Earlier this year I met with a home owner who pointed balefully at her shady backyard. "Nothing grows here," she remarked with a look of frustration. After quickly taking stock of what she had installed beneath the tall oak trees, I realized that almost all of the plants were sun-lovers. In my experience most casual gardeners are more familiar with species that flourish in full sun. There are, however, a number of plants that prosper in the shade. Most ferns fall into this category and while they don't produce showy flowers, their lacy fronds come in a delightful variety of heights, colors and textures.
In addition to creating swathes of beautiful foliage, ferns are virtually pest free. Deer and groundhogs find them unpalatable and even snails avoid them. Some, like the Hay Scented Ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) pictured above, rapidly create a weed defying mat that is remarkably tolerant of dry conditions.
Most ferns, however, prefer an evenly moist or even damp soil. I've planted the Cinnamon Ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) pictured above in shady backyards and along stream banks, where their dense fibrous root systems deter erosion. The stiff upright fronds are delightfully architectural and are complemented in the spring by the cinnamon colored wands that give the plant its name. Produced throughout the growing season, the young coppery fronds of the Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) pictured below will also add a touch color to the shady garden.
Like most woodland plants, ferns prefer a soil high in organic matter like leaf mold, peat moss or compost. I spread a few inches of shredded oak leaves over my fern beds every fall and let the leaves rot down during the growing season.
For sheer size (three to six feet) and almost tropical impact, I'm particularly fond of the Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) pictured above. Years ago, while working in Vermont, I dug some Ostrich Ferns, named for their tall plumage-like fronds, from the woods on a client's property and planted them in her shade garden. I'd heard that ferns were difficult to transplant. But despite the fact that it was mid-summer, the plants flourished. After I purchased my house in Seekonk, my client gave me a few of the ferns for my shade garden. Here they have prospered almost to the point of invasiveness and I in turn have given many away to friends.
The Painted Fern (Athyrium Pictum) shown above is one of the showiest in the genus and is undoubtedly one of my favorites. New varieties with ever more tempting colorations regularly appear on the market. Despite its delicate beauty this plant is practically indestructible and seeds itself about my garden with great abandon. For winter interest I rely on the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) pictured below. It's stiff waxy fronds are evergreen and show to wonderful advantage under a dusting of snow. I've also used Christmas Ferns in outdoor urns, where the foliage stays green for most of the winter.
Ferns make wonderful companions for other shade lovers like the Carex Ice Dance pictured below. Ice Dance has lovely cream edged foliage and makes a dense mat that is impervious to weeds.
With their lacy foliage and airy flowers Astilbes show to great advantage when backed by tall ferns. The ones pictured below are pink, but Astilbes come in a range of shades including red, white and purple.
And of course hostas like the one below with its broad, puckered leaves provide a striking textural counterpoint to a fern's lacy fronds.
Ferns also combine beautifully with shade loving shrubs like the Hydrangea Incrediball pictured here backed by the green and white leaves of Cornus Ivory Halo.
The next time you find yourself staring in dismay at a bare patch of shady ground, instead of cursing the darkness, plant some ferns and enjoy their lacy beauty.