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Make your shady corners sing with trouble-free and majestic tree ferns, says Monty Don

Ferns of all kinds are a love of mine. Not in a plantaholic mode, obsessed with collecting and growing as many different ones as possible, but simply loving their soft green fronds growing so elegantly in even the darkest, driest shade. 

I have a number of different kinds but the vast majority are the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, which grows like a giant green shuttlecock. 

The ostrich fern develops a stubby ‘trunk’ after a few years, but this never becomes more than about 15cm (6in) high.

If you like ferns and you want one to look like a tree fern then you have to get the real thing. I only came to tree ferns about five years ago but now have two fine specimens. 

Both are Dicksonia antarctica, the hardiest and most trouble-free of tree ferns and certainly the one to begin with. It originates from Tasmania and has exceptionally long leaf blades – up to 2.5m (8ft) in a mature tree – and a thick cinnamon-coloured trunk. 

British gardening expert Monty Don reveals his love of ferns and gives tips on how to grow different types. Pictured: Monty with his tree ferns

Like all tree ferns this ‘trunk’ is in fact a bundle of vertical rhizomes surrounded by a bristly padding of roots, open and exposed to the air. The roots that grow from the base of this stem are very small and are not large enough to anchor it into the ground when you plant it. For this reason you should bury about 10-15cm (4-6in) of the trunk in the ground when you plant it and tread it in very firmly.

They grow very slowly, no more than 2.5cm (1in) a year, so buy the largest you can afford and accept that how it looks immediately after planting is, to all intents and purposes, how it will look in 10 or even 20 years’ time.

They like to be in dappled shade and although they need good drainage they prefer to be constantly humid, so, unless it is raining, they will need spraying once a day so that the external roots on the outside of the trunk are thoroughly wet. If you do not have a hose with a spray (and if you buy a tree fern it is probably a sensible investment to get one), then pour a can of water into the top of the trunk at the point where the fronds grow out and this will soak down like a sponge.

This daily spray is not only the key to root health but also has a big influence on size. If the fronds are getting smaller each year, it is a sure sign that it is too dry. A daily spray of a few minutes from the time you unwrap it in spring up until early autumn will ensure that they grow to their full majestic potential.

Tree ferns do not need extra feeding, but it will increase frond size. A mulch of compost around the base each spring and a weekly drench with dilute liquid seaweed directly to the crown will make a noticeable difference.

The crown, which is an inverted cone, is the most vulnerable part of the plant in winter. To protect it, stuff it with straw and fold the existing leaves back over it, tying them together like a bonnet. 

This will act as insulation and stop the top of the trunk filling with water that can freeze, expand and kill the fern. Then wrap the cone, fronds and top half of the trunk with fleece or hessian. This will protect the plant from temperatures down to -10°C. All this can be removed after the last frosts and the old fronds cut back. Then, with light, air and plenty of water, new fronds will appear in a few weeks. 

Ask Monty 

Poppies invariably come up as a rash of seedlings (each head has thousands of seeds)

Poppies invariably come up as a rash of seedlings (each head has thousands of seeds)

Q Having randomly sown poppies, should I thin the seedlings or leave it to the survival of the fittest?

J Crossthwaite, Lancs

A Poppies invariably come up as a rash of seedlings (each head has thousands of seeds). I pull up the ones I do not like the look of – or cut off the seed heads after flowering – but mark my favourites and keep the seeds. Sow these and gradually you get poppies that combine all your favourite qualities.

Q Our allotment grounds have been flooded for weeks. How will this affect planting when it eventually goes?

Ask Monty

Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected]

Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally. 

Julie Littlewood, Herts

A If the flooding does not last for more than 15 days almost nothing will suffer. The major problem is the influx of weed seeds that flooding brings, and earthworms cannot survive as they need oxygen – this will seriously reduce the quality of your soil.

Q A peony I planted ten years ago comes up annually but has never produced flowers. What can I do?

M Mellor, Dorset

A It sounds like you’ve planted it too deep. Dig up in early autumn and replant it more shallowly, so that the crown is above or just below the surface.

JOB OF THE WEEK: CUT BACK PERENNIALS 

Perennials that flower in late spring or early summer, such as oriental poppies, many hardy geraniums, lupins and early delphiniums, should be cut back hard, removing spent flower stems and all but the very smallest foliage. This stimulates regrowth and more flowering.

JOB OF THE WEEK: Perennials that flower in late spring or early summer, such as oriental poppies, many hardy geraniums, lupins and early delphiniums, should be cut back hard

JOB OF THE WEEK: Perennials that flower in late spring or early summer, such as oriental poppies, many hardy geraniums, lupins and early delphiniums, should be cut back hard

IS YOUR GARDEN A WINNER? 

There’s still time to enter Britain’s most prestigious amateur gardening contest – whatever the size of your plot.

To enter, send 4-8 photos of your garden (which cannot be returned); a plan of your garden; and your name, postal address, phone number and email address to National Garden Competition, PO Box 485, Fleet, GU51 9FF by Friday 23 July.

The judges will make a shortlist of gardens to visit to select four finalists. If you’re on the shortlist you’ll be contacted by Saturday 24 July; visits will take place from 27 to 29 July. Final judging will take place from 4 to 5 August. Finalists and the winner will be featured in Weekend.

The judges’ visit will conform to the government Covid-19 guidelines at that time. If conditions preclude garden visits, other arrangements may have to be made to complete judging.

THE RULES

  • The competition is open to amateur gardeners, who should have designed and principally built their gardens themselves.
  • Entrants should maintain the garden with no more than one part-time helper. 
  • Entrants agree their gardens may be used for promotional purposes. 
  • Entrants must be over 18. Usual Daily Mail rules apply. The judges’ decision is final. 

THE PRIZES

£2,000 first prize, plus special blue plaques for all finalists.

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