I found mysterious beauty in the shade

My move a few decades ago from the farmhouse in rural Yorkshire to our suburban-urban house in Glasgow was clearly going to be a horticultural shift, too. It wasn't just height above sea level or distance from the equator that was different. It was a matter of shadows.

Instead of a garden open to the sky (not to mention the wind), here was a smaller garden enclosed by hedges and walls and linden trees. Above all it was dominated by a tall Victorian sandstone house. Back and front gardens promised slightly different conditions - one facing south, one north - but both had a lot of shade. I wasn't used to such dimness. I needed to find plants with umbrageous preferences.

My bookshelves started to sport books on "shade-loving plants" and "shade gardening." I was surprised. They recommended a large number of plants that actually dislike the sun. My interest grew and I even began to feel a certain pity for gardeners whose conditions wouldn't allow them to grow these cool, moist, understory plants. There were ivies, hellebores, vincas, violets, the enchanting tiarella (or "foam flower"), and a host of wonderful woodland bulbs.

Above all, there was one obvious choice: ferns. How can anyone not enjoy this tribe of highly decorative foliage plants, with leaves of such intricacy? They are a breath of naturalness in a garden that might in other ways seem artificial. Ferns also bring a deep history. They are featured in Mesozoic fossils. When dinosaurs roamed 225 to 65 million years ago, ferns "thrived in the vegetation," according to immensely readable pteridologist Robbin Moran in his book "The Natural History of Ferns" (Timber Press).

I relish this sense of extreme ancientness in a plant. But Moran points out that only certain kinds of fern are that old; some are far from being living fossils! Still, I quite like to stick to the fantasy.

Today we have a garden that has all sorts of ferns popping up - even in places I haven't planted them. They flourish. In one part they have taken over too successfully, and I am going to have a deforestation session this year.

When I was still in Yorkshire, I found there was a "famous" fern grower nearby in Lancashire, near the muddy west coast. His name was Reginald Kaye. Out of curiosity I paid him a visit. I thought then, and still think, that ferns have an air of mystery about them.

I wandered alone around his rectangular beds of plants. I recall many alpines but not many ferns in plain view. So I headed for the building I thought might contain some evidence of human activity. It resembled the old potting shed in our own market garden I'd known as a child, but even more crumbly and decrepit in a comfortably neglected way.

Reginald Kaye was not obviously pleased to have his activities among clay pots and wooden seed boxes interrupted by some stray member of the public. I almost had the feeling that customers were an aspect of his business he could do without. I hope I don't malign him with inaccurate recollection; his lack of interest was quite amiable. (I believe that since his son inherited the nursery, it has become a quite different place.)

But Mr. Kaye did reluctantly admit that if I was genuinely interested in and authentically ignorant of ferns, he could show and tell me a thing or two, if I didn't mind waiting a while.

My eagerness was rewarded. What sticks in my mind most is the small greenhouse in which he propagated his ferns.

I am no botanist. But I did know that ferns do not propagate using flowers and seeds. They can't. They have neither. However, this is not because they are all older and more primitive than seeding plants, according to expert Moran. He says 80 percent of ferns belong to families that are actually younger than flowering plants. But spores - of which I had seen evidence on the underside of fern leaves - are how they usually multiply.

For a grower, Kaye explained, this reproductive process was not as straightforward as sprinkling seeds in a seed tray, placing it on a bench, watering it, and waiting. In his propagating house, his future ferns were not on a bench but under it, in a kind of netherworld of gloom, moistness, and slightly creeping indications of green mosslike surfaces. I got the impression that, when it came to fern growing, one needed to provide suitable conditions rather than be actively involved - a matter of allowing rather than inducing. This gave me a new feeling about ferns.

I have not turned into a propagator of ferns, but I have planted lots of them and let them distribute their spores where they will. I don't disturb them. A fern that's found its own rock cranny by the pond or on a mossy bank has a naturalness surpassing anything I might contrive.

We had a neighbor some years ago who took up gardening like a convert to a new way of life. I once showed her my efforts, and she told me that what she liked most was a narrow raised border along the side of the path that led from our front to our back garden. The path is squeezed between next-door's brick wall and our garage. This might not strike many people as a gardening opportunity. But here I planted a haphazard row of different ferns - maidenhairs, ostrich ferns, lady ferns, holly ferns, and so on. They have thrived there for 20 years.

Most people don't notice them, but they secretly flourish in their corridor of peaty gloom. And I see no reason why I can't imagine one or two mouse-size dinosaurs rooting around there, too.

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