Ferns are one of our oldest, but yet, most overlooked perennial garden plants. Having survived since the age of the dinosaur, today we have over 12,000 species of ferns ranging from moss-like to 40 foot trees, growing from the arctic to the tropics, yes, even in the desert. With these qualities for survival, ferns can live in your garden, giving you years of interest and beauty.
Ferns are not as finicky as most people think and once established, prove to be one of the easiest and most carefree plants in the garden. There are three major requirements in site selection.
1. Shade: Most ferns do best in some shade. Dappled shade is best, part sun is good. Avoid deep/dark shade and afternoon hot sun. However, some varieties of fern can grow and thrive in full sun.
2. Moisture: Consistent moisture is important and best throughout the year. However once established most ferns adapt to dry periods. One of the most common causes of fern death is too much water. While a few of the ferns love wet, boggy areas, most do not like their feet wet. Increase moisture in drier soils by amending the soil with organic matter.
3. Soil: Rich, humus, well drained soil is ideal for a successful fern garden. Regular addition of leaf mulch, wood chips, and compost will make a great fern haven.
Knowing the growth habit- short/tall, creeping/spreading, crown forming- is important when planning the fern area. Ferns like good ventilation, so leave room for growth. We suggest digging a nest rather than a hole- wider than deep. Line the nest by mixing the existing soil with amending material such as compost or humus. Never plant the crown below the soil. Be sure the plant is at or slightly above the soil level. A feeding of slow release fertilizer in the spring is sufficient. Ferns do not require regular fertilization.
Now, once your ferns are planted- sit back and enjoy the wonderful color, textures and form variations that ferns provide in your garden. Also, deer do not like to eat ferns and neither do most insects. But people love the cool airy feeling ferns give to the garden on a hot summer day.
Some Fern Reference books that we use and enjoy:
THE PLANT LOVER’S GUIDE TO FERNS
Richie Steffen & Sue Olsen
FERNS FOR AMERICAN GARDENS
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GARDEN FERNS