Selecting and Using Ferns

Among the first plants to inhabit the earth, ferns produce spores instead of seed and do not flower. Despite the lack of flowers, however, ferns are among the most versatile and attractive of plants. There are ferns that grow in sun as well as shade and water as well as dry sand. Not only do they range from small to large (a few inches to several feet), and deciduous to evergreen, they come in an array of colors. There are ferns with yellowish-, lime- and deepgreen leaves, as well as copper - even those that are variegated silvery, green, gray, and burgundy.

Fern leaves or fronds are usually many segmented (compound) with a feathery appearance. But species and varieties exist that are nonsegmented (simple), crisped (frilled), succulent, and even beadlike.

In most cases ferns bear their spores in tiny dotlike structures (sori) attached to the bottom of the leaves. In other cases they are borne in beadlike segments carried either above the foliage or upon separate stalks-in which case they may be as ornamental as the nonspore-bearing leaves, as is the case with cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) which is so named for the magnificent cinnamon-brown spore-bearing stalks.

How Ferns Grow:
Some ferns grow in clump forming fashion in which they form round hummocks or mounds, with leaves originating from the center or outside edge of the mound. On the other hand there are ferns that spread to form thick colonies. These types spread by underground stems called rhizomes which send up shoots as they spread.

Ferns for Accent:
Like many perennials, ferns can be used for accent, to draw one's attention to other plants in conjunction with a boulder, bench, shrub, or tree trunk of contrasting color or texture. Ferns also look superb lining the edge of a wooded path or shady courtyard or patio.

Ferns as Companion Plants:
Ferns make wonderful companion plants to other ferns, Ajuga, Astilbe, Bergenia, barren strawberry, black lily-turf, European ginger, Galium, Geranium, Heuchera, hostas-especially blue leaved and variegated forms, Lamium, sedges, wintergreen, and wildflowers.

Ferns as Ground Covers:
Ferns can be used to cover the ground just as vines, grasses, and other types of ground covers. Clump forming ferns may be planted close enough together that they cover the ground and exclude weeds. Those that spread to form colonies are best planted in moderate to large scale thickets and contribute a soft graceful texture to the landscape.

Ferns as Container Plants:
Ferns make suburb luxurious container plants. Some of the more hardy varieties may survive the winter in a container, and even if they don't, the cost of replacement is minimal. Ferns in containers combine nicely with such ground covers as Ajuga, Lamiastrum, Lamium, Lysimachia, Ophiopogon, Ranunculus, Veronica, Vinca, and Carex selections.

Planting, Spacing, and Watering.
Similar to ground covers. Please refer to the ground cover section of this site.

Maintaining Ferns:
Ferns seldom need any maintenance. Occasionally the wintergreen types may look better if some of their older leaves are trimmed off as they become tattered. The deciduous types need no such care and their leaves need not be removed as they die back each fall. Better to let them rot, so that their nutrients may be returned to the soil.

Controlling Weeds in Fern Plantings:
Ferns are sensitive to herbicides and thus weed control should be accomplished by any nonchemical means outlined in the ground cover section of this brochure.

Fertilizing Ferns:
Most ferns are damaged when treated with low quality inorganic chemical fertilizers. On the other hand, they respond well to an early spring application of slow release fertilizer or a fall topdressing with leafmold.

Planting Tips
Quantity Calculator
Shopping List