The word fern comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon word fepern meaning a ‘feather’.
- Bloom time: Not applicable
- Height: 8” to 48”
- Sun needed: Part shade to shade
- Bloom color: Insignificant
- Planting space: 12” to 18” apart
- Soil preferred: Rich, woodland soils high in organic matter and even moisture
- Propagation method: Division, spores
Known as Maidenhair Fern, this plant grows 18” to 24”. Delicate fronds with black stems and rock-solid hardiness make this an excellent mid-garden plant for the shade garden. The fronds turn a golden color in the fall after frost. It is an excellent plant.
Known as Dragon’s Tail Fern or Scott’s Spleenwort, this plant has shiny triangular fronds and is only 12” tall. It is often sold for shady rock gardens or for the front of the shady border. It forms a small compact plant. It is marginally hardy in my zone-4 garden.
Known as Lady Fern, this is a 18” to 24” tall plant with lacy, bright-green foliage. It makes a dense clump. I’ve grown this species in the sunshine but found that it requires constantly damp soil to survive. It’s best in the shade.
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
Known as Japanese Painted Fern, the fronds of this plant are a metallic green with red tones. This is a very popular fern and extremely easy to grow. It grows 12” to 18” tall. I note that the more sunlight you give this fern, the less intense the coloring becomes.
‘Silver Falls’ each leaf of this plant has a heavily silvered coloring that increases as the plant ages. It has red veins on the leaves.
Known as Toothed Wood Fern, this 24” to 36” tall fern is one of the easiest to grow. Its bright-green fronds lighten up shady gardens well. It simply loves wet spots in the shade and is perfect for naturalizing.
Dryopteris x complexa
‘Robusta’ (Robust Male Fern) is a vigorous grower reaching 36” tall. The fronds are lacy and arch well giving a typical “fern look” to this plant.
Known as Shield Fern, this plant is 24” tall and has light-green fronds that appear to be leathery. This is marginally hardy in my zone-4 garden and a heavy layer of leaf mulch seems to work better than simply bark chips to help it through the winter.
Known as Broad Buckler Fern, this is an easy fern to grow although zone 4 is pretty much its cold limit. It is 24” tall and if you search, you’ll find varieties of it that have been imported from Europe where it is a native species.
‘Jimmy Dyce’ grows to 24” tall and the fronds are stiff and upright with blue-green coloring.
‘Recurved Form’ (Recurved Broad Buckler Fern). With this plant, the fronds are very lacy and each leaflet curls under to give it a distinctive garden look. Personally, I simply think it looks sick but many fern fanciers lover this form.
Dryopteris filix-mas (Male Fern).
This 36”- to 48”-tall fern is one of the easiest to grow and one of the tallest, most elegant ferns in the garden. It will tolerate sunshine if the soil is kept damp. There are numerous varieties being made available in specialty garden centers and mail order catalogs.
‘Barnesii’ is more slender than the species and quite upright.
‘Grandiceps’ has long arching fronds with forked crests on the ends of each frond.
‘Linearis Polydactyla’ is a lacy frond form with “forks” or “tassels” on the ends of each frond. It is a fine textured fern.
Known as Ostrich Fern, this plant is 36” to 48” tall and is one of the most popular ferns in the garden. Not only can you eat the young fiddleheads of this species but also it produces an extremely attractive garden plant. Wide fronds and good-sized clumps combined with an upright growth habit and ease of growth make it an excellent first fern if you need a tall plant for the middle to back of your shade garden. If happy, it can become a bit of a weed.
Known as Cinnamon Fern, this plant grows to 36” to 48” tall with wide triangular fronds that make it a stunning display plant. It does best in dampish, acidic soils.
Known as Royal Fern, this plant is 36” to 48” tall and quite unique. It throws its fronds from a ring-shaped central crown, creating a circular arching mass of foliage. You want one of these in your shade garden as a conversation piece.
Known as Christmas Fern, this plant is 18” tall with leathery-looking fronds that were once used as Christmas decorations, hence the name. The plant is easy to care for and grows to a medium-sized clump that is perfect for the front of the shade garden. It is an evergreen so keep it out of the winter winds.
Known as Beech Fern, this plant’s 24”-tall fronds hold their bright-green color all season and this alone makes it worth a place in the darker garden to act as a source of light. The more light you give it, the lighter the color of the frond until it turns into a lemony-green color. It is a slow spreader.
Ferns thrive in part shade in evenly moist soils.
For the most part, a soil that is high in organic matter is better than a sandy one but as long as even moisture is present, the fern plant will be happy.
I’ve grown them in the full sunshine and as long as the soil moisture is high, the plant will live. The fronds can become quite tattered and brown as soon as the soil dries out or if strong, hot winds “burn” the foliage, sucking out its moisture. They are much happier in damp soils and out of the noonday sun.
The Trick To Growing From A Root
If you purchase your fern as a root and not a growing plant, then the following tip will save you many transplant problems. Soak the root for 24 hours in warm water before planting or transplanting it.
The root soaks up the water and “revitalizes” itself but I confess I don’t understand the chemistry. All I know is that when I learned and implemented this trick, our nursery transplant-survival rate dramatically improved.
Potions and Poisons
Ancient herbalists believed that if you collected the small and almost invisible spores of ferns and used them in drinks, you would become invisible. I have also read that fern spores would make you perpetually young. Neither has worked for me. Some reports say that the fronds are a mild laxative (but I’ve not tried that nor do I recommend it)
My shade gardening ebook is here