My garden, Hedgleigh Spring, has been a family affair for generations. My grandfather built a house on the family farm, then turned his keen sense of design outdoors to create a series of gardens on two gently sloping acres. My contribution to the garden he began in 1909 has been to preserve its unique design and to clothe its niches with interesting plants. But one spot perplexed me. Not far from the house, a set of broad, stone steps led down to a shady, sunken space surrounded by stone retaining walls. Shrubs atop the walls further enclosed the area, and tall white pines, hemlocks, and oaks met overhead in cathedrallike grandeur. My challenge was simple: what could I do with this intimate, shady space?
Garden design begins with an idea, and mine came during a hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Following a trail, I rounded a bend and dipped down into a little valley with slopes rising on both sides. The path was lined with waist-high ferns. Suddenly, I realized that ferns would be perfect for my shady spot.
To me, ferns are the quintessential shade plant—their delicate, feathery beauty and intriguing diversity make ferns especially useful for designing foliage combinations that shine in the shade. Their cultural requirements were appealing, too: ferns are adaptable, easy to grow, and require comparatively little care.
I quickly came up with a basic design for my shady, sunken garden, which I call the fern dell. I would leave a pineneedle– covered path down the middle and line both sides with perennial borders—but not borders with flowers. These borders would be filled with ferns and other shade plants.