Valuable solutions for shady parts of your garden, ferns offer us an enormous variety of forms. Large or small, bold or lacy, there are fern solutions to most gardening problems, and they add so much. Enjoy ferny fun, and find fascinating facts, about where to grow them, and how.
In many gardens all you see of ferns are a few tired old plants trying to grow in a dark, neglected corner. What a shame, because these fascinating plants have so much more to offer, and can be used effectively in so many parts of your garden. “But they don’t have any flowers!” might be your response, but neither do conifer evergreens, and they are widely grown in every garden. The endless variety of their foliage, and the special atmosphere only they can bring, is more than enough reason to grow them, even if they weren’t also incredibly useful. They bring fabulous contrast to all those shade-loving perennials like Hosta, or dense shrubs like yew, and there are so many places to grow them – and it doesn’t always have to be in the shade.
Where in My Garden Should I Grow Ferns?
Shady and partially-shaded areas are common in every garden, especially once your plantings start to mature and trees and shrubs grow larger. The foot of north-facing walls and fences are already shady, so even in a new garden there is a place where you can start with ferns. Don’t think of them as a last resort, but a first choice. Especially in colder zones there are ferns that will happily take some direct sun – especially if its only in the morning. When think of ferns as plants of damp places, and that is pretty true, but some, after some help getting established, will tolerate a surprising amount of dryness for parts of the year at least. So open your mind to all the possibilities of plants that range from less than 12 inches tall to 5 and 6-foot beauty.
Ferns in the Foreground
Small to medium-sized ferns make great edging and foreground plants in shrub beds, especially along walkways. The east and north-facing sides of beds will always be shady once your shrub are a few feet tall, and ferns make great edging plants. For a continuous flow of ferny green, plant your choices with a space between them of ½ to ⅔ of their listed width. Suitable choices might include one of the Japanese Painted Ferns, like ‘Pictum’, with striking silver and red markings. Those are deciduous in most zones, but for an evergreen choice the Christmas Fern would be ideal. Consider also the Soft Shield Fern, renowned for the fineness of its fronds, which look fragile but are actually tough.
Ferns as Fillers
Medium-sized Ferns are excellent ways to fill those awkward empty spots that can develop in any bed once your shrubs have grown in a bit. Since many spread outwards at least as much as their height, one plant can fill a good-sized hole. If the area is not completely shady, choose a ‘tough guy’ like the Japanese Holly Fern. Its rich-green leaves, which have unusually glossy pinnae (that’s ‘fern talk’ for leaflets) are much more sun and dryness resistant than many other ferns. It is only winter-hardy in zone 7 (or 6, but there it’s deciduous), but in zones 5 and 6 there is the less-well-known but very similar Fortune’s Holly Fern. These are both good choices, given that spots among shrubs are often drier, but of course depending on soil conditions almost any fern makes a great filler, alone or planted in groups.
Ferns in the Woods
With today’s trends towards more natural gardens, and using native plants, ferns are a great way to add interest and beauty to an existing garden area with mature trees. Many garden ferns are native to North America, like the Autumn Fern, the Western Sword Fern, the Ostrich Fern or the Southern Shield Fern, and all of them are great larger ferns that look wonderful in wooded areas. The Southern Shield Fern is also a species that enjoys the heat and humidity of the southeast, an area where many of our traditional garden ferns don’t do so well.
It pays to prepare good planting spots in existing woodland, by digging over areas as best you can, and adding plenty of compost or rotted leaves to the soil. Some supplementary watering during the first summer will go a long way to getting them established.
Ferns and Rocks Go Together
In nature we often see ferns growing on damp rocky slopes, such as gorges where streams flow, or on hillsides. The natural beauty of the ferns is highlighted by the rugged background, and many ferns thrive in the damp but free-draining environment beside streams flowing through rocks. Maybe you don’t have a natural stream (lucky you if you do!), but waterfalls and ponds are common garden features that have similar conditions. In the warmest zones the beautiful Maiden-hair Fern, often grown as a houseplant, thrives in cracks in damp rock faces, and few ferns are as beautiful as that one.
Again it pays to prepare pockets of soil for initial planting. Once established they will hold their own, and maybe even repay you by releasing spores that sprout spontaneously in suitable crevices.
Ferns in Planters
Ferns are not the most obvious plant that jumps to mind when we think of plants in pots, but actually they thrive in containers, making great ornaments for shady terraces and patios – exactly the parts of your garden where you might be hanging out in summer. Use good sized pots with drainage holes, and a potting soil made of regular houseplant soil with about 20% coarse sand or shredded bark added – ferns like lots of air around their roots, believe it or not. Water whenever the soil begins to dry, and for water-loving ferns like Royal Fern (Osmunda) you can stand the pot in a saucer of water, throwing the old water out and refreshing it after a while.
Use half-strength general purpose plant food every couple of weeks in spring and early summer and you will soon have magnificent specimens that create a fabulous atmosphere of calm and peace to relax in. You can even bring pots into a porch for the winter if they are not very cold-resistant in your zone, to liven-up an unheated porch.