Ferns are perfect for shady spots

Daniel Gill, Bogren, Richard C.  |  3/12/2008 7:50:38 PM

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Get It Growing News For 03/14/08

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Almost every landscape has shady areas, and ferns are a great group of plants that are just perfect for shady spots.

Shade is created by trees as they grow larger and by the shadows cast by homes and other structures in the landscape. Shadows are cast primarily to the north, so the north sides of trees and structures tend to be the shadiest.

Ferns, in all their diversity, are among the most delightful and carefree of plants to use in shady garden beds. Most nurseries have an area covered with shade cloth where shade-loving plants are displayed for sale – and that is where you will find the ferns.

Many hardy ferns can be planted into the shady areas of your landscape now. The different species range in size from under a foot to as much as 3 feet tall.

The leaves of ferns are called fronds and provide the primary ornamental feature of the plants. On ferns commonly used in landscaping, they generally are finely divided and delicate in appearance. The holly fern, however, has an unusually coarse texture, and older plants can almost appear like small shrubs.

Ferns do not produce colorful flowers. Their attributes are more subtle, yet no less beautiful. It would be unfair to say that ferns are just green. They come in many shades from chartreuse to deep olive, and some produce fronds that are tinted with red or silvery variegations. Ferns often possess a grace of form and movement in breezes that is unique among garden plants (except, perhaps, 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 also may suffer damage to their fronds during severe winters, but 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. Not prone to any major insect or disease problems, they are one of those plants you can just about plant and ignore once they are established.

Ferns will grow best in areas that receive one to four 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,” a flowering plant not related to ferns).

The majority of ferns do best in a consistently moist soil. They do well in Louisiana 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 that you should 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 also is highly recommended to conserve soil moisture and reduce weeds.

When preparing a planting site for ferns, remove any weeds and thoroughly turn the soil. 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.

Shady areas often occur under trees, and it is entirely permissible to create planted areas under trees by incorporating ferns and other shade-loving herbaceous perennials, ground covers and shrubs. But you do need to respect and minimize damage to the root system of the tree when you’re doing this. Avoid adding more than 2-3 inches of fill to the area, and do not sever any roots that are more than an inch in diameter. When turning the soil, use a turning fork, because 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. It’s getting a little late now, but if you act promptly it should still be OK. Ideally, ferns should be divided before the new, spring fronds have made much growth. Keep them well watered while they get reestablished.

A few of the excellent ferns for use in the landscape include maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-vernis), holly fern (Cyrtominum falcatum), leatherleaf fern (Runohra adiantiformis), sword fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), royal fern (Osmunda regalis), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), wood fern (Thelypteris kunthii), royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and cemetery fern (Pteris vitata), which tolerates full sun). You’ll probably see other attractive selections at your local nursery.

Feel free to mix your ferns with other shade-loving plants. I especially like the fine-textured ferns combined with plants that have large leaves and a coarse texture for contrast. Some of my favorite plants to combine with ferns include all the gingers, ground orchid (Bletilla striata), cast iron plant (Aspidistra elaitor), hostas, fatsia and aucuba, to name a few. To add some color, use caladiums, impatiens and wax begonias.

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: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-2263 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

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