If you have a shady spot in your garden then planting a selection of hardy ferns could be the most effective way to turn it into a stylish green oasis. But you don’t have to plant a whole fernery to enjoy the attractive foliage of these graceful plants. There are options suitable for growing in pots, in a hole in a wall or in open ground, and even growing two or three ferns will bring a new dimension to your garden. Some ferns such as Asplenium scolopendrium even tolerate quite dry soil, although they will need to be watered regularly while they are becoming established.
Generally speaking ferns like a moist spot in humus-rich soil. Before planting these architectural beauties, it’s wise to enhance the soil with plenty of well-rotted leaf mould or other organic matter that isn’t too rich. Garden compost or composted pine needles are also ideal. Many ferns are deciduous but some, such as Dryopteris dilatata, will retain their leaves all year round, so consider planting a good selection to prolong your season of interest.
It’s also worth contrasting different leaf shapes and colours. Athyrium niponicum var pictum, with its complex variegated leaves, is a very dramatic plant and looks superb when grown against a more subtle fern such as Polypodium vulgare ‘Cornubiense’. Some ferns have a more upright growth habit, which highlights the beauty of their stems. Dryopteris filix-mas is best planted at the edge of a border, where its superb shuttlecock shape can be enjoyed. This large fern has leaves that die right back, so you can underplant it with spring bulbs such as snowdrops or squill. In contrast Polystichum setiferum has a very relaxed, floppy shape, with some mossy fronds laying against the bare soil, so it is a striking plant to place under deciduous trees. With evergreen ferns such as this you can cut the foliage back in January if you prefer, or wait until April when the new fronds appear.
Very few ferns have been granted an RHS award of Garden Merit, but Osmunda ‘Regalis’ can lay claim to that honour. This king of ferns grows up to 2m tall and 4m wide. The huge fronds are bright green, turning bronze in autumn as they die back. If you have a large spot, in moist soil, this beauty will hold its own against other architectural plants such as Gunnera manicata.