Hardy ferns, as opposed to those wonderful lush tropical ferns that are available in the grocery store all winter, have been growing in the South since before recorded time. Ferns are part of an ancient group of plants that dates back about 300 million years — even before the dinosaurs! Any plant that has been around that long certainly has a reliable and durable track record. They are easy to grow, and there is sure to be a perfect fern for almost every spot in the garden.
Another added bonus of planting ferns is that they seem to be deer-resistant. There are a vast number and variety of fern types that thrive in all types of environments and are a wonderful addition to the garden. Ferns are one of a very few non-blooming plants. Other non-blooming plants are mushrooms, club mosses and some of the liverwort varieties. Ferns reproduce by spores that appear on the fronds. There is literally a fern for every type of soil, whether the location is sandy, loamy, wet or dry, and every variation of sun exposure from deep shade to bright light.
Ferns were very popular in Victorian gardens and were used in conservatories and greenhouses. They add a tropical or woodland accent to the garden, depending on the varieties, and can be planted en masse to stop erosion on a steep bank or as the main focal point in a container planting. There is no limit to the beauty and usefulness of ferns in home gardens.
What qualifies as a sun or shade garden or any variation in between?
Sun and shade are not garden qualities that can be labeled with a number or judged in a clear way. Many garden sites are shady for half the day but are blasted by the afternoon sun. What follows is a basic, loose description of sun or shade qualities to consider when choosing ferns for your garden. Also remember that sun and shade qualities change during the seasons. An area under a tall deciduous tree will be considered partial shade to shade during the summer months but may be considered to be full sun in the winter when there are no leaves on the tree.
Deep or dense shade is an area that receives practically no direct sunlight. This might be an area under a tall, thick evergreen hedge. Moss and ivy are about the only plants that thrive in dense shade.
Partial shade is an area that receives up to six hours of filtered light. This would also be an area under a tree with a tall canopy that allows some sunlight to filter through the leaves. Light shade is any area that basks in the morning light before 10 a.m. or in the afternoon sun after the harshest rays are gone by 4 p.m. Filtered light or dappled shade (which seems to be the most desirable for most ferns) is the shadowy light that is cast by a small-leafed tree such as a Crape Myrtle. This is also the area under a pergola or arbor where the wooden slats diffuse the light.
Bright light is also a great location for ferns. Bright light is an area where no direct sunrays hit the garden but the space is open to the sky for a good part of the day. This might be a courtyard with no overhanging trees or a space where a building’s walls reflect light during the daylight hours.
Right fern, right place
After having studied the shade gradations in the garden, it is time to choose the correct fern variety for the correct space. Following is a list and description of popular ferns that thrive in Zone 8 and are easy to locate for purchase.
Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis) — Holly ferns are mostly evergreen ferns that have shiny, serrated leaves. The fronds will die completely back during a harsh winter. The dead fronds may be cut completely to the ground and new fronds will appear during the spring. This type of fern likes a moist, alkaline soil and prefers partial shade. Holly ferns are a wonderful companion to aspidistra in the garden. Holly fern, just like aspidistra, does not tolerate the harsh afternoon sun.
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) — Maidenhair ferns have delicate stems with feathery fronds. The stems are slightly black with the fan-shaped leaflets attached. They can be temperamental but in the right place they will thrive and reproduce. They prefer a shady spot that stays moist. It is wonderful to see a Maidenhair fern growing out of the mortar joint of a shady brick wall. These lovely ferns also thrive near a fountain where the soil and hardscape stay moist and shady most of the time.
Christmas Fern — The Christmas fern is native to most areas in the Eastern half of North America. According to John Mickel, curator of ferns at the New York Botanical Garden, the common name ‘Christmas Fern’ derives from the early east coast settlers who used the ferns’ fronds as Christmas decorations. Christmas Fern grows in fountain-like clumps that can reach 2 feet tall. The clumps reproduce at a moderate rate so it is easy to divide and plant in other areas of the garden or share with a gardening friend. Christmas ferns are a very easy fern variety to grow in a Midlands garden. It thrives in part to full shade and will adapt to dry or moist soil. It is very useful to use on a steep bank or slope to slow down or prevent soil erosion.
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium Goeringianum) — Japanese painted ferns have greenish-gray fronds with a weeping habit that makes it sway in the garden. These ferns are lovely to use with other dark green-leafed companion plants. The grayish tinge to their stems provides a beautiful contrast in a shady spot. Painted ferns can grow to 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall. They prefer a shady to part-shade area in the garden.
Sword Ferns — Macho Fern (Nephrolepis biserrate) — ‘Macho’ ferns, also known as Giant Sword Ferns, are just as their name describes: big and macho. I have heard these gorgeous ferns described as ‘Boston ferns on steroids!’ This large fern has coarse, shiny, dark green leaves and can grow up to 4 feet tall. They prefer partial shade with morning light being the perfect exposure. The more sun they receive, the more water they will require. These giant beauties will not survive a freeze so they are usually grown in containers that can be taken indoors during the winter or treated as annuals and replaced at the end of the season. They are a wonderful and easy houseplant to enjoy all year round.
Sword Fern — Kimberly Queen Fern (Nephrolepis obliterate) — Affectionately known as KQ ferns, Kimberly Queen ferns are an upright form of Sword fern that can tolerate heat and sun. Kimberly Queens can survive mild winters. Many gardeners plant Kimberly Queen ferns in containers that can be moved into the garage or shed during the winter. They are slow to come back the next spring, but will catch up by the middle of the summer. They are truly one of the toughest and most rewarding plants of the summer garden.
Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythosora) — Autumn ferns are a wonderful accent plant for the evergreen garden. Autumn ferns can be used during the fall and winter as the main plant for a container planting of pansies and violas. Autumn ferns are usually evergreen in the Midlands and prefer a space in the garden with dappled light or partial shade. Autumn ferns can tolerate more sun as they mature. After acclimating to their new homes, these easy plants require very little care. New copper colored fronds emerge in the spring. These immature, but lovely, fronds turn an emerald green by the middle of the summer. Autumn Fern is one of the staples of the Southern garden and has survived the test of time.
Adding ferns to your garden is a foolproof way to add texture and interest to a shady spot or a container in a shady corner. The ferns listed above are readily available in most of the wonderful local garden centers. There are many, many other fine ferns to add to your garden. The ones above are the easiest and most carefree. So take a stroll around the shady areas in your garden and make a list of the ferns that would add beauty and variety to your outdoor paradise.
Gardening chores for May:
• Plant tender annuals and perennials. Keep well watered.
• Container roses can still be planted this month.
• If the vegetable garden has not been completed, there is still time in early May.
• Fertilize azaleas, roses and lawns if not done in April. A light application of Milorganite is a great way to gently fertilize your lawn.
• Watch out for bagworms on Italian cypress and arborvitae. They have been a problem the past two to three warm seasons.
• Watch for lacebugs on azaleas and treat accordingly.
• Look for scale on camellias. This is usually a bright white deposit on the underside of the leaves. Treat accordingly.
• Prune azaleas after blooming.
• Stake tall plants before they get out of control and flop to the ground. Add wire cages around perennials so the foliage camouflages the cage as it grows.
• Daylilies should be blooming in the garden centers. This is a good time to buy them so you know that you are getting the correct variety. Sometimes the plant tags and the plants do not match.
• Mulch all beds to retain moisture and discourage weeds. Move houseplants outside to a shady spot in the garden to enjoy them in a different setting.
Blooming plants to look for in May:
Magnolia Oakleaf Hydrangea
May is the month of the rose … enjoy.