Ferns have to be the most under rated plant used in our gardens. Ferns deserve to be more widely used as they provide the green lushness to our gardens. They are the perfect plant for London Garden Designers to use in those intimate courtyard spaces. Ferns vary in frond shapes, they came in a variety of sizes and textures, make a great foil for other plants but most importantly there will always be a fern that we can grow in that difficult dark shady space that we all have in our gardens. Ferns are one of the most primitive plants on earth. They have vascular tissue. This means food and moisture are transported through the plant by tubular cells. Ferns do not flower. They reproduce by spores that are on the underside of the foliage. Plant hunters are still discovering new varieties of ferns.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Designers: Andrew Fisher Tomlin & Dan Bowyer
Designed by Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Dan Bowyer at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2016, this garden incorporated a lot of Dicksonia antarctica at different heights. Tree Ferns are a great choice of plant for exotic town gardens. A canopy of lush foliage allows for very impressive underplanting. The red raised border creates drama, drawing you into the space. It also helps to highlight the lushness and textures of the varied foliage.
FERNS FOR DIFFERENT CONDITIONS
The general thought pattern is that ferns grow in wet conditions. Whilst there are some ferns that do need boggy conditions, most ferns would not survive this level of wet. We just have to look at where they grow in their natural habitat. Aspleniums will grow in old walls where there is lack of water. Ferns such as Asplenium scolopendrium, A. trichomanes, Polystichums and varieties of Dryopteris can also be found growing in the gaps of drystone walls in damp environments which are in shade and covered in moss. Ferns grow really well on the banks of roads where there is a lot or rock and rubble in the soil that provides good drainage. Runoff of rainwater will bring moisture and nutrients to the roots making it a winning location for ferns.
Contrary to belief, there are some ferns that cannot cope with winter wet at all. These are the Cheilanthes and Pellaea that are best grown in an alpine house. Cheilanthes tomentosa and Pellaea ovata will grow outside in the UK but will need really good drainage and protection above too. If you have areas of dry shade, try planting Dryopteris filix-mas. This fern will also cope with a windy site.
Dryopteris linerais polydactyla is a very hardy fern. Ferns make great companion plants with hostas as seen in our client’s garden here.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
Ever walked through a woodland and noticed the ferns growing there? The woodland floor tends to be dry because of the overhead canopy of the trees. There will be moisture when it rains but much of the water will be consumed by the trees. The types of ferns you will get growing on a woodland floor are Dryopteris, Aspleniums, Polypodiums, Polystichums and Adiantum. One to try in your own garden would be Adiantum aleuticum Mrs Sharples. It’s a delicate looking maidenhair fern but quite a tough plant that has a real elegance. If growing in the ground, make sure to add lots of organic matter. It will also happily grow in a container.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
Ferns make great indoor plants for a steamy bathroom environment. Here is Adiantum fragans (Maidenhair Fern) growing happily in my bathroom.
FERNS FOR WET AREAS
If you have year-round very wet conditions in the garden or a pond where the banks remain wet, these are perfect conditions for Osmunda regalis, Athyrium filix-femina, Dryopteris cristata or Mattheuccia struthiopteris. For moderately wet conditions try some of the Blechnum varieties. I would recommend Blechnum spicant, Gymnocarpium dryopteris or Phegopteris connectilis.
Garden Designer Lucy Wilcox has used Polystichum aculeatum mixed in with campanulas and Alchemilla mollis. A beautiful choice of hardy plants for a shade garden
Photo Credit: Lucy Wilcox
Most ferns need shade. However, there are some ferns that will cope with sun such as Dryopteris affinis and Asplenium scolopendrium. Polypodium australe Cambricum is perfect for growing in a sunny spot. One of the questions I always face is should Dicksonia antarctica (Tree Fern) be planted in shade or in a sun. These majestic looking ferns originate from Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand where they grow under the canopy of trees. However, the sun is a lot stronger in there than it is in the UK. The advice that I have been given by some knowledgeable nursery people is to grow them in sun or dapple light not direct sunlight. I also to choose to put an irrigation dripper in the crown and I recommend to thoroughly drench the trunk and feed your tree fern. Avoid planting your tree fern in a windy aspect. These are expensive plants but worth the investment. Cyathea australis (another type of tree fern) also originates from the southern hemisphere. These are more tender than Dicksonia antarctica but certainly worth trying if you garden in an area where temperatures remain mild. Tree ferns are perfect for creating that lush tropical garden. Mixing them with other textured foliage, evergreen shrubs and taller trees that create a spreading canopy providing shelter for more tender underplanting.
