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GardenSMART :: 5 (Fun) Ways with Ferns

5 (Fun) Ways with Ferns

By Kate Karam for Monrovia
Photographs courtesy of Monrovia

Whether adding color to a serene woodland setting, slipped into a vertical wall or trussed-up in a Japanese mud ball, ferns are fun fodder for shady spaces. Here are five ways to use them.

Ferns are not just your florist’s favorite filler. They’re a fascinating, diverse group (more than 250 genera and 12,000 species out there) of ancient plants that belong in every landscape where there’s a bit of shade. From towering tree forms to turf-hugging groundcovers, they’re textural, often colorful, super useful, and typically easygoing and fuss-free. Yes, of course, you can line a walkway with them, fill in bare spots or plant them in large containers where their fronds add a leafy, elegant touch. But we also like to use ferns in more creative ways. Here are a few ideas.

String garden

Kokedama (translation “moss ball”) is a style of Japanese bonsai, where a plant's root system is surrounded by a mud cake, then wrapped in sphagnum moss and bound with string, transforming it into a sculptural art form. Traditionally displayed sitting on driftwood or handmade pottery, they also look magical bound up in string and hanging. Hang or place them indoors or out. Here are three ferns well suited for this project (how to here).

Virginia Blue Rabbit's Foot Fern
A beautiful and dramatic fern with silvery blue fronds that grows into a lush mound. Best color in deep to dappled shade outside; indoors, place in medium to bright indirect light. Mist frequently and water when moss is just moist. Arching fronds reach up to 2 feet tall and wide. Zone: 8–9

Austral Gem™ Bird's Nest Fern
A new, unique fern that doesn’t develop messy spores. Perfect for planting in outdoor shady spots; indoors, place in medium to bright indirect light. Water when moss feels dry but not crispy to the touch and soil around base of plant is barely moist. Reaches up to 20 inches tall and wide. Zone: 9–11

Mother Fern
Bright green, finely-cut fronds emerge from a single crown. Evergreen foliage has a graceful, arching habit. Grow in moderate shade outdoors; place in medium to bright indirect light. Water when moss feels dry but not crispy to the touch and soil around base of plant is barely moist. Moderate growing to 4 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. Zone: 9–11

Living wall

With their show-stopping theatricality and the chance they offer to grow more plants in small spaces, living walls are no longer a fad—they’re here to stay. Ferns are excellent candidates for  living walls because there’s one for every situation you might encounter-- drought, wet feet, part sun or full shade. (Vertical gardens are heavy; make sure your wall can support the load.)  Weave these three for a sumptuous display.

Indian Holly Fern
Bright grass green fronds are accented by distinctive gold stripe down the midrib of each lance-shaped leaflet. Leaflets widely spaced on the stem for a lacy appearance. Moderate growth to 18 inches tall and as wide. Zone: 7–9

Button Fern
An eye-catching, care-free New Zealand native with cascading, leathery, button-shaped leaflets. Unlike most ferns, this plant will tolerate fairly dry conditions. Evergreen. Clumping 12-18 in. tall and wide. Zone: 8–9

Lemon Button Fern
Smallest of the Boston ferns. Cute and compact, tiny golden-green button-like leaflets on dark green, arching stems that reach just a foot high. Evergreen. Reaches 12 in. tall and wide. Zone: 10–11

Color me shady 

Ferns come in shades of green from lime to forest which makes them excellent for backdrops or massed, naturalistic plantings but when nature paints one with other hues such as red, blue, orange or silver? Wow. Adding color to deep shade using flowering plants is challenging (though not impossible)—use stands of ferns such as these three to get a similar effect.

Japanese Painted Fern
The dark, blue green central rib of each frond fades to silver at the edges. Short habit and spreading form is excellent foreground foliage. Moderate growing 18 in. to 2 ft. tall and wide. Zone: 5–8

Burgundy Lace Painted Fern
Silvery fronds with a dramatic burgundy-purple overtone add eye-catching color to shady areas of the landscape. Intensify the effect by massing as a groundcover under trees and large shrubs. Moderate growth 18 in. to 2 ft. tall and as wide. Zone: 5–8

Brilliance Autumn Fern
This handsome coppery-red selection is more dramatic than others in the species. Bold and beautiful choice for dappled sunlight to deeply shaded areas. Easy and very adaptable to wet or dry soils. Grows to 18 to 24 in. tall and 18 in. wide. Zone: 5–9

Decorate a large tree

Hanging a potted up fern on the porch is nothing new. (That said, it always works, right?) Take it one step further by utilizing a slatted round metal planter to create one huge orb filled all the way around with ferns and suspend it from a large, sturdy tree branch. Or, make a series of different sized orbs and suspend them at staggered heights (one designer uses this idea to create a wall of privacy). Look for ferns that have a naturally cascading habit such as these.

Upside Down Fern
Lacy, arching cut-leaf fronds rise from a thick, slowly creeping rhizome. An ideal woodland plant for moist, partly shaded areas. Reaches 18-24 in. tall to 12-30 in. wide. Zone: 4–8

Lady in Red Fern
Finely textured light green foliage held on vividly-contrasting red-violet stems; slightly smaller than other varieties. Moderate growth to 3 ft. tall, slowly spreading to 3 ft. wide. Zone: 2–8

European Ostrich Fern
Large, graceful fronds resemble ostrich plumes. Clumps 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 ft. wide; slowly spreading. Zone: 3–7

(Surprisingly tough) groundcover

Groundcover ferns are especially useful in the woodland for creating repetition of texture, pattern, and form. Their rambling nature allows them to find the most suitable location in which to thrive. Full coverage of an area will generally occur in two to three years, depending on the fern. And, many are deer-resistant, too.

Tassel Fern
Particularly beautiful when new fronds emerge stiffly, then droop backwards to form a tassel. Slow growing to 2 ft. tall and wide. Zone: 6–8

Lace Fern
Delicate downy textured triangular fronds. Prefers consistent moisture with partial to full shade. Evergreen. Reaches 2-3 ft. tall and wide. Zone: 10–11

Holly Fern
Popular for its hardiness as well as its handsome, evergreen foliage. Evergreen in mild winter climates. Growing to 2 to 3 ft. tall and 18 in. wide. Zone: 6–10

Please your Pteridophyta

  • Most ferns do well in part shade or dappled sunlight, but there are many which will do well with quite a bit of sun, provided they get enough water.
  • Shade loving ferns appreciate an organic, evenly moist, well-drained soil. 
  • Once planted in good soil, ferns in general do not require additional fertilizer. They appreciate leaf litter from surrounding trees and an occasional top dressing of a compost mulch. 
  • Deciduous ferns can be trimmed as the fronds yellow in late fall and early winter. Evergreen ferns do best if the older fronds are trimmed off in late winter or early spring.
  • The best time to plant is during the spring and fall when rain is plentiful. 
  • Indoors, ferns prefer the indirect light of a north or east facing window; keep soil evenly moist, but not wet.

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