By Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
Although we are most accustomed to seeing graceful ferns throughout woodlands and forests where they nestle under tree canopies, they are equally attractive when used in the shady home garden. Garden ferns that are tolerant of winter temperatures can be grown year round in gardens throughout the United States.
A large number of ferns will withstand both the winter cold and summer heat, which makes them particularly useful in the shady southern landscape. This hardiness also makes taking care of outdoor ferns simple.
Types of Hardy Garden Ferns
Growing a fern garden outdoors is easy. Ferns make excellent companions for woodland plantings like hosta, columbine, liriope, and caladiums. Learning how to take care of ferns depends mostly on the type you grow. While many types of hardy garden ferns are deciduous, some are evergreen. There are a number of outdoor ferns to choose from with the following being the most common:
- Southern maidenhair fern – Southern maidenhair fern is a hardy spreading plant that will survive in a wider range of soil conditions, including rocks and acidic soils. This fern is very delicate in appearance despite its hardiness.
- Lady fern – Lady fern is drought tolerant, grows up to 3 feet, and has a beautiful upright habit.
- Autumn fern – Autumn fern is a semi-evergreen fern and has arching fronds. Foliage turns a coppery pink color in the spring, green in the summer and copper in the fall. This fern is known for the year-round interest it adds to any shady garden and prefers very wet soil.
- Christmas fern – Christmas fern is a popular fern in the southeast, where it is evergreen. It looks similar to the Boston fern. This fern grows slowly but is well worth the wait.
- Male fern – The male fern is an evergreen fern that is shaped like a vase and will grow up to 5 feet. This interesting fern likes light to full shade and very wet soil.
How to Take Care of Ferns
Ferns are extremely forgiving and have an incredibly strong survival instinct. Ferns will grow where other plants fail to thrive and most do well in rich, well-drained soil with an abundance of organic matter.
Planting a fern garden outdoors requires minimal attention other than regular mulching and water during very dry periods.
Few pests bother ferns other than the passing slug, which will devour nearly anything.
Divide ferns in early spring when they become too large.
Taking care of outdoor ferns is so easy that you often forget that they are there. They are excellent for naturalizing, and will reward the gardener with their graceful texture year after year.