From the August/September 2013 Issue:

Grace & Lace

    Writer: Mary Vinnedge |

The right fern will bring delicate texture and elegant form to sunny, shady, wet and dry landscapes

Article Photo
enlarge | Autumn fern adds color as well as texture to shade gardens.
Ferns have an ethereal appearance that belies their durability. “I’ve run over ostrich ferns with trucks, and then they come back prettier than ever the next year,” says John Butler of Arapahoe Landscape Contractors in Mahwah. That tenacity makes sense: How else could they have survived 300 million years, leaving the much-more-formidable T. rex, woolly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger in the dust?

And here’s another bit of myth-information: Many people think ferns will flourish only in shady, moist environments, but a few varieties grow just fine in sunlight and dry soil, says Britney O’Donnell of Britney O’Donnell Landscape Designs in Stockton. “They’re great for difficult areas such as dry shade,” she says.

O’Donnell and Butler praise ferns for being deer-resistant, low-maintenance and flexible, taking on landscape roles as ground covers, shrubs, background plantings, edging plants and occasionally even specimen plants. Butler usually deploys ferns—most of them perennials that disappear during winter—in shade gardens, their arching fronds contrasting with companion plants such as hostas, pulmonaria, dead nettle, sedges, carex grass, colum­bine, caladiums and hydrangeas. Butler amps up the contrast further by mixing in moss rocks and boulders.

While most species are rightly considered green foliage plants, Butler and O’Donnell mention that Japanese painted fern and autumn fern are quite colorful. And they point out that other fern varieties have a green palette that varies from the color of Granny Smith apples to deep forest green.

When choosing a fern variety for your landscape, match its cultural needs (see chart below) with the soil, sun and moisture conditions Mother Nature provides at the planting site. Also consider the mature size of your fern; you wouldn’t want a 4-foot-tall ostrich fern in front of low-growing pulmonaria. Nor would you want to put the diminutive Japanese painted fern at the back of a wide border where its varied hues disappear into the shadows.

Choosing & Planting
When you’re selecting plants at a nursery, Butler says to “make sure the fern isn’t root-bound. Pull it out of the pot. The roots can bend in the bottom of the pot but not go around and around a couple of times and be knotted up. And look for a nice healthy head on the plant. O’Donnell warns, “If you see mold on the roots, don’t buy the plant.” However, if you see black dots on the backs of leaves, don’t worry. They are the spores with which ferns reproduce.

Plant ferns in fall or spring, O’Donnell advises,?but not in summer unless the weather is cool. They generally prefer a loamy, well-draining site. “Dig a hole twice the width of the plant. Amend the soil with leaf compost or humus” and keep the soil level the same in the ground as it was in the pot, she says. Apply a 2-inch layer of shredded hardwood mulch around your fern. And in fall, O’Donnell fertilizes with Holly-tone organic fertilizer and/or leaf compost.

Ferns are generally pest-free. Butler says slugs can be a problem on occasion (O’Donnell hasn’t had an issue with them); treat as you would with hostas. Generally you should apply insecticides cautiously near ferns because chemicals can damage them.

Once you have a big crop of ferns, you can divide them in early spring. “Split the clumps with a spade and transplant them to a new site,” Butler says. “They’re really easy for a beginning gardener.”

Mary Vinnedge adores Japanese painted ferns, which unfortunately do not grow well in Texas, where she now lives. You can reach her through her websites, and

Ferns for Garden State Gardens
Landscaping experts John Butler and Britney O'Donnell often use these 10 ferns in projects for their New Jersey clients. They're deer-resistant, rugged and easy to grow.