Ferns add greenery (in all shades), texture and interest changing through the seasons as tight new leaves (crosiers) unroll into long and graceful leaves (fronds) in different shades of green, either evergreen or turning to brown skeletons that catch frost and ice to shimmer in winter. Different varieties offer different shaped plants and fronds, but all provide a feeling of wilderness and exotic places. As architectural plants, large and small ferns provide structure and form in containers, patios and gardens, rock gardens, banks and walls.
Ferns – all round stars!
- Hardy: many grown in gardens and containers are native to the British Isles and so are used to our climate.
- Low maintenance: simply remove dead leaves (in ferns, the leaves are called fronds) before the new fronds show in spring (these new fronds are called crosiers) and every now and then clear the area around their base of grass, weeds and leaves (from ferns or other plants).
- Tolerant: growing in sun and shade, damp and drier ground.
- All sorts of shapes and sizes: from tiny plants growing in walls and banks to The Royal Fern at around 2m (6 feet) high.
- Year round interest: from unfurling young leaves to long wavy fronds, some with colour changing over time.
Think before you buy!
Soil: most ferns thrive in moist, well-drained, shady soils and do even better if you add lots of organic matter (well rotted garden compost or leaf mould) to the soil before you plant them. Some – including the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) - need a neutral to acid soil. Some like well drained soil.
Sun or shade: some ferns like sun, some like deep shade, most enjoy dappled shade.
Moisture: most ferns do like a damp soil, but some are happy in dry soil if it is shaded. Water them in well when you plant them and if possible spread well rotted leaf mould or garden compost around them in winter to enrich the soil.
Planting time: September is the best time, before the first frosts and when the soil is damp. Choose and buy now for a green and tranquil look next year.
Further information : try this RHS advice note.
Ferns – top choices for different places
The RHS’s Graham Rice offers a great selection. Among his suggestions, my favourites include the Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) because of the changing colours of the fronds, from pinky red when new to dark and gorgeously green when mature. Growing to around 60cm (2 feet), this plant is happy in moist shade.
For sunny places (with damp and neutral to acid soil) the Shuttlecock Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is lovely. As its name suggests, it grows in a shuttlecock shape up to 1.2m (4 feet) high and at least 60cm (2feet) round.
For dry gardens, try the Lip Fern (Cheilanthes - tomentosa or lanosa) whose grey green and fluffy fronds are unusual.
Where to buy ferns?
Specialist suppliers (such as this one), garden centres and superstores all sell ferns. Please read the labels before you buy, as not all will suit your needs. And, if you can, before you shop use the RHS 'find a plant' online search to find which ferns will suit the place where you want them to grow.
A cautionary note on tree ferns
These wonderful plants differ from the ferns I have talked about. Not only the look (taller, like statues growing on sturdy trunks) but the care they need. More tender, and needing perpetual dampness, these are not for the faint hearted.
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