image of a mass of ferns in a woodland setting

In Defense of Ferns

I have heard ferns maligned in a surprising number of places lately, and I want to do my part to set the record straight. There seems to be a misconception that ferns are scraggly and awkward or difficult to grow. Allow me to argue the opposite.

Ferns are no more difficult to grow than any other plant. Put them in an environment where they can thrive, and they will. If your chosen planting location is not currently suited to ferns, it may make sense to choose a different plant. Or, if you have the time and resources to create the right sort of microclimate for the type of fern you want to grow, you could give that a shot. If you go that route, just be prepared for ongoing maintenance to keep that microclimate in place.

There are many ferns to choose from, and texture is a great place to start in making your choice, because that is one of the most splendid traits that ferns have to offer. In most cases, they will make the best display when planted en masse, perhaps in a grove of tall deciduous trees, limbed up if necessary to allow for viewing the expanse across the forest floor. Does that mean that putting a few ferns in a bed along with a bunch of other plants is a bad way to go? Not necessarily. A small grouping of ferns can be effective. My caution would be against throwing a bit of this and a bit of that all into the bed and letting them fight it out for attention. It’s a common mistake, and one that really does not do justice to ferns. Give them a sizable grouping, and pair them with plants that will complement their texture and color.

For instance, if you choose a bold-textured fern, such as Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), you might consider fronting the planting with a ground-hugging flowering plant, like Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum). Or if you prefer a finely textured fern, planting an adjacent sweep of a bolder plant, such as Hosta, might be a good counterpoint.

Personally, I am especially partial to Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-femina) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). There’s something about the delicate texture of each that creates an ethereal feeling when planted in a large grouping. Even a cluster of pots filled with maidenhair can add gorgeous greenery to a shady terrace.