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A hot fern garden

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Ferns are not commonly associated with the State of Utah. As the second driest state in the nation, our reputation for plants associated with cool, moist areas is not exactly prominent.

Sagebrush, cactus, junipers and other desert plants grow here. Leave the ferns to the gardeners in Great Britain or in Seattle. Think of them in tropical rain forests in Africa or South America, but give them a wide berth in our high mountain desert. In fact many gardeners laugh at the suggestion that they grow these plants in their landscapes.Meet a man with a mission. Jim Horrocks is a man determined to grow ferns in Utah. While others are planting lawns, petunias and marigolds, he is scouring the world trying to find unusual kinds of ferns to try in his garden. As his traditional vegetable garden and his landscape shrink, his fern-growing area is expanding.

What happened to this mild-mannered postal employee to turn him into a passionate fern grower?

"I have always been fascinated with these plants and I made them my passion in life. Everyone has plants they just fall in love with and I have fallen in love with ferns," says Horrocks. "Remember: All ferns are not the same. Some are evergreen and some not.

"The evergreen varieties keep their foliage through the winter. Deciduous ferns die back to ground level each year. Evergreens often look better here because they do not brown out in the heat. They can handle a lower humidity. Evergreen or deciduous ferns can both be cold-hardy."

Starting ferns is an interesting process and is much different than starting seeds. Ferns grow from spores, which are very tiny reproductive structures. Horrocks gets spores from fern fanciers around the world and attempts to grow them here. He starts these indoors in small containers (see accompanying article).

"Starting ferns from spores is not a job for impatient gardeners. I start them in my home and eventually move them to my small greenhouse. It is really more like a cold frame because I do not heat it; I am interested in only hardy fern varieties. It may take years for these ferns to get large enough to grow in the garden."

If you do not want to grow your own plants from spore but are interested in mature plants, Horrocks offers this advice:

"Local nurseries are offering new varieties that were not available in the past. Mail-order nurseries also offer many specialty varieties that are not yet available locally."

This expert fern grower offers this advice on growing conditions: "Open or dappled shade works best, but most ferns will not thrive in deep shade. They prefer moist, cool soil with plenty of mulch. Water freely but do not overwater. A well-mulched fern garden actually needs less water than a lawn because the mulch conserves the moisture and they are protected from the hot sun."

Aphids, mealybugs, thrips, and scale can attack ferns, but our cold winters usually keep these in check. Pillbugs, sowbugs, slugs and snails also like them. Slugs are the worst because they like the same conditions the ferns enjoy. Sowbugs and pillbugs, snails and slugs are best controlled with baits.

When pressed about his favorite varieties he offered these suggestions: "Male fern, Remote Wood fern, Marginal Wood fern, Korean rock fern, Japanese Painted fern and Tassel fern."

In his small garden he grows more than 80 different varieties of hardy ferns. If you would like a more comprehensive list of ferns he grows, please send me a SASE c/o the Deseret News at Box 1257, Salt Lake City 84110.