In this garden, designer Lucy Wilcox has used Polystichum setiferum Herrenhausen to great effect right up against the house, mixed with hardy geraniums and ornamental grasses
Photo Credit: Lucy Wilcox
INDOOR PET FRIENDLY FERNS
In the UK some ferns are grown as house plants. I have Adiantum fragans (Maidenhair fern) growing happily on my bathroom window. Ferns are a choice plant for steamy bathrooms. Another fern to try indoors is Platycerium bifurcatum (Staghorn fern). We are a pet friendly nation and I’m sure many of you will want to know if there are ferns that are safe for pets. Yes, there are some stunning ferns that will not harm our four-legged friends. Nephrolepis exaltata (Boston Fern) is not harmful to pets. It became very popular in the Victorian era and was often grown in a glass case. Other ferns that are safe for pets are Asplenium nidus Crispy Wave, Asplenium antiquum Osaka, Phlebodium aureum (Blue Star Fern), Microsorum musifolium Crocodyllus (Crocodile Fern) and Coniogramme intenz.
MY FERN FAVOURITES
Dryopteris erythrosora – an evergreen fern thus providing interest all year round. It prefers a shady area and a moderate amount of moisture. The most eye-catching part of this fern is the coppery toned fresh young leaves that appear a few at a time throughout the year.
Asplenium trichomanes – a small evergreen fern that will grow in rockeries, brick wall and stones wall. It will even grow amongst gaps in stepping-stones. It has pinnate leaves where the tiny green leaflets grow in opposite pairs along a blackish stem. It requires partial to full shade and moist humus- rich soil that is well drained and on the alkaline side.
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum – is known as the Japanese painted fern. It is delicate deciduous fern that has deeply cut greyish-green fronds that are fused with purples but also have a silver shimmer. It prefers damp shade and a moist, fertile, neutral to acidic soil.
Osmunda regalis – called the royal fern. This is a giant fern that produces huge green fronds that unfurl in spring. It needs partial shade and grows in fertile, humus-rich soil on the acidic side. It needs a really damp to wet conditions. The young fronds come up looking like rust coloured plumes and green up as they unfurl.
Athyrium filix-femina – known as the lady fern. This fern has graceful, filigree- like leaves. It prefers full or partials shade so best to grow it in a woodland environment. Soil should be moist, fertile, neutral to acidic. In cold areas it is advisable to cover the crowns with a dry mulch of straw or bracken.
Blechnum chilense – commonly known as the Chilean hard fern. This evergreen fern is striking with its bold leathery leaves and undulated fronds. It is perfect for ground cover as it spreads very quickly creating large clumps in moist ground. Prefers full to partial shade.
Not fully hardy so it is advisable to dig up the crowns in autumn and overwinter or cover them with a thick layer of mulch.
The unfurling fronds and dark trunk of Cyathea australis in the glass house at RHS Wisley
Photo Credit: Manoj Mald
Asplenium scolopendrium – called the hart’s tongue fern. It has lustrous fronds that have undulating edges. It requires partial shade. Grows in humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil that is preferably alkaline. Improve soil with organic matter and keep well-watered through the growing season. It is one of the ferns that will tolerate dry soil.
Photo Credit: Manoj Mald
Garden designer Andy Sturgeon created this garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2019. The striking thing about this garden was there was no flower colour, yet it was vibrant with an assortment of textures, foliage, and shades of green. Andy included many varieties of ferns within this garden.
GROWING AND LOOKING AFTER FERNS
Most ferns will grow well in a shady spot that is moist, well-drained, humus-rich and neutral to alkaline. Some ferns prefer a slightly acidic soil such as Osmunda regalis (the Royal Fern). It is always best to check which fern are most suitable for the spot that you want to plant them in.
Ferns planted in the ground, generally do not need feeding. Give them a boost by mulching with well-rotted farmyard manure. If you have poor soil then apply a fertiliser such as Growmore or fish, blood and bone. Always follow the instructions on the container.
Water ferns at the roots not directly on the crown where the fronds are unfurling as this can cause rot. However, for Tree Ferns I do tend to advise a sprinkler in the crown during the warmer months as I do find that the crowns can dry out. With Tree Ferns it is also advisable to give the trunks a thorough soaking. It is the one fern that I do feed using Vitax tree fern and palm feed.
Ferns do not need pruning, but it is always a good idea to remove dead fronds before the new crosiers (unfurling fronds) start pushing upwards. Remove debris and detritus to improve air circulation around the plants
Nothing beats lush greenery indoors or in a garden. Be sure to include ferns in your home, and as part of the planting scheme of in the garden
The Japanese Garden at Tatton Park is a haven for fern. Spores have blown in between crevices of large stone boulders and are growing away quite happily.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde