Ferns for the Shady Landscape

Many homes have shaded areas as part of the landscape. If large trees exist which drop abundant leaves, the problem becomes what plants might be used in a shady, leaf-covered area. One group of plants often overlooked, but tolerant to such conditions, are ferns.

Hardy ferns are available in many different species that are shade tolerant. In light shade with adequate moisture, many of them will multiply easily. In denser shade or if conditions tend to be dry, they will survive but not multiply as rapidly. A number of ferns will survive our winters quite well, but there are some marginal species. When purchasing plants, especially from mail-order sources, be sure to get those able to survive in your zones.

While ferns are tolerant of a wide range of soils, their growth is always best in soils high in organic matter with a slightly acid pH range. Adequate moisture is also important for their best growth. If dry weather comes late in the summer, however, many ferns will brown and go dormant early to overcome the stress of drought. Very dry weather in spring or early summer can weaken ferns if additional moisture is not provided at that time.

Ferns may be planted while they are dormant in early spring, late fall, or at any time if they have been grown in containers. Preferably, ferns should be planted into the landscape in spring so they become well established before the winter.

Among hardy ferns that may be used for the shady garden are Maidenhair fern, Lady fern, Ostrich fern, Cinnamon fern, Interrupted fern, Royal fern and Christmas fern. Although some of them can be used as tall groundcovers, they are often best used as naturalistic accents scattered along pathways developed through lightly shaded wooded areas.

The American maidenhair has slender black stems topped with spreading fronds that have leaflets similar to the house plant fern also known as Maidenhair fern. The fronds of the outdoor species are much larger. Depending on growing conditions, Maidenhair fern will usually be from 10 to 15 inches tall outdoors. It needs more moisture than many of the other hardy ferns we might use, so it should be watered during dry periods. It is excellent for use in low areas near streams or ponds, but should not be used in boggy areas.

One of the more desirable ferns for our climate is the Christmas fern, which is an evergreen fern. The fronds may range from one to two feet in length. It is not invasive under the best conditions. Good drainage is important, however, and it does not endure heavy, wet soils. Although it is very shade tolerant, it can survive some direct sun. During severe winters, the fronds may turn brown, but in normal or mild winters, or when snow covers the fronds during severe cold, it will remain a deep green all winter.

Ostrich fern is another popular fern for the shady spot. It grows taller than the previous ferns and is well suited to banks of ponds. It tolerates sun in fairly moist conditions, but in drier sites it should have shade or partial shade. The sterile leaves, which do not produce the spores of reproduction, are plume like. Spore-producing leaves are short, dark and lyre-shaped. If ferns get extremely dry, fronds will turn brown and die back during a drought period. However, roots and crowns usually survive to produce new growth the following spring.

Interrupted fern gets its name because the fertile leaves which are smaller and spore-producing are located in the center of each frond. These fronds grow taller than those that do not have the fertile leaflets in the center. It is an easy fern to grow, and like the ostrich fern, grows best in light shade, but tolerates either sun or heavier shade.

One of my all time favorites is the Japanese Painted Fern. If you’ll take a little closer look at the leaf or frond, you can see how this plant got its name. This plant looks as though it has been meticulously hand painted with its burgundy veining and the lighter colors give it almost a metallic look.

Lady fern is considered by some gardeners to be the easiest fern to grown. Leaves are yellow-green and very graceful. It also grows best in light shade, but also tolerates full sun if plenty of moisture is available. Under good conditions, it may grow two or more feet tall.

Royal fern has a different appearance than many other ferns because its leaflets are larger. The fronds look more like the compound leaves of a honey locust tree. It requires partial shade and needs adequate moisture. Unlike the other ferns listed here, it is able to tolerate boggy conditions. Under average growing conditions, plants will grow two to three feet tall. Under excellent conditions, it may reach a height of as much as five feet.

There are many other good ferns for the home landscape. Planting them now will allow good establishment for plants that will provide many years of enjoyment.