EARLIER THIS YEAR, in the great “Before,” I decided my garden needed a fern table. What’s a fern table, you ask? Basically, it’s a forest tableau fabricated on bonsai principles, a (totally artificial) naturalist environment designed for, and completely reliant on, a gardener’s attention. It sounded like fun — high-maintenance but fun, sort of like getting a botanical puppy.
I reached out to Richie Steffen, fern fanatic and experienced fern-table instructor, and asked for a demo. After months of shelter-in-place and workarounds, I finally got my tutorial last month. “The idea of a fern table is to capture a bit of a calming woodland to enjoy close-up,” Steffen begins. Calm? I’m already nervous about how I’m going to keep a mixed planting in shallow soil alive.
A finished fern table is heavy; Steffen recommends selecting a location in dappled to full shade and building it in place. He works with a substantial slab of sandstone left over from a recent stonework project at the Miller Botanical Garden, where Steffen is the executive director, along with scrap wood, stones and more plants than you might expect.
“Making fern tables is a great outlet for creativity,” Steffen says. “And it’s a great way to facilitate my plant-buying habits because I can shove a lot of plants into a relatively small space.”
A couple of old logs lend forest-floor ambience and help retain soil, as do the stones that Steffen strategically places around the perimeter of the roughly 2-foot-by-3-foot planting surface. He intuitively shifts things around until he lands on a pleasing composition, building up structure and height to create drama and maximize planting area.
Next, Steffen generously mounds planting medium on the tabletop, creating as much soil depth as the foundational materials will accommodate. He uses a custom mix composed of 1 part good potting soil (no perlite, please; we’re replicating a “forest”), 1 part chunky bark, and 1 part pumice or gravel. Turns out this moisture-retentive yet well-drained potting mix is the secret sauce to keeping your fern table thriving and well-hydrated.
It’s planting time. “I mostly use evergreens,” Steffen says. “But I like to include deciduous plants for seasonality.” He deftly places ferns (of course) in combination with dwarf evergreen huckleberry and a tiny ‘Amersfoort’ yew. Disporum longistylum, a shade-loving herbaceous perennial, adds contrast and interest, while delicate ground covers like dwarf Acorus and little saxifrages fill in the gaps and crevices around the larger plants. The planting is dense (after all, this is horticultural theater), but Steffen makes sure each plant still “looks like itself.”
To finish, Steffen tucks moss around the plantings to retain moisture and hold soil in place. Pro tip: Collect moss from your property, as that’s what will mostly likely survive. Water your finished fern table as needed, daily during hot weather. Wrapping everything with fishing line stabilizes the planting until plant roots have a chance to knit together.
“I love tending my fern tables,” Steffen enthuses. (Yes; he has more than one.) “It gives me a chance to observe details that are easy to brush by when the same plant is in the garden, like the spore patterns on the underside of mature fern fronds. It also allows me to grow an array of mini hosta out of the reach of slugs!”