In the Garden:
This newly divided and transplanted Japanese painted fern provides a nice complement to my variegated Impatiens 'Pink Ice'.
Garnish Your Garden with Ferns
To me, ferns are ideal shade plants. Their delicate, feathery beauty appeals to me, but so does their diversity. Ferns come in all kinds of colors, shapes, and sizes, so I think they are easy to fit into almost any kind of garden.
I like to contrast the lacy foliage of ferns with the leaves of other plants. Large-leaved hostas are a common choice, but I use them sparingly for fear they will overpower the delicacy of the ferns. Instead, I rely mostly on plants like the May-blooming creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), foamflowers (Tiarella), dwarf astilbe (Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila'), and hardy begonia (Begonia grandis).
Short or Tall, I Like Them All
When I want a tall plant with foliage that looks good all summer, I use log ferns (Dryopteris celsa). They are some of the tallest ferns I grow, reaching a height of about 3 feet when planted in rich, moist soils. In nature, they are often found near rotten logs, but log ferns adapt to almost any shady spot, as long as it is not too dry. Their upright, deep-green fronds are among the most beautiful I've seen. In winter, their leathery foliage is semi-evergreen. Log ferns are hardy to Zone 5.
The emerging fronds of pink shield fern, or autumn fern (D. erythronsora), are, as the name implies, pink -- especially in early spring. The fronds mature to light green, but new pink fronds continue to emerge intermittently throughout the summer. The arching, mature fronds on this Asian species have a somewhat leathery texture and may reach up to 2 feet in length. Pink shield ferns are hardy to Zone 5.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicus 'Pictum') has cool, grey-green, almost silvery foliage and reddish-purple stalks, and I've found it useful for brightening dark spots in borders. It reaches only 8 to 12 inches in height, but is easy to grow, prolific, and easily divided. It forms a tight ground cover when plants are placed about a foot apart. Japanese painted fern is hardy from Zone 4 south.
A small fern well suited to the middle of a planting bed is American maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). It has a distinctively bushy habit; soft, green fronds; and tiny leaflets lining its dark, wiry stems. It grows 1 to 2 feet tall and is hardy to USDA Zone 3.
The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a particularly accommodating garden plant, adapted to a wide range of conditions from very dry to moist. Hardy to Zone 3, the plant's 1- to 2-foot fronds are dependably evergreen, but can lay flat on the ground when snow arrives in winter. It's one of the few hardy ferns I've found that maintains its beautiful deep, glossy green foliage year around.
Finding the Right Spot
The ideal place to grow ferns is in consistently moist, well drained soil that is rich in humus, but ferns are actually quite adaptable. Provided there is adequate shade, some varieties will even tolerate summer drought. They may wilt and go dormant, but, if established, are likely to revive when rain returns in the fall.
The best time to plant or transplant ferns is in spring, but if you buy them in pots, you can plant them any time. Established ferns have dense, shallow roots, and can be easily transplanted from fall until spring as long as you apply a mulch to help protect the roots. When planting, I give ferns a good start by working lots of compost or leaf mold into the soil 4 to 8 inches deep. Even when actively growing, they can be successfully moved if they have a large root ball. Whether I'm planting potted ferns or transplanting, I always lift the plant by its roots rather than the fronds.
After planting I cover the soil with an organic mulch to conserve moisture and provide a steady supply of nutrients. A loose, fluffy mulch of shredded leaves 3 to 4 inches deep each fall will enrich the soil and also help conserve moisture.
If the bed becomes overcrowded with large clumps of ferns, I make divisions in early spring before growth begins and rearrange the bed by moving the divisions farther apart.
Getting an Early Start
I prefer to start the next season early with a cleanup in late fall or winter. I cut off the old fronds and add leaves to create a bed of mulch. In late April and May, the fern's fresh, new fiddleheads unfurl among creeping phlox, foamflowers, and snowflakes. Astilbe, bugbane, and hardy begonias follow later to accent the lacy, maturing ferns. Through summer, and even into fall, my fern dell beckons as a cool, quiet, and restful retreat.
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