Garden Photo of the Day

The Beauty of an Asian Fern Garden

By Kim Charles

Jay Sifford from North Carolina shares his unique wooded reclamation project with us.

“This area of my Charlotte, NC, woodland garden has seen a lot of changes over the past three years. Previously considered an “unbuildable lot”, this area was eventually deeded to previous owners of my home. After I purchased the home, it sat untouched for about 15 years, covered in invasive honeysuckle, English ivy and poison ivy. Three years ago I decided to reclaim it and help it realize its potential. It’s now my favorite part of the garden and where I go to feel reenergized, peaceful and creative.
The first photo shows the land after being cleared of invasives and about 75 tree saplings that would never realize their potential. The remaining trees were limbed up as far as my pole saw could reach. I initially moved about 30 ostrich ferns from another area of my garden to the creek, and planted twig dogwoods which quickly became deer food and were removed. Two years ago we began building a Japanese-inspired yatsuhashi (zigzag) boardwalk that incorporates a deck that overlooks the creek. I wanted to stain it Chinese red. Half of my friends thought it was genius; the other half thought it was a big mistake. I’m glad I did it.
Today the garden is home to more than 1200 ferns of 30 some different species. The majority are planted in large interlocking swaths. I’ve also planted shrubs, mostly natives, and Japanese maples. I recently added 8 stone pillars of varying heights along the creek. I did this to embellish the story of my small creek and to add a bit more of an Asian theme. You see, the creek used to be larger, but when the neighborhood was built, the creek was rerouted through culverts. It reappears in my garden but, I imagine, is just a shadow of its former self. The pillars act as sentries or guides to watch over and protect the water as it flows into the larger creek, to give it the presence it deserves.
I have 13 deer that live in my garden, along with squirrels, raccoons, opossums, owls, hawks and dozens of songbird species. Somehow we all manage to get along, and this, in itself, is a metaphor for life and a lesson the garden continues to teach those who visit here."

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  1. frankgreenhalgh 05/10/2017

    Hey Jay - Your woodland fern garden along your mini water course looks like it has been designed and executed by a professional (joke mate). Wonderful story. Add me to the 50% who love the Chinese red coloured boardwalk. Congratulations on your vision and imagination, and on ending up with a peaceful garden which co-exists with the local wildlife and gives you and others considerable enjoyment. Cheers from Oz

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Frank! I sometimes think that wildlife is overrated, especially when skunks and squirrels dig up my plants on a daily basis. Cheers to you as well!

  2. Vespasian 05/10/2017

    Beautiful, what a lovely job you have done. I love the boardwalk and seat. I'm not sure about the red as I generally prefer a natural aged look, my husband loves it though and it does make a statement for sure. All the ferns and other growth is just perfect, so serene, truly a labour of love.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Ann. There are still a few stragglers not on board with the red. Ha. Happy gardening!

  3. Luvfall 05/10/2017

    Really beautiful Jay. I wonder how many of the original 'mistake' votes changed their minds once they saw the deck completed.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Ha. Most!

  4. tennisluv 05/10/2017

    Jay, thanks for sharing the metamorphosis of your woodland garden. It was beautiful in its simple, cleared state, but the changes and additions you continued to make only improved on what nature gave you. Without taking away from its natural beauty and native state. I, too, love the red walk as it only enhances the Asian/Zen look. The boulders along the creek definitely give it presence. You are a fortunate man to have such a wonderland to tend and enjoy.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Sonya. Every day I am aware of the privilege it is to live here and be a custodian of this land for as long as I can.

  5. User avater
    user-7007816 05/10/2017

    Jay, What a beautiful site you have created. The boardwalk is stunning.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Dale. I appreciate the comment.

  6. user-7007498 05/10/2017

    Jay: I applaud you for the immense effort you have poured into turning land that was considered to have no value ($), and showing that reclaiming our natural landscape is priceless.

    What a beautiful and peaceful garden. This looks like a fabulous place to relax (when you find the time). Many people have to travel great distances to enjoy this experience, and you have it as part of your property. Very fortunate, indeed.

    I am such a fan of the red boardwalk. I loved it in your prior posts, and think it was awesome to have a pop of color amongst the calmness of the green of the woodland.
    Yin Yang energy.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Kevin. Happy gardening to you! If you're ever in the area, please stop by!

  7. NCYarden 05/10/2017

    Great story of the woodland garden development, Jay. I share in that experience, though mine is still in progress...ratty trees, muscadine, smilax, stilt grass, etc., but getting there. I'm saddened to hear about the diminished creek, but glad you to hear you still get some of its attributes. As a huge fan of ferns, they are certainly right at home and naturalize so elegantly. I like the red stain on the boardwalk. It's a striking feature down in the open space. Looking forward to visiting some time. Thanks for sharing...I enjoyed this.

