Many gardeners are so focused on annuals and perennials for eye-popping color they overlook the oldest and most versatile members of the plant world. “Ferns are the Rodney Dangerfield of the plant world: They get no respect,” says Judith Jones, owner of Fancy Fronds Nursery in Gold Bar, Washington.
Dating back millions of years and containing thousands of different species, ferns offer nearly unlimited selection for size and style. They grow in sun or shade, some are even drought-tolerant and, wow, deer don’t eat them.
Ferns are a staple in woodland gardens and in “the classic Japanese garden,” says Lynn Funk, designer and owner of Lynn’s Living Designs in Grants Pass. Pair them with Japanese maple trees, vine maples and river birch trees. They’re a natural with rhododendrons, hostas and evergreen huckleberry. Add some mossy boulders, logs and a stream or running water feature. For texture contrast, plant a shade-tolerant Carex grass.
Use ferns to backdrop spring bulbs such as anemone and snowdrop and spring-blooming perennials like bleeding heart and columbine. Tiny ferns can be used in rock gardens or around stepping-stones and larger ones can cascade over a rock wall. Ferns are wonderful container plants. Mix ferns of different colors and textures in one pot or contrast with pink or white impatiens or woodland bulbs.
Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata) is a popular houseplant that can be placed outdoors on a shady deck or porch in summer. In winter, bring it inside and mist it to keep it looking good. Another popular houseplant called asparagus fern is not really a fern at all, but, you guessed it, a member of the asparagus family.
Whether standing elegantly alone in a woodland setting, or as a backdrop to more colorful companion plants, ferns are worthy of attention. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) is a favorite of Lynn Funk, owner of Lynn’s Living Designs in Grants Pass. “It’s a gorgeous and hardy fern,” she says. Named for its silvery and creamy shades, it was named 2004 Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. Eighteen inches high and 2 feet wide, these metallic hues will really light up a shade garden.
If “big and bold” fits in your garden, Funk recommends our native Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and Giant Chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) whose 3 to 6-foot fronds will keep their graceful green through winter when everything else has died back. Western sword fern is perfect for dry shade under Rogue Valley’s native oaks. Deciduous varieties, such as common bracken, turn brown and look dead in winter, so consider evergreen varieties for your garden.
Smaller native ferns in the 1- to 2-foot range include evergreen Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) and the epiphyte Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) that prefers to grow out of moss-covered logs and bark and is often found growing in crevices of Big Leaf Maple trees. “Everybody likes maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), which is fragile-looking, but tough,” says Funk. Smaller still, the tiny native oak fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) at only 10 inches tall, spreads by underground stems and makes a nice ground cover, she adds.
Not native but still hardy, other varieties available in the Rogue Valley include male fern, shaggy fern, ostrich fern, Korean rock fern and many-fingered fern. “Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) fronds start out as a beautiful cinnamon color turning to green and then brown,” says Dieter Trost, owner of Southern Oregon Nursery.
Most ferns like shade and moist, slightly acid soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7. Water requirements vary with species, so check the plant tag or ask your nursery person for specifics. “Ferns love lots of humus and calcium,” says Trost. Put cracked egg shells in your watering can, leave it sit for three to four hours, then water your ferns with it, he suggests.
Use ferns in your garden as a focal point or as a good neighbor to your other plants. Let them soften hard edges of walkways, decks or fences, and camouflage twiggy shrubs and spent perennials. They nicely accent birdbaths, moss-covered boulders or other garden art. With versatility and handsome looks, it’s easy to incorporate this ancient survivor.