Ferns at Leith Hall Garden

I am a gardener at Leith Hall garden and estate, owned by the National Trust for Scotland. For those of you who are not familiar with Leith Hall, it was built in 1650 and was the home of the Leith-Hay family for nearly three hundred years until 1945. Situated at Kennethmont, about seven miles off the A96 at Huntly in Aberdeenshire, Leith Hall has a beautiful south facing walled garden which is the Trust’s highest altitude garden at 186m above sea level and the furthest north at a latitude of 57.358147N. It overlooks the surrounding Aberdeenshire countryside and can have quite extremes of weather from high temperatures such as 23C a couple of weeks ago down to a previously recorded temperature of -28C. As well as expanses of lawns, trees, extensive herbaceous borders, an orchard, a kitchen garden, a formal garden and woodland areas, tucked away at the far end of the garden behind the very large rockery and pond is an outdoor fernery.

As with many large estate gardens there is always something that needs to be done (more often than not weeding) so it is inevitable that some areas of the garden get a bit neglected at times which is the case of our fernery. It has been pretty much left to its own devices over the past few years to the point that certain ferns have taken over and are in need of a bit of a cull. When I arrived at Leith hall just over a year ago and discovered the fernery, I was immediately taken with it. The main part of the fernery sits in a rock lined pathway cut in to the hillside with more ferns surrounding it at ground level above. I love ferns but I am by no means a fern expert so I feel like I’ve had a self-inflicted crash course in fern identification over the past few months. After coming across an old list of ferns compiled by members of the BPS back in 2014 when they visited the garden to help the then Head Gardener identify ferns, I decided to get stuck in to the job. My first task was to try to identify all the 21 ferns on the list as previous labels had either disappeared over time or had faded to the point they could no longer be read. Thankfully someone had written notes on the list to give me an idea of the location of each fern which was a huge help. As well as identifying existing ferns it will then be a case of removing unwanted growth and tidying up the area to make way for some new ferns to add to the collection and it is a large area to be cleared of overgrown weeds – a bit of a daunting task. Many of the ferns here are very mature and the male and lady ferns have taken over a bit so quite a few of these will be removed to reduce their numbers – I now refer to them as the fern thugs.

The first fern I went looking for from the list was Osmunda Regalis, a fern you would think you could spot a mile off given its majestic appearance and size. I confess however that I had been oblivious to it hidden under a large rhododendron behind a huge clump of bamboo and surrounded by weeds and other planting. A fern that beautiful needs to be more visible but It’s obviously fairly happy where it is with its feet right next to the water run off channel from the pond so I was reluctant to dig it up and move it to a more visible location. Therefore, I had to do something about its surroundings and after removing a lot of undergrowth and branches we now have a much more visible Osmunda Regalis, and a much tidier looking rhododendron. Next on the list was Cryptogramma crispa, the parsley fern. I searched the location it was suppose to be in and couldn’t find it. I went back several times over a period of a few days and eventually found it smothered under some rosebay willow herb along with a rambling geranium and oxalis growing through it. The Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ was also there right next to the parsley fern, similarly over run with weeds. Nearby there is a beautiful mature fern too which I love for its very lacy appearance. This particular fern is quite large and seems to enjoy being in sun all morning but I have no idea what it is. I tried crushing the foliage to see if it had a scent but I’m getting nothing. A few people have looked at photos of it but no one yet has been able to identify it so if anyone can figure out what it is from the photos I would love to know so I can add it to our list. At the moment it’s referred to as the mystery fern.  The area these ferns are in has now had a bit of a tidy up but I am left with the dilemma. Do I dig up the Cryptogramma and Athyrium niponicum ferns to try to separate them from the roots of the weeds and hopefully prevent them being overrun again or, do I try to remove a section of each fern and relocate them to an area that has been cleared of weeds to see if they root and survive. Maybe I can then go back and tackle to original ferns and their weed problem once I know the transplanted sections are surviving?  Not being a fern expert I’m not sure how either of these ferns will respond to being dug up to separate them from the weeds. If anyone out there can advise I would be very grateful. In the mean time I keep plucking the weeds out when I see them pushing their way through the ferns. The whole of the area around the parsley fern was also over run with Gymnocarpium dryopteris and Phegopteris connectilis, both ferns I want to keep but both need to be reduced a bit. Over the past couple of weeks’ we have managed to remove the equivalent of a couple of square meters of the Gymnocarpium but it is not an easy task. The roots are so extensive that it has been like trying to lift and roll up a very thick rug to get it all out then go back and pull out any bits of root left behind. I’m hoping it won’t grow back anytime soon and the aim it to try to confine it to a few small areas. Not sure how that will work but I do like a challenge!

My next task will be to work on the area immediately above the fernery to clear it of weeds and unwanted shrubs to make way for new ferns and other plants. It’s a bit of a fine line between wanting to get control over the planting in the area but also trying to keep it looking natural so although some areas will get quite a drastic makeover other parts especially in the main section of the rock lined fernery will be left looking more natural with some of the smaller ferns mingling with each other and a few thugs removed. Hopefully I can tell you more about the new additions in the near future as well as more on our existing ferns, workload and weather permitting. Stay tune

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