Ferns Ideal For Shady Gardens

Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.  |  4/19/2005 10:28:57 PM

Get It Growing

Get It Growing News For 04/16/04


By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Almost every landscape has shady areas, especially when shade trees have grown large.

Gardeners often look on shade as a problem – although most problems occur only when sun-loving plants are planted in the shade. When the proper plants are selected for shady areas, the results can be beautiful and durable.

Many hardy ferns that will thrive in the shady areas of your landscape. The different species range in size from under a foot to as much as 3 feet.

The leaves of ferns are called fronds and provide the primary ornamental feature of the plants. On ferns that commonly are used in landscaping, the fronds generally are finely divided and delicate in appearance. They contrast beautifully with coarser textured shade plants such as hostas, aspidistra, fatsia, gingers and aucuba.

On the other hand, some of the tropical ferns that are grown in containers, such as staghorn fern and bird’s nest fern, have bold, coarse-textured fronds.

Ferns do not produce colorful flowers. Their attributes are more subtle but no less beautiful to the discerning eye. But it would be unfair to say ferns are just green, since they come in many shades from chartreuse to deep olive, and some produce fronds that are tinted with red or have silvery variegations.

Ferns often possess a grace of form and movement that is unique among garden plants – except maybe for ornamental grasses.

Some of the ferns we can plant in the landscape are evergreen, and some are deciduous. Deciduous ferns such as the wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii) and royal fern (Osmunda regalis) lose their fronds in the winter and go dormant. Some of the evergreen ferns may suffer damage or loss of their fronds during severe winters, but more often they retain their foliage throughout the winter season. If they are frozen back, they reliably return from their roots.

One of my favorite things about ferns is that they are so easy to grow. Generally not prone to any major insect or disease problems, ferns are one of those plants you can just about plant and ignore. Ferns will grow best in areas that receive 1-4 hours of direct sun or dappled light during the day. Morning sun is greatly preferred. Definitely avoid hot, dry areas that receive several hours of direct sun in the afternoon or areas that receive sun all day. If you want a fern-like plant for sunnier areas, you could plant yarrow (Achillea millefolium) or asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’, not a true fern).

Most ferns do best in a consistently moist soil. They do well in our state because of our high rainfall and humidity. Of course, during dry periods you will need to water your landscape ferns. As with all plants, there is no timetable or schedule to follow for watering. Watering is done when the plants need the moisture based on the amount of rainfall that has occurred and how hot it is.

Mulching a fern planting with your favorite mulch, such as leaves, dry grass clippings or pine straw, is highly recommended to conserve soil moisture and reduce weeds.

When preparing a planting site for ferns, thoroughly turn the soil and remove any weeds. Spread a 2-inch to 3-inch layer of organic matter (compost, rotted manure or peat moss) over the area and then dig it in – making sure it is well blended with the soil in the bed.

Since shady areas often occur under trees, it is entirely permissible to create planted areas under trees that incorporate ferns and other shade-loving herbaceous perennials, ground covers and shrubs. But be sure to be careful to respect and minimize damage to the root system of the tree. Avoid adding more than 2 inches to 3 inches of fill to the area, and do not sever any roots over an inch in diameter. When turning the soil, use a turning fork, since it will be less damaging to roots than the blade of a shovel or spade.

As time goes by, many ferns will grow into fairly large clumps. Should you need to divide your ferns, the best time is in late winter or early spring – around February. Ideally, ferns should be divided before the new, spring fronds have made much growth. And, after you move them, keep them well watered while they get re-established.

Most nurseries carry a selection of ferns, such as the holly fern and leather leaf fern. When visiting a nursery, ask where their shade area is, and that’s generally where you will find the ferns, along other plants that like the shade and make good companions for the ferns.

Some excellent ferns for use in the landscape include maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-vernis), holly fern (Cyrtominum falcatum), leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis), sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), royal fern (Osmunda regalis), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora, known for its coppery red new fronds), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii), lace fern (Microlepia strigosa) and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis).

With so many ferns to choose from, you may want to learn more about this fascinating group of plants.

Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.

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Contact:  Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu
Editor:     Tom Merrill at (225) 578-2263 or tmerrill@agcenter.lsu.edu

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