A group of plants that I have developed a growing appreciation for over the years are ferns. I know many think of ferns as background plants or filler but for others the ferns can be the major focal plant in the garden with other plants being fern companion plants. I learned to use ferns in almost any part of the garden from sun to shade, dry to wet.
When I started to build the garden at Old Goat Farm ferns became a major element particularly in the shadier parts of the garden. I cleared the areas to put in borders leaving some choice natives, one being Polysticum munitum, the native sword fern. I developed an appreciation for the sword fern while traveling in England and having a gardener point out one of his prized plants, our sword fern. It was much smaller than ours but looked beautiful in its setting. Now when I see the Pacific Northwest sword fern I remember that and think how fortunate I am to have such amazing specimens. The other native fern I use a lot is Blechnum spicant, the deer fern. It looks great in mass.
Ferns can be used as ground cover or as specimen plants. Working at the Miller Garden I learned to use them in a variety of ways. Betty was a big collector as was my co-worker Richie Steffen. Sometimes as a specimen plant I prefer to use groups of them to make more of an impact. I have five soft shield ferns, Polysticum setiferum ‘Bevis’ planted in a group. It is a fine texture form fern resembling the sword fern. I also have three robust male ferns, Dryopteris robusta which now take up almost a whole bed. Each is about five feet tall and almost as wide. Planted next to a Hosta ‘Sum and Substance ‘ they make a real impact. Having these specimens in the garden gets peoples attention and generates conversations about ferns.
I was fortunate to have some wonderful ferns already in the garden when we moved here. There was a beautiful drift of the wheel fern, Polysticum setiferum Divisilobum Group that edged a walkway. Over the last ten years they have just become larger and more beautiful. There were also a couple nice size maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum. The soft delicate texture of this fern always makes you pause. In the sun was a nice size royal fern, Osmunda regalis. It did get a little burnt by the end of summer so we moved it to a slightly shadier spot and now it is also almost five feet tall and just as wide.
As a ground cover one of my favorites is Blechnum penna-marina. I’m not sure of the common name because it isn’t that common. It is a southern hemisphere relative of our native deer fern but much smaller in stature. It seems to do well in sun or shade and has wonderful coppery new growth. The chain fern, Woodwardia aerolata, will also scramble through a bed. I use it in a drier situation to keep it a bit smaller and not so rambunctious. In a moist situation it may get to be a bit too vigorous. Another fern that may be a bit too vigorous is the oak fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris. It piggybacked in on a plant from the Miller Garden and has now spread a bit too far. At the Miller Garden we used it in combination with cyclamen. Since the fern is herbaceous (dies back) we would just cut it back toward the end of August, just about the time the cyclamen come up. The cyclamen would fill the space all fall and winter.
Ferns are not just limited to green. Some stand out in the garden because of their color. The Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum has silvers and reds in the fronds. There are many cultivars with even more dramatic coloration. The autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, has bronzy fall color to the new fronds which is how it gets its name. My clump in the garden looks spectacular this time of year. It is also one of the most durable evergreen ferns.
I could go on and on about the different ferns we use in the garden. They truly make the garden. If you would like more information check out the Hardy Fern Foundation, hardyferns.org . I would also recommend the new book ’ The Plant Lover’s Guide To Ferns’ by my friend and former co-workers, Richie Steffen and Sue Olsen who is one of the founders of the Hardy Fern Foundation. This book is a great guide on how to use ferns in your garden. It is a must have reference book for me.