern tables at Joy Creek, came down to teach a workshop on how to make them. He began his own fern table-building obsession after reading an excellent book called Gardening on Pavement, Tables, and Hard Surfaces, by George Schenk. So, are you ready? Let’s go!
Start by piling a bunch of soil on top of your surface. Here, he is using a 2′ square concrete paver, but any flat surface will do. He told us he recently converted an old drill press to a fern table. In other words, your only limitation is your own imagination. As for the soil, he recommends a well-draining mix of bark, compost, and gravel. Don’t worry about drainage holes – you won’t need them.
Next time you go hiking, be on the lookout for cool pieces of wood you can use. Once you have piled on the soil, it’s time to add the structure of your table. Richie used a big, decomposing, worm-eaten slab, reminiscent of a leg of lamb, as the main component of this table. He specifically cautioned against using drift wood, as it would mar the forest-y look – which made me laugh! I had long ago decided that one of my tables would be a beachy variety with – maybe not so many ferns – but instead using things like Armerias, grasses, and maybe a succulent or two. Okay, I might put a Cheilanthes or two in there – for good measure. And, sorry Richie – I am SO going to use driftwood! I think that would be perfect!
Now, it’s time for plants! Tuck them in wherever you have little pockets, be they on the vertical or the horizontal, and hold them in place with pieces of wood, or rocks – and of course – more soil.
Some of those spaces can be a bit tight, and we all gasped when he tossed a little 4″ Mondo grass on the ground, and flattened it with his boot. My shutter missed the actual demonstration, but you get the idea. In its pancaked form, it fit its allotted space much better than the cubical form of its original root ball did. Apparently, the plants don’t mind so much, so no reason to be timid.
The same goes with plants. Just because it’s called a fern table, doesn’t mean you have to use exclusively ferns. Granted – ferns are fabulously varied, but any compatible and complementary shade plant will do; Asarum, Saxifraga, Disporum, miniature Hostas, Heuchera, Alchemilla, Ophiophogon, Dodecatheon, Hepatica, Chiastophyllum…. and so on. The list is l-o-n-g.
Here, the soil and the plants are held in place with layers of slate.
Here are some shots of the final product. Not knowing how this piece will eventually be viewed, this table was made to be visually intriguing regardless of from which side it is viewed. If you wonder about the fishing wire – no, it is not a requirement. The only reason it is included here, is that this table needed to be moved once the workshop was concluded.
I love those little chartreuse tufts of grass and shiny broad leaves of the Disporum… (Well, Ophiopogon isn’t really a grass, but you know what I mean.)
At the very end, Richie added a stick with some lichen, as a last little detail. Soon enough the logs and the soil will be covered in moss, making the entire arrangement look like someone cut a little sample out of an ancient forest floor, and presented it. It truly is a lovely little vignette!
Most importantly – have fun, and play with shapes, foliage, and color until you’re happy. I completely lost myself in the fun of creation today – although given the rough shape some of my plants were in, my fern tables don’t look half as good as Richie’s. At least not yet. Some of the things I put in mine, was nothing more than a tangle of roots at this point, having barely survived a dry summer in a little nursery pot. Fingers crossed there is still life in them, and that they will surprise me by emerging next spring!
The table I made today was built in situ (highly recommended – these things are HEAVY!!!) with one edge against a wall, so the interest is focused on the other three sides. In this aspect, building fern tables is very much like planting pots – their ultimate location dictates their composition. Besides ferns, the plants (barely) seen in this photo are Epimedium, Asarum europaeum, a miniature Hosta, a small Thalictrum, and Jeffersonia diphylla. I also scraped off some moss from another spot in the garden, and added it. Hopefully it will take off soon!
The one thing I didn’t expect to learn from doing this, was what a great way this is to use up plants. I bet I used at least 15-20 plants for each table I made. You can already see the difference in the garden, but once I get two more fern tables done tomorrow, this little exercise will have had a big positive impact in terms of cleaning up my garden clutter. And, for small gardens like mine, fern tables are great, because the plants used in them often don’t reach the size they would have reached, if planted in the ground. Plus, you are also building up – effectively layering vertically. So, from the point of view of a hopeless cramscaper – this means I can have MORE plants! Wo-hoo!
For most of you, who weren’t able to be at this workshop, and still might want to build a fern table, I highly recommend reading the primer Richie wrote and posted on the Elizabeth Miller website, as he goes into a lot more detail than I did here. There is also an excellent starter list of ferns to use, on the last page. Good luck! Have lots and lots of fun! 🙂
EDIT: Also – for more inspiration, check out my friend Loree’s report on the workshop, as well as the embedded link of the one she made before the class. She recalled a few tips that I missed to mention , and came up with a much more interesting base than the concrete blocks I used. I have to say that using metal conduit like she did, gives the tables a much less heavy-handed appearance. Absolutely lovely!