Last updated on December 2nd, 2011
Ferns – beautiful, diverse, dependable and irresistible – are the unsung heroes of my garden. With no fuss at all, they come up year after year. I use the elegant, lacy-leaved ‘New York’ fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), pictured above, to fill-in the partly-sunny bed near my front porch; it also grows in great sweeps along a pathway in the shady Woodland Garden. If you’ve had trouble growing traditional ground covers, by all means start a colony of this reliable fern. You might find that it is even more effective at keeping weeds down than either pachysandra or vinca minor.
For contrast, choose the Japanese Painted fern, Athyrium niponicum. This one never fails to invite comment. Mine grows in a densely-shaded bed in the Woodland Garden, before a trio of copper-leaved coralbells (heuchera). Niponicum’s silvery fronds have a ghostly countenance in this dark dwelling; even children find it mesmerizing. It is not a fast-grower.
Remarkable too is Polystichum arostrichoides, the Christmas fern. Its feathery fronds remain green until midwinter. Like the New York fern, it makes a fine ground cover. I have it in shade; others have claimed that it will handle direct sun if given ample moisture.
Athyrium filix-femina, the “Lady-” or “Tatting-” fern, is a ravishing beauty, its fronds not airy or feathery like the others, but beaded, like a necklace of verdant pearls. Give this one shade or even full sun. I frequently use its fronds in flower arrangements for the house.
Culture: Aside from their horrible botanical names, which botanists seem to change with utter frequency, these four ferns are perfect plants. They are not particular about soil, so long as it is well-draining, and humus-rich. I incorporate a considerable amount of leaf mold into the soil at planting time. For mulch, I rely on shredded leaves. These leafy amendments provide all necessary nutrients. I give my ferns a deep soaking about once each week; that is, unless nature handles the watering-job for me.
Transplanting: You can safely plant ferns in spring or late fall, although I have divided and transplanted mine even in the heat of July. Moved when fully leafed-out, the fronds tend to wilt a little, but if you gently spray them with water once each day, they will quickly recover after a week or so. Ferns, despite their delicate appearance, are actually quite hardy.
Do you have some shady patch on your property that ferns could beautify? Let me know, in the comments section below.
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