Ferns offer a wonderful range of textures and greens for the yard and garden. You’ll find varieties from those that do well in deep shade to those that bask in full sunlight. Their cool, feathery foliage provides a charming counterpoint to riotous perennial flowers. Listen to learn more about these long-lived gems.
This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.
By the time the dinosaurs evolved, ferns had already been around for two million years and were among the largest and most common plants on earth. Most ferns that remain today are of modest size, but some tree ferns still growing in the tropics may reach 50’ or more with fronds (leaves) as long as 20’, reminding us of this plants grand past.
As ancient as ferns are, it is remarkable how easily they fit into modern landscapes and gardens. They are just as much at home growing in a woodland planting as they are mixed with foundation plants or providing a background for perennials.
Ferns are great problem solvers for a variety of difficult situations. They make an excellent ground cover for embankments that are too steep or rough to mow and many will grow in deep shade and soil too poor to support other plants. Planted against a stonewall they form a neat mowing edge that eliminates a need for trimming, and are a natural for making a graceful transition from lawn to woods.
Most ferns prefer a moist shaded environment but some varieties perform well in full sun. The Hayscented Fern that grows happily along roadsides is an aggressive spreader that tolerates sun well. It forms a thick 20” tall ground cover that has the delightful aroma of freshly mown hay.
Another choice candidate for a sunny spot provided it has moisture is the very showy Cinnamon Fern. It has 3’ long fronds and stalks covered with fuzzy cinnamon colored hairs. Its autumn color is a dazzling yellow-orange that appears after the first hard frost.
Ferns display a remarkable range of textures and colors from the tough dark green leathery looking Christmas Fern to the delicate soft feathery Lady Fern with its cool green foliage that mixes well with perennial plantings. For a real attention getter try the Japanese Painted Fern. It has silvery green fronds that are splashed with burgundy. This fern will grow in light shade or full sun making it ideal for a wooded planting or as a rock garden specimen.
Ferns are very long lived, many lasting 100 years or more so when you plant one in your garden, you could be getting a frond for life.