Choosing and Growing Ferns in Your Garden

Beautiful, versatile, and great for shady spots, ferns are a fantastic addition to the garden.

ferns in a garden
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During the Victorian era, there was a craze in the British Isles for ferns. Ferns were collected from the wild (often sadly to the point of destroying precious habitats) and grown in gardens and homes, often in specialist planting schemes called ferneries, where numerous species could be displayed and enjoyed.

While I certainly would not advocate doing what the Victorians did and grabbing ferns from the wild, there is a lot to like about the fern gardens they created. If you have a suitably shaded garden where the right environment for ferns can be provided, then creating your own fernery could be a great idea.

Why Grow Ferns?

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Ferns are fascinating. Dating back some 360 million years, modern fern families still around today first emerged around 145 million years ago. They are vascular plants which reproduce via spores rather than seeds and do not flower.

One thing that can make ferns very valuable to gardeners is that they are excellent choices for shady spots.

Many ferns can thrive in a north-facing border or below mature trees, and some can even cope with deep shade. Ferns can be found to handle a range of environmental conditions, coping with everything from very damp and boggy wetland to dry shade.

Choosing Ferns to Grow in Your Garden

Fern leaves in a garden, wood fern Dryopteris Felix-mas
Wood fern Dryopteris Felix-mas. PaulMaguire / Getty Images

When choosing ferns for your garden, it is important to understand that there are different degrees of shade and also different types of shaded areas distinguished in part by the moisture levels in the soil and the general humidity. Different ferns are suited to different growing conditions.

It can be helpful to think about choosing ferns for one of three different habitat types:

  1. A shady wetland or very damp and boggy position.
  2. A damp shade location.
  3. A situation with dry shade.

Here in the United Kingdom, some of the ferns suited to a very damp and boggy location include royal ferns, ostrich ferns, lady ferns, and sensitive ferns, to give a few examples.

The above also work for damp shade. But in damp shade, there are other options, including Aleutian maidenhair fern. Golden shield fern, broad buckler fern, basket fern, hart's tongue fern, soft-shield fern, evergreen maidenhair, and more.

Dramatic tree ferns, golden tree ferns, etc. might also be an option in a position in damp shade where the location is also mild enough.

Dryopteris ferns grown in damp shade can also grow well in dry shade too. In addition, you might consider options like hard fern, common polypody fern, eared lady fern, crested golden shield fern and autumn fern, to name some examples.

Creating a Fernery/ Fern Garden

mixed border with shady tolerance plants - ferns, hostas and heucheras in summer garden
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If you want to create a garden area dedicated to ferns then it is important to choose the right options for the specific location, thinking about the shade and moisture levels, as well as other features of the environment.

Ferns can be grown independently in a given area or combined only with other ferns. But it can be a wonderful idea to mix your ferns with other shade-tolerant plants—spring bulbs can work well, especially in areas below deciduous trees, since they take advantage of the extra light when the leaves are still off the trees in early spring. They can look wonderful growing amid ferns.

Another idea is to create an even more wonderful habitat for ferns and other shade-tolerant plants, as well as a range of wildlife, by going one step further and creating a stumpery, or stump garden, with old wood stumps or rotting logs planted up with ferns and other plants to create beautiful and biodiverse displays.

an ancient tree stump covered in ferns and other plants
Arundel Castle stumpery, West Sussex, Great Britain.

Michael Garlick / CC by 2.0 / Geograph UK

As the old wood breaks down, it not only looks picturesque but also feeds the soil and aids a wide variety of life within it and on the soil surface. Nooks and crannies within your stumps or logs provide shelter and a home for many more creatures.

Select your plants, and place your stumps in an artful yet naturalistic fashion, slightly buried in the ground. Spread an organic mulch around them, plant your ferns and other plants on and around your dead wood, and soon you will have a wonderfully attractive and wildlife-attracting feature for that shady spot in your garden.