Gardening with Ferns

Ferns may be the best solution for problem spots in shady gardens. Find out how different types of ferns can be used in the landscape.
Gardening with Ferns - Articles


Ostrich Fern, Photo credit: Louise Brewer

The term “garden” generally brings to mind brightly-colored flowers or tasty veggies. But my outdoor space is shaded on one side by street trees, and by a two-story house on the other, so my plantings have taken a different route.

I’ve discovered ferns. Depending on the species, ferns satisfy my desire for a wide palette of color and form, and have even solved some landscaping issues. The ferns that I have planted thrive in my acidic clay soil which is amended with peat for better drainage. In addition, slugs don’t seem to like ferns.

A luxuriant spread of bright green, three-foot tall, vase-shaped ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) now blanket the steep slope shaded by my house and a tall, 30-year-old hemlock. In my pre-fern days, my son struggled to mow the sad-looking grass that tried to grow in the area. Because ostrich ferns spread via a network of underground runners (rhizomes), the original six clumps that I bought at a local yard sale covered the entire 8’ by 10’ slope in five years. When I see new growth extending beyond the bottom of the slope, I simply dig up the offshoot in late spring and cut the rhizome connecting it to a nearby mature plant. Two of my neighbors are now using my extras to populate their slopes as well. I toss handfuls of compost to lightly cover the slope each fall, and water thoroughly once a week to supplement rainfall during the hot, dry, summer months.

I define the bottom of my ostrich fern hillside with a necklace of Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) spaced 3’ apart. The graceful green fronds are overlaid with a silvery sheen and burgundy markings. Each 18’ tall plant slowly increases in size, and in ideal conditions they will multiply by spores. Depending on the painted fern cultivar, the amount of silver and red/purple accents vary. ‘Silver Falls’ is predominantly silver, while ‘Burgundy Lace’ has more burgundy hues.

Japanese painted fen, Photo credit: Louise Brewer

I use the autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) to outline the back edge of a half-circle bed containing native geraniums and other woodland plants. These ferns are a deeper green than the ostrich ferns when mature; their fronds are a bit glossy and tall enough to serve as background. In spring, when the fronds are young and unfurling, their orange-bronze color is quite eye catching. The evergreen, upright, glossy fronds are attractive in the fall when most plants in the bed have collapsed to the ground for the winter. This area gets more sun than my fern-covered slope but the autumn fern handles it easily.

I have also planted northern maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum) in the garden. Each thin, black, wiry stem supports a fan of delicate leaflets. The plant is sturdier than its delicate appearance suggests, and it has done well in the medium shade provided by my flowering cherry tree.

Maidenhair fern, Photo credit: Louise Brewer