Ferns are the go-to plants to add a touch of lush primordial interest to an ornamental garden. Coming in a range of heights, textures, and growth habits, ferns are versatile plants. Whether in a sunny or shady spot, in a humid or dry spot, there is a fern for every corner of your garden. They can be focal points or ground covers or placed in rock gardens or along paths.
Fairly drought-tolerant, ferns are the perfect low-maintenance plants with no significant disease or insect problems once established. They create their own environment, shading the ground, keeping the soil moist, and helping suppress weeds. Many are surprisingly tolerant of sunlight. Most are well-behaved garden residents, colonizing slowly and sharing the space with other plants. Best of all, they attract little attention from browsing deer.
There are thousands of ferns to choose from, but here is a sampling of a few Pacific Northwest species easily found at local nurseries (or in a friend’s yard). As natives, they are sure to perform for beginners.
Top of the natives list is the ubiquitous sword fern (Polystichum munitum). The sword fern grows just about anywhere, from full shade to full sun. Don’t underestimate this fern. With fronds that can grow up to five feet tall, it can be as stunning a feature in your garden as it is in the woods. An evergreen, the sword fern has the added boon of providing a bright spot of green in the austere winter landscape.
The low growing rosette of fronds characteristic of the deer fern (Blechnum spicant) form a luxuriant, evergreen carpet in a woodland setting, but this fern is equally adept as a border plant. This charming little plant draws attention to itself when its fertile fronds emerge from the center shooting upward to two feet. It prefers shade.
Another striking addition to a shade garden is the dainty maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum) with its fan-like pinnae attached to delicate waxy black stems so thin it seems they will snap under the weight of the leaflets. It is deciduous, so don’t panic when it disappears in the winter. It will be back in the spring.
The lady fern (Athyrium felix-femina) is fairly common and just as versatile as the sword fern. It does well in the shade yet tolerates sun, just don’t put it in a spot with late afternoon direct sunlight. It has a much different habit than the sword fern with lacy fronds of bipinnate leaflets that grow up to six feet and drape gracefully over its surroundings. It is deciduous, but a fast grower in early spring.
If you don’t already have ferns in your garden, give them a try. You may find that they are precisely the plant your garden was needing.
The Hardy Fern Foundation (www.hardyferns.org) maintains a stumpery in the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden at 2525 S. 336th St., Federal Way, and a fern collection at the Bellevue Botanical Garden at 12001 Main St., Bellevue. Both showcase a variety of ferns from around the world that are suitable for northwest gardens.
“The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns” by Sue Olsen and Richie Steffen and “Ferns for American Gardens” by John T. Mickel are both useful references and available in the North Olympic Library System.
Sara Farinelli is a Clallam County Master Gardener.