Design Ideas: For the Love of Ferns!

A Shady Solution

Many gardeners and plant enthusiasts find it frustrating to bountifully plant shady or semi shady spaces. While it can be difficult to cultivate a truly blooming plantscape in persistent shade, gardeners that think outside the box should consider utilizing ferns in those shade gardens.

Ferns are our prehistoric plant dinosaurs! Fern fossils are recorded as appearing almost 360 million years ago during the late Devonian Period. SUNY Cortland in writing about the plant index for the Waldbauer Trail, describes how ferns “diversified into many of the modern fern families and species during the ‘great fern radiation’ of the Cretaceous Period, from 145 to 66 million years ago”. Ferns are vascular plants that rely on the presence of water to reproduce but that is the most restrictive thing about ferns since they can grow in some really unusual places! Ferns can grow in bogs, in rock crevices, on trees, and some even grow in what is considered a dessert setting!

Put Your Ferns to Use

Utilize ferns like you might use hostas, along a walkway path or to line a garden’s edge, or as an elegant focal plant that can also fill in visual gaps among other plants with their clearly defined edges. Ferns can provide a bit of camouflage or contribute to a lovely “Impressionist” style of painting your garden with plants. Ferns can also often withstand wind better than other plants which make them a good alternative to strictly tropical plants in summer urns.

Eight Ferns for Your Landscape

The following are eight great ferns that would enhance your garden’s style and should be considered as a great solution for shady parts of your landscape:

1. Cinnamon Fern (osmunda cinnamomea)

The Cinnamon Fern is the largest size of fern in this list, it can grow up to 6 feet tall! The reference to cinnamon is due to its beautifully vibrant cinnamon-colored rhizome stalks in the middle of the green fronds. With this size it has to be able to tolerate some sun since it will usually tower over other plants in the landscape but it is a great plant for borders with wind or serve as an back-row sentinel and harbinger of changing storm winds along the coast.

2. Ostrich Fern (matteuccia struthiopteris)

Ostrich Ferns grow in the deepest shade and wet conditions that often are inhospitable to anything else. They look a bit like romaine lettuce but serve mightily as a backdrop to other shade plants such as hostas or bleeding hearts. Ostrich ferns are native to North America, can grow 3 to 6 feet and has a vase-like clumping form called “crowns”. Mature fronds will look like the tail feathers of a bird hence it’s avian nomenclature.

3. Lady Fern (Anthyrium filix-femina)

The Lady Fern is an elegant, versatile, hardy addition to challenging shady garden spaces. Often used in floral design, the fronds of a Lady Fern are vibrant green in summer and turn to a golden yellow after first frost. It grows from 2 feet to 3 feet high and its stalks can be a variety of dark colors giving great contrast to the lacy, delicate looking fronds.

4. Sensitive Fern (onoclea sensibilis)

One of the shorter ferns, Sensitive Ferns get up to 2 feet and have fronds with a slight chartreuse color which gives a punch to flowering plants especially red or pink shady annuals. The fronds are deeply lobed and resemble fingers. This fern is deciduous so it will die back from the first frost earning its “sensitive” moniker. Even though it is not cold-hardy here in the northeast it is still worth planting for three seasons and also in shady containers with other annuals.

5. Autumn Fern (dryopteris erythrosora)

Despite its autumn name, the Autumn Fern brandishes red coloring in the spring. A smaller, but spectacularly striking fern, it is easy to grow and maintain. It would make a lovely ground cover or woodland edge especially since both rabbits and deer usually leave this fern alone.

6. Kimberley Fern (nephrolepis obliterate)

Originally from Australia, the Kimberley Fern can tolerate heat and significant sun. Growing up to 3 feet the Kimberley Fern looks full and fluffy and will spring back up once watered thoroughly if it suffered from lack of water for a short period of time. It is a warmer weather fern so likely will not survive through winter but otherwise is a tough, hard working fern that is perfectly suited to 3 season planters or high wind garden edges.

7. Maidenhair Fern/Boston Fern (adiantum raddianum/nephrolepsis exaltata)

Both of these ferns are best suited to indoor living in this climate region but if kept from the cold they are great choices to bring plants into your home and help cleanse your air. They are also beautiful complements to window boxes or planters in any summer planting, especially if the location is windy.

8. Japanese Painted Fern (athyrium niponicum)

I saved this fern for last because in my opinion it is the most beautiful fern that you can add to your garden! The Japanese Painted Fern has graceful, arching fronds that are silvery, or purple, or a deep sage color. These ferns can tolerate some partial sun and occasional drought conditions once established. They are a wonderful moonlight garden plant! This fern also pairs beautifully with Rex Begonias in shade planters or sit perfectly well by themselves as a focal point.

Consider the Fern

They are not the first choice for many gardeners, but ferns can provide a great shade plant palette and ground cover at the edges of woodland landscapes. Used as container plants they also provide texture and depth and can be a reliable mainstay of shady areas with their substantial decorative, and visual screen capabilities. If you are open to planting something other than the usual shade suspects, consider ferns!