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Native Plants

The Martha Stewart Show, March 2008

A true garden is not only made up of bright beautiful flowers, but also must include all the various shades of green found in native plants like ferns, moss, and grasses.

Carpet Mosses
Callicladium moss (Callicladium haldanianum)
Callicladium moss is a rich, pale-green moss that can form dense carpets over low rocks, logs, or bare soil in shade.

Feather moss (Hypnum imponens)
Feather moss, widespread and lovely, is vibrant green and has stems that look like little fern fronds. Excellent for covering low rocks and stumps, it is called feather moss because it was used as a substitute for feathers in pillows and beds.

Fern-leaf moss (Thuidium delicatulum)
Fern-leaf moss is popular as florists' moss; it has a very fine texture and a green or yellow-green color. It grows in the same habitat as feather moss.

Juniper hair-cap moss (Polytrichum juniperinum)
Juniper hair-cap moss grows in North America and Asia. Popular in Japanese gardens and with moss gardeners in the United States, it is very rugged (it can take moderate foot traffic) and grows in poor, dry soil in sun or light shade. Deep green when wet, its leaves fold upward when dry, but all it takes is a quick spray with the hose or watering can to moisten it again.

Ball Mosses (Grow in Mounds)
Gray ball moss (Leucobryum glaucum)
Gray ball moss is a very distinctive moss that is silvery green when dry and light green when wet. Popular with moss gardeners, it transplants easily and prefers shady, bare soil.

Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium)
Broom moss is a very common, deep-emerald-green ball moss that grows on bare rock.

Attaching Moss to a Rock
Glue gun
The easiest way to achieve an instant effect is to glue sections of moss onto rocks with a hot-glue gun. Only the upper part of broom moss is alive, but the lower part helps it store a bit of water between rains. A little dab of glue on the brown part will not harm the moss and allows it to adhere to the rock until it can attach by itself.

Mosses are able to regenerate themselves from very small pieces, so to cover larger areas you can chop up some moss in a blender and paint it or drizzle it over rocks or soil. Use a kitchen blender filled with about 1 1/2 cups of water; add 2 cups of broom moss to it along with 1/2 cup of stout or ale and 1 teaspoon of sodium polyacrylate powder. The sugar in the beer helps the moss adhere and the sodium polyacrylatel provides extra moisture as it gets established. The gel also makes the mixture more viscous to make painting it on easier. Pulse it a few times to chop up the moss, but don't overdo it. Now you can paint the moss over the rock with a brush. Moss applied in this way needs a bit more attention and care to get it established. A prefer to do this in spring or fall when it is cooler and wetter, and it is a good idea to mist the rocks every day or two for the first  two to four weeks.

Moss Care Tips
Mosses will die if smothered by fallen leaves and other debris; the cleaner you keep them the better they will look. Mosses only grow when wet, so the damper you can keep them, the more luxuriant they will be.

Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
Lady fern is the quintessential garden fern: It is airy, soft, and grows quickly in attractive clumps. New fronds keep coming all summer if the soil remains moist, so it always looks fresh and springlike.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Maidenhair fern is instantly recognizable because of its fingered leaf shape. Its foliage has a kinetic quality that livens up gardens in shade or partial sun.

Polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum)
Polypody fern grows on shady rocks and is a good companion to mosses.

Marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
Marginal shield fern is a tough semi-evergreen clumping species good for acidic soils.

How to Propagate a Fern
Collecting spores
Ferns reproduce not by seeds but by spores. All you need is a sunny window and a few supplies. You can buy fern spores, but it is also easy to collect them yourself from the garden or woods. With a few exceptions, spores ripen in little dots or stripes called sori on the underside of the fronds

1. Collect the leaf when the sori begin to turn from green to brown or black (early to late summer).

2. Simply clip off a frond or two and bring it into a still, quiet place indoors and lay it on top of a sheet of white or waxed paper and leave it to dry overnight.

3. After 24 hours, the frond will have withered and you should find a brown or black "print" of the frond made from all the tiny spores that have fallen out overnight.

4. Collect the spores by folding and tapping the paper. Either sow them immediately or store them in the refrigerator for up to five years for future use.

5. If you fail to see the spore print, you were either too early or too late, so try again in a few weeks.

Sowing spores
1. To sow the ferns, all you need is a pot filled with a fine seed-germinating container mix.

2. Heat the soil to 150 degrees by pouring boiled water over the soil to kill weeds and diseases. You can use a microwave and a kitchen meat thermometer to test the soil after removing it from the microwave.

3. Seal the heated pot in a gallon-size self-sealing bag and let it cool to room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.

4. Open the bag and sprinkle a bit of the spore on top of the soil. Don't overdo it as the baby ferns will become overcrowded. An amount of spores equivalent to a match head is all you need for a 4-inch pot

5. Seal the pot and place it in a sunny window. After three to six weeks, it should start to green, and after four to eight months, you'll have a pot of young ferns that can be hardened off and either potted into larger pots or set out in the garden.

Special Thanks
Special thanks to Bill Cullina the horticultural research director of the New England Wild Flower Society for sharing these native plants with us and for giving our studio audience a copy of his book, "Native Ferns, Moss, and Grasses." To order the books directly from us, visit (where the proceeds go to support plant conservation).

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