HARDINESS: Generally 4 to 8
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Slightly acid to slightly alkaline
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Moist, organic
PREFERRED LIGHT: Full to partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: Elegant, fine-textured foliage in varied shapes; for groundcover, beds
SEASON OF INTEREST: Early spring to fall for deciduous species; year-round for evergreens
FAVORITES: Autumn fern, holly fern, Japanese painted fern, maidenhair fern
QUIRKS: New plantings are slow to become established
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Bulbs, hosta, woodland phlox, Solomon's seal, hellebore, pulmonaria
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Full to partial shade in fertile, organic, moist soil
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Can be damaged by drought or fertilizer
RENEWING PLANTS: Lives many years; dig and divide crowded clumps in early spring
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Good except for deer browsing fiddleheads in spring
SOURCE: Bedding plants, division
DIMENSIONS: 1-3 ft (0.3-1 m) tall and equally wide
Ferns in the Landscape
Ferns lend a graceful air to gardens that no other group of plants can match. From the lacy fronds of the maidenhair fern to the bold glossy leaves of holly ferns, these plants provide form, color, and texture for shaded nooks and woodlands. Don't be fooled by ferns' delicate appearance. They are among the oldest plants on earth, and when grown in suitable sites, they are tough, durable, and vigorous. They are perfect for filling low-light pockets in foundation plantings, bedding beneath dense shrubs, or covering ground shaded by buildings or a thick canopy of trees.
Sorting through Ferns
The greatest challenge in growing ferns is choosing from the bounty of beautiful specimens. Local nurseries are often the best source of species known to grow well in your area, and it's a sound strategy to try several types in different places in your landscape to see which flourish. Mix ferns with spring-flowering bulbs, flowering annuals such as impatiens, and shade-loving perennials such as hellebore, hosta, woodland phlox, and Solomon's seal.
Ferns may be evergreen, semi-evergreen, or deciduous, depending on the species and the climate of your garden. Reliable evergreen ferns are rare except in mild-winter climates, but promising species are always worth trying. Ferns that go dormant in winter make up for their temporary absence by the show they stage beginning in spring, when the curled new fronds, called fiddleheads. emerge and slowly unfurl. As an added bonus, the texture of deciduous ferns tends to be delicate, making them irresistible garden subjects. Whether evergreen or deciduous, you can cut back winter-tattered fronds in early spring to make way for the fresh new growth.
The Forms of Ferns
Ferns can be classified into two groups based on their growth habit. Running ferns grow from creeping stolons that push outward through the soil, producing new fronds as they creep. Often, new fronds will appear in rows along a stolon. Clumping ferns produce new fronds in clusters that spring up close to the mother plant. Species with creeping stolons grow faster and are more prolific spreaders, whereas clumping species tend to stay in place.
Choice Deciduous Ferns
Maidenhair fern, or Atiantum palatum, features erect to arching 18 in (45.7 cm) fronds. The fiddleheads emerge in spring looking like pink, clenched fists with ebony stems and quickly expand to produce clumps of overlapping fronds that dance in the breeze. Hardy from Zones 3 to 8, maidenhair fern prefers near neutral, moist soil and needs little if any fertilizer. After a few years, the plants form wide, loose clumps that can be easily divided.
Hardy from Zones 3 to 8, Japanese painted fern, or Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum', is a showstopper with pinkish stems and arching, triangular, gray-green fronds accented in silver and dark red. The fiddleheads emerge early in spring and quickly unfurl into lacy, 18 in (45.7 cm) long, spear-shaped fronds. Plants grow best with good light, so place them in partial rather than deep shade. Mulch with a thin topping of rotted manure or compost in early spring, and mist the young plants lighdy in early evening during summer dry spells.
Adding height and motion to the garden, the beech ferns, such as Phcgoptcris deoirave-pinnata (formerly Thelypteris deairsive-pinnata) have bold 2 ft (61 cm) tall anderlike fronds. Hardy from Zones 5 to 9, beech ferns produce bright green fronds from runners, so they eventually grow into a lush mass. This species likes moist, slightly acidic soil and benefits from light fertilization in early summer. In autumn, plants turn a tawny yellow before drying to chocolate brown.
Elegant Evergreen Ferns
Autumn fern, or Dryopteris erythrosora, is one of the most popular ferns. In spring its glossy fronds unfurl deep rust red, then turn green. From fall through winter, they take on a burnished sheen. Don't worry if a harsh winter ruins the fronds, because they recover quickly in spring. Hardy from Zones 5 to 9, autumn ferns stand 18 in (45.7 cm) tall, prefer neutral to slightly acid soil, and benefit from a half-strength application of balanced fertilizer or a shallow mulch of compost early in the season. Along with autumn fern, the Dryopteris genus includes many other species, collectively called wood ferns, that make excellent garden plants. Most of them are semi-evergreen, and all are easy to grow.
Often called holly or Christmas ferns, various Polystichum species are the hardiest evergreen ferns. There are several North American natives, in addition to lovely forms from Asia and Europe. These ferns can grow on cold northern slopes, especially when they are kept moist and well fed. The foliage is typically dark and leathery, with plants growing in small clumps.
Ferns repay you with years of beauty for little fuss. Give them partial to full shade with humus-rich, evenly moist soil, and they will grow without need for spraying, staking, or dividing.
Set out young potted plants from spring to early summer, paying close attention to planting depth. Set clump types with the vase of foliage and the crowns of new fronds level with or slightly above the soil surface. Do not bury the crowns, or growing points. For running ferns, set the crowns about 1 in (2.5 cm) below the surface, with the roots and runners spread out within the hole. After planting, firm the soil and water well. Many ferns, especially the clumping species, are slow to establish and may need a little coddling for a full growing season in the form of attentive watering to keep the soil moist.
Mulch ferns with chopped leaves year-round to keep the crowns from drying out and enrich the soil with organic matter. A spring top-dressing with 1 in (2.5 cm) of compost may provide all the nutrients ferns need. However, established ferns that lack vigor often grow noticeably better when fertilized with an organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen, such as fish emulsion mixed at half strength. Or, you can use a half-strength application of a controlled-release fertilizer distributed evenly on the soil between the plants. Avoid using full-strength chemical fertilizer; fern roots are easily damaged by fertilizer burn, which causes leaves to brown and curl.
While insects or diseases rarely bother ferns, the tender fiddleheads can attract deer in spring. Tuck a bar of deodorant bath soap among the plants or purchase a commercial deer repellent and apply as directed.
Increasing the Bounty
These ancient plants reproduce by dustlike spores that drop onto moist soil and go through stages of development, eventually producing small ferns. In the home garden, the best way to propagate ferns is to dig and divide them in early spring. After dividing, be sure to provide supplemental water to keep the soil evenly moist until the plants are established.