    1. User avater
      Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/10/2017

      Did you notice the remark about invasive honeysuckle?

      1. NCYarden 05/10/2017

        Yes I did. I too deal with that, but ours is the vine form. I pull and run roots frequently (along with the poison ivy which I am deathly allergic to), but it inevitably continues to creep back in from my neighbors who leave their property edges & woodland spaces completely wild. I will be trimming it off my spirea and abelia along the east edge of my property this week. It seems I am relegated to at least the fence form "decoration" :O

        1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

          Yes, this was vine form. I did resort to an herbicide eventually. Now, hand pulling any strays is easy and happens only occasionally.

    2. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      The creek is happy again. I can feel it. I've given it the presence it deserves. Come on down when you can!

  8. 2bakeornot2bake 05/10/2017

    looks wonderful, consider adding some woodland peonies for a pop of more color

  9. chelleisdiggin 05/10/2017

    Jay, you have my attention. I have been battling honeysuckle and poison ivy in the woods on my property since we moved in. Each time I think we're making headway, it comes back heavier than before. I'd love to hear about your techniques. And, the garden is beautiful, by the way.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. RE honeysuckle and poison ivy, I found that it's better for me to bite the bullet on these rare occasions and use herbicide. It's really the only way to get rid of it. After one use, though, hand pulling or target spraying with a small bottle is effective. I virtually have no more problem with either. These invasive are not natives, so sometimes extreme measures are needed, in my opinion.

      1. chelleisdiggin 05/11/2017

        Oh, exactly! We've been trying to use the more friendly spray - vinegar & salt with a little dish soap, and it works - for one season. With all the rain we've had this year, these invasive have come back with a vengeance. Thanks for your answer, Jay.

  10. User avater
    meander_michaele 05/10/2017

    This is what being a talented garden visionary is all about, allowed most of the natural attributes of the land to stay and enhanced the holy heck out of them. Mother Nature must sit invisibly by your side as your relax on that stunning red deck and beam as she looks about. I know you get great pleasure out of seeing the deer being part of the natural balance but how have you convinced them to leave your Japanese maples alone?Has the power of the Zen ambiance inspired them to only munch on approved "fodder"?

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thank you! You are such a great writer that it makes my little garden sound so magical!

      1. User avater
        meander_michaele 05/11/2017

        So generous of you to say so, Jay. Just coincidently, I happened to spend a lot of my gardening time today planting some different kinds of ferns. I even tackled dividing and relocating a clump of Japanesee painted ferns that I've always felt got too much sun and not enough water. They have been plucky survivors but deserved better than to struggle!
        Anyway, your garden is such an inspiration.

  11. User avater
    treasuresmom 05/10/2017

    Love this. Beautifully done!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017


  12. User avater
    Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/10/2017

    Fantastic, Jay. I remember your deck and yatsuhashi boardwalk, but can't remember if I've seen it stained/painted: fantastic. It's great that you can get along with all of the wildlife. Thinking of all of the treasures you have closer to your home, do you have a deer fence to keep them from making your prized plants a salad bar?
    Love your stone pillars. I would love to have dozens of them about my small yard, or basalt pillars.....

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Tim. No deer fence. I do use Deer Out as a spray every couple of months. A Timber Press author visited last week to photograph my garden and interview me for her upcoming book on designing a great garden vs. deer.
      I too love these stone pillars. I would naturally buy more, but it's important to know when enough is enough! ha.
      BTW, I've bought some new podophyllums lately and they are exquisite. How are yours doing?

      1. User avater
        Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/10/2017

        I'm so glad your new Podophyllum plants are doing well. I'm getting mixed results; some are excelling, others struggling or underperforming. I have the hardest time with P. delavayi; Spotty Dotty seems to be the best performer for me. I won't stop trying! My newest-Podophyllum diforme 'Hunan'-is a knockout, but the start of one season isn't a good predictor of how it will perform. Fingers crossed!

        1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

          I bought 5 delavayi last summer when I visited Dan Hinkley's garden. Three came back this year. I was pleased with that. One of them bloomed. I've recently added a really nice Red Panda and difformis 'Starfish Strain'. My Spotty Dotty is doing well and my Kaleidoscope, which I now understand is the same thing as Galaxy (or so I've been told) is growing by leaps and bounds and creating a bunch of seedlings. I've had mixed success in moving those little guys.

          1. User avater
            Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/10/2017

            Windcliff last year? I'm so jealous!
            Yeah....we discussed my jealousy over your Red Panda purchase and I'm excited that your delavayi plants came back and that you got a bloom. You'll have to start hybridizing!
            My Starfish Strain went dormant early last year and hasn't come up yet, although digging around I see healthy roots and a potential growing point. I think that 'Hunan' is a similar plant. When I purchased Galaxy at Plant Delights, they did say it was probably the same as the seemingly unavailable Kaleidoscope. It was enormous last year, but now late in coming up this year with three small leaves so far, but getting bigger.
            I'll be anxious to hear about how your Red Panda holds up in your heat, health- and color-wise. I think the P. pleianthum parentage should give it heat tolerance.
            Here's a photo of my two P. difforme 'Hunan' plants a couple of weeks ago.

