I happen to love ferns. It is their billowy drifts of fine-textured foliage that is so attractive. Sometimes there are design situations where a drift of ferns’ wispy foliage would fit beautifully. And with the many varieties out there you have subtle differences to choose from, including cultural ones.
In landscape design we’re working with multiple components within a complete project; planting design is just one of them. When I arrive at that stage of the design process I begin to think firstly in terms of form. In fact, I think form before even considering specific plant choices.
For the deck stairs seen in the photo below, the space for planting was limited due to the driveway. I wanted to create a setting for the stairs to nestle into. To make the stairs appear less imposing; less structural. Ostrich Fern gave just the look without overwhelming the area.
Here are some ferns for you to consider:
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris): pictured above. The fronds starts out much lighter and darkens as the season goes on. It typically grows 2 – 3′ tall. Plant in part shade to shade, and in acidic, moist loamy soil. Just think about conditions where you naturally find ferns. Ostrich fern is a “spreader” and can easily take over an area. If you’re concerned about this, choose another type of fern (e.g. “clump” variety), or provide some kind of border barrier such as a stone edging.
Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea): This is a “clump” grower and not a spreader. Its fronds can grow 2 – 4′ tall. The center foliage eventually turns a cinnamon brown. Cinnamon Fern likes damp, rich soil. Planted along a stream or pond, and in the shade, would be a great spot for this fern. Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) is a variety that can get even taller, and its foliage is not as fine-textured as Cinnamon. Royal is a bold fern making quite a statement. Would make a great backdrop to shade garden.
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides): Considered an evergreen fern, the older growth will simply fall over as the new growth emerges. Plant in part shade, although this is one fern that can take some sun. Prefers moist, loamy soil. This is a “clump” type.
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum): Dark stems stand out against the lighter green foliage. The growth habit is different from the typical upright, arching growth of other ferns. A more horizontal pattern – the fronds seem to be floating. Pretty cool actually.
Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina): Grows 18 – 36″ tall. This plant (IMO) is the classic looking fern with feathery foliage. It will continue to push new fronds right into summer. This is one fern that can tolerate some drier conditions, but would still prefer moist ground.
Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’): Alright, I’ll admit it. This is my my favorite…well, one of my favorites. It’s got it all. Upright arching fronds in the most beautiful colors. The stems and foliage are purplish, but with silvery gray accents. This fern always gets comments.
Dont’ Let Ferns Be The Forgotten Friend
Like so many foliage plants, ferns take a back seat to the flowering plants. But I hope you can see just how much they contribute with form and texture. I happen to love shade gardening, and ferns help provide that soft, cool, tranquil feeling that woodland gardens are known for.