How to Use Ferns in Your Garden or Landscape
Walk through almost any natural area that is shady and moist, and you are bound to see ferns. These ubiquitous native plants carpet the ground in woodlands and wetlands. They gather around springs and beside stream banks, cascade over rocky outcroppings and decorate old stone walls.
Ferns are plentiful in the wild, yet it’s relatively unusual to see them used in gardens and home landscapes. That’s unfortunate, because these graceful perennials have so much to offer. They are easy to grow, long-lived and require almost zero care. They are available in many variations of green, and lots of different sizes and shapes. Plus, ferns are rarely troubled by diseases or pests, including deer and rabbits.
These unique plants are among the earth’s most ancient, and they carry this wild and timeless feeling with them. Ferns help to weave a garden or landscape into a lush tapestry of texture and color.
Using Ferns in Your Yard and Garden
Ferns are an excellent addition to almost any shady garden. You can use them as specimen plants or as companions for other shade-loving perennials such as hosta, astilbe, bleeding heart (Dicentra) and caladiums. Tall ferns can create a wonderful sense of enclosure, while shorter types can be used to soften the edges of pathways or rocky outcroppings.
Deep shade can make it challenging to maintain a healthy, good-looking lawn. Rather than fight Mother Nature, consider introducing ferns into some of these difficult areas around your home. Once established, they will be an attractive feature and require much less attention than a lawn.
As a general rule, ferns prefer moist soil, so they are a natural choice for edging a stream or pond. Have a soggy area or rain garden? Consider including ferns along with other moisture-loving perennials such as bee balm (Monarda), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) and ornamental grasses.
Where to Plant Ferns
Most ferns grow best in loamy soils that are rich in organic matter. Before planting, take some time to prepare and improve the soil. Loosen it with a garden fork and mix in compost and/or peat moss. Though most ferns are not fussy about soil pH, some types prefer acidic soil. For best results, know the pH level of your soil and choose ferns that will be happy with the natural conditions in your garden.
Some ferns are sun tolerant as long as their roots get adequate moisture. Interrupted ferns and cinnamon ferns will both grow in relatively sunny locations. For sites with dry soil, you should have good luck with Christmas ferns and lady ferns. If a period of unusually hot weather causes the foliage to wither or brown, cut the fronds back to the ground and they will regrow once temperatures cool down.
Five Easy Ferns for Home Gardens
There are dozens of beautiful ferns to choose from, and each has its own special character. Here are five types that are widely available and well suited to home landscapes.
This hardy perennial is native to the eastern U.S. In all but the coldest areas, its foliage stays green throughout the winter. The fronds are dark green and have a long, narrow shape (see photo above). Though the plants are slow-growing, they are very long-lived. Plant them in moist, well-drained soil that is relatively acidic. You can expect Christmas ferns to grow 1 to 2 feet tall with a similar spread. They are winter hardy in zones 3-8.
These plants are hybrids between our native lady fern and the Japanese painted fern. They have an upright habit and silvery grey fronds with burgundy accents. Plant them in part to full shade and provide shelter from wind. Ghost ferns will not tolerate drought, so it’s important to choose a planting location where the soil stays moist all season long. The plants take some time get established, but can eventually spread to cover a 2 to 3-foot area. Height is 12 to 18”. They are winter hardy in zones 4-7.
These native, clump-forming plants have an upright habit and grow 4 to 6-feet tall with a 3 to 6-foot spread. They produce two types of fronds. The showy, infertile fronds are long and lacy, and resemble an ostrich plume. They emerge at the base of the plant, curled up like a fiddlehead, and slowly unfurl to their full, 4-foot length. The plant’s dark brown, fertile fronds appear in midsummer at the center of the clump and grow about a foot tall.
Ostrich ferns prefer medium to wet, slightly acidic soils and full to part shade. The plants spread by underground rhizomes, and under ideal growing conditions they will form large, dense colonies. Therefore, it’s important to give them plenty of room to spread out. The plants grow best in sheltered locations with cool summers. They are suitable for hardiness zones 2-7.
This plant is native to the eastern U.S. and is sometimes called the marginal shield fern. It is low-growing, reaching a height of 18-24” with an equal spread. The dark green to bluish-green fronds are 5 to 8” wide and have a leathery texture. Grow in moist soil and full to part shade. Protect from sun and drying winds. A great choice for any shady garden. Winter hardy in zones 3-8.
Lady in Red Fern
The plants commonly known as “lady ferns” are native to the eastern and central U.S. This cultivar has been selected for its showy red stem color. The deeply cut, light green fronds are 6 to 9” wide and 2-3 feet long. The color of the stems intensifies as the plants mature.
Plant lady ferns in full to part shade, and give young plants plenty of room to reach full size, which is 24-30” tall and 18-24” wide. In northern areas, the plants will tolerate sun if the soil stays moist. Lady ferns are an excellent ground cover and good companions for other shade loving perennials. If you enjoy making flower arrangements, you’ll find the foliage makes a great filler. The plants are winter hardy in growing zones 3-8.