          2. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

            Yes, those look quite similar to my Starfish. Perhaps my coloration is just a slightly bit blue. RE the Red Panda, the first one I received from Far Reaches apparently wasn't Red Panda, so I contacted them. They were so nice and sent me this plant as a replacement last week.

          3. User avater
            Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/10/2017

            Stunning. Love it and I love the folks at Far Reaches.

          4. Jay_Sifford 05/11/2017

            Tim, speaking of podophyllums, I just took two of the coolest insect photos with my iPhone. They were hanging out on the Kaleidoscope.

          5. Jay_Sifford 05/11/2017

          6. User avater
            Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 05/11/2017

            Those are some great shots, Jay!

  13. user-6945477 05/10/2017

    It is inspiring to see such a lovely, peaceful result from your considerable efforts, Jay. What a beautiful retreat you have created!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Carol. I feel gratitude and humility every day when I sit in my garden. I'm so happy to live here and be a custodian of this land for as long as I can.

  14. arthurb3 05/10/2017


    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Arthur!

  15. Doxnmomx2 05/10/2017

    Such a lovely garden you've created. I'm definitely on the Red team. The color is wonderful. Everything is well done.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017


  16. NWAgardener 05/10/2017

    Good Morning Jay - your woodland garden is so elegant in its natural simplicity! You must love to sit there and soak in the peaceful beauty. I have one very small unfenced wooded area that I am trying to tame and it is very challenging. Seems you have mastered that beautifully. I have found that deer will leave helebores and Solomon's Seal alone if you are looking to add other plants to your retreat. Thank you for sharing your beautiful labor of love.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks for your nice comments. That area of my garden is planted pretty exclusively with deer resistant plants. Fortunately, the deer don't eat ferns, so I planted over a thousand of them. Why think small, right? Other deer resistant plants that I've used include Everillo carex, buckeye, illicium, calycanthus, mahonia, rhododendron, and hemlocks. I do have hellebores and Solomon's Seal there and you are right, the deer don't bother them. Oh, look what I found last summer in my garden....

      1. Sunshine111 05/10/2017


      2. LaurelEm 05/10/2017


  17. linnyg. 05/10/2017

    Wow! I can feel the peace. Good job!!!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Linda. If a garden doesn't produce peace in its midst, it's not doing its job.

  18. schatzi 05/10/2017

    I agree - the red walk is stunningly beautiful. I appreciate the before pictures. After is spectacular! Great job.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Shirley. Chinese red is an awesome accent. I want to use it more in my designs.

  19. LaurelEm 05/10/2017

    This is so timely for me. I too have a neglected small wooded area. It has been dawning on me, how I could make this into something beautiful. It is sort of a deep ravine and water does come coursing down the ravine when we have very heavy rains and/or heavy snow melt. Dirty, fast, angry water. Even a deck structure I fear would be washed out.So I have to keep in mind to keep the bottom of the ravine fairly clear with probably just shade grasses. But the banks! Oh the banks! I find your garden an inspiration for what I might be able to create.
    First steps for me will be to clear out all the downed wood and remove all the box elder trees. sigh!! Not the fun part I'm afraid.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Hi Laurie. Thanks for the compliments. Your post meant something special to me with regard to how you described "Dirty, fast, angry water." You see, I look at a garden as a living entity as opposed to a collection of plants with a house in the middle. A living entity has a personality, moods, etc. You are a great writer and seem to be in touch with the magic that a good garden can conjure.
      I recently designed a small, partially cantilevered "viewing deck" for a client who has a creek that sometimes overflows its banks and can be angry at times. The viewing deck is just there as an observation point, but, truth be told, could likely hold two chairs. It's maybe 5 feet x 8 feet... I don't remember exactly. Perhaps something like that would work for you??

      1. LaurelEm 05/10/2017

        Yes for sure. I am kinda thinking along those lines too. It is exciting to think of making the garden I have in my head. First the heavy work of getting the old deadfalls and box elder out, which may wait til winter when we can have a big fire!

  20. Chris_N 05/10/2017

    You know I'm a great admirer of you designs, Jay. I'm running like crazy right now so I'll look closer and comment more later.

    1. gardencook 05/10/2017

      You have the right idea! There is a solitude about being in one's garden and smelling the earth and watching nature unfold! I agree with you wholeheartedly! Enjoy!

  21. gardencook 05/10/2017

    Love this sanctuary and the red deck is beautiful!!! Such tranquility and peace!!! With the world's events as they are, this is a welcome retreat!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Hi Sandi. Thank you. I quit watching the news a month ago and prefer to sit in my garden with a glass of wine. I'll let others stress out about world events. I know what it takes for me to keep my life going!

