Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
December, 2009
Regional Report

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Maidenhair and Japanese painted fern are perfect companions to these pretty pink impatiens.

Add Ferns for Texture in Shady Gardens

To me, ferns are the classic shade plants. Their delicate, feathery fronds coupled with their diverse shapes and sizes are what appeal to me most. 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 natural, but I also pair them with caladiums, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), hardy begonia (Begonia grandis), and green dragon (Arisaema dracontiu).

Short or Tall, I Like Them All
When I want a tall plant with foliage that looks good all summer, I use sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). Sword ferns are beautiful, long-lived evergreens fern that can grow to 4 feet tall and 7 or 8 feet wide under ideal conditions. In my garden they are more likely to grow to 2 or 3 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. In a mature plant, as many as 100 dark green, lance-shaped fronds may grow from the rhizome at the plant's center. In early spring, the young fronds, or fiddleheads, appear and slowly unroll. Each frond may reach 4 to 6 feet long and will live for several years.

Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicus 'Pictum') has cool, gray-green, almost silvery foliage and reddish-purple stalks. I use it in containers and in borders, where it helps brighten up dark spots. 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.

The emerging fronds of pink shield fern, or autumn fern (Dryopteris 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 leathery texture and may reach up to 2 feet in length.

My all-time favorite is maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). I love the delicate look and feel of the tiny, deep green leaflets that line its dark, wiry stems. Maidenhair is a small, bushy fern, growing only 1 to 2 feet tall and wide. My only disappointment is that it dies back in the fall.

Finding the Right Spot
Ferns are actually quite adaptable but the ideal place to grow ferns is in constantly moist, humus-rich soil. 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 during the 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. 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 and new humus. A loose, fluffy mulch of shredded leaves 3 to 4 inches deep each fall also helps build up a layer of leaf mold.

If a planting 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 and their performance begins anew. Through summer, and even into fall, my fern dell beckons as a cool, quiet, and restful retreat.

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