  22. user-4691082 05/10/2017

    Jay, I always love your posts. You are so talented! I, too, love the red! It's seems like the people who thought you were crazy must not be landscape folks, like us. What a treat today!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thank you, Rhonda. Red is such a great color in the garden because it is complementary to green. Funny thing though: I have so much trouble designing with red flowers. Burgundy, I can do, because I can pull out blue undertones with blue spruce, leymus, etc., but crimson red... ugh. My bane. At least Chinese red has a lot of orange in it!

  23. Maggieat11 05/10/2017

    Loved the story, Jay and love the results! Awesome! And the red is a perfect choice. You have such wonderful vision, and execution. Wish I could "borrow you" for a day to see what you would do with my garden!!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thanks Margaret. Happy gardening!

  24. User avater
    LindaonWhidbey 05/10/2017

    Good morning, Jay. Have you thought of relocating to the left coast because I would love your input on our wooded areas? It's so important in our hectic lives to have a peaceful retreat and yours is exceptional. Count me in the red group. Beautiful, really love all of it. Here we have the vine type honeysuckle in our woods but native mahonia, wild rose, Himalayan blackberry and winterberry are the hard ones to get rid of...and very picky, so much of our woods will stay as it is. Thanks for this great share.

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thank you, Linda. I love the left coast! Gary Smith, a great landscape designer/architect/artist who primarily designs public gardens at this point in his career, was here for lunch (before the fern glen was created) and said "You should move to Oregon or Washington because I feel like that's where I am when I walk through your garden!" I told him that I'd rather bring the left coast to the east coast.... no easy feat!

  25. bsavage 05/10/2017

    Wow! Your woodland garden is just stunning! I love the red walkway, and I love all of it. I can't imagine how much work must have been involved in removing the poison ivy and other things that needed to go. But the result is fantastic!

    1. Jay_Sifford 05/10/2017

      Thank you Brenda. It's a continuing labor of love, especially with this wildlife.

  26. Meelianthus 05/10/2017

    Oh Jay, I am really breathless at the beauty and serenity of your woods. The work must have been monumental I am sure and the results is such a very special place for you and visitors. The reddish-orange walk way is so perfect against the greenery and makes a beautiful statement - it just radiates PEACE.

    P.S. Deer here eat our native ferns - now if they would only eat the nettles! We have such an invasion of English Ivy here on Bainbridge Is. that owners 'rent' goat herds to come in and clear (eat) it out and they actually can clear a wooded area in a few days. Tasty!

  27. christianesterges 05/10/2017

    brilliant !!

  28. user-3058938 05/10/2017

    Be still my beating heart!

  29. perenniallycrazy 05/11/2017

    What a wonderful transformation! I'm looking foward to its continued transformation and your wonderful journey in its evolution Jay.

  30. GrannyCC 05/11/2017

    Beautiful and serene Jay. What a wonderful place to go to relax away from the worries of the world. I love the red!!

  31. cynthiamccain 05/11/2017

    So refreshing and cool looking, Jeff...I envy you your lovely shady garden!

  32. User avater
    vanhatalosuomi 05/11/2017

    Enjoyed your woodland garden story. The painted walkway is a plus! Luckily, there's no poison ivy in our area of Finland, or anywhere here that I know of. Dreadful stuff.

  33. sheila_schultz 05/11/2017

    I'm sorry I missed this post yesterday, Jay. I love the way you design with nature in mind, it is so very thoughtful and comforting. Thank you for sharing a piece of your paradise.

  34. bonnywagner 05/11/2017

    I'm interested to know what other things you have planted in this great space. You have done a heroic job. I would like to know how large an area you "reclaimed". I live in a similar area in VA and have dreamed of helping this area along It was seriously logged when we moved in 25 years ago and had been home to a still and a junk car lot. Many nice native ferns are starting to fill in the area near our creek/ trickle. We are starting to have an issue with Japanese sword grass. Does this plague you also? Have you written on this sort of reclamation project? Can you suggest resources?
    This was an inspiring story. THank you. Bonny

  35. greengenes 05/11/2017

    Beautiful Jay! Love the progression you have shared. That is a lot of work and it has brought such beauty! I could see this being a place of rest and recharging for sure! Thank you for sharing!

  36. thevioletfern 05/11/2017

    Wonderful!!! You are a true artist and visionary. I love that you have posted sentries along the creek. I am reminded of an Andy Warhol quote, "Land really is the best art."

  37. user-6536305 05/26/2017

    So natural look and yet so beautiful. Love your setting especially the zigzag boardwalk in Chinese red. Love the way that your garden lives in harmony with the wild life. Thanks for sharing your beautiful creation and hard work.

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