Imagine that shady area in your yard covered with ferns, some of them bold and structural, others soft and graceful. Ferns offer variation in form, color and height, and what they contribute to a garden doesn’t stop there. They add atmosphere, evoking images of walks in the woods with cool breezes brushing your face. They are among the oldest living things on earth, having adapted and thrived throughout centuries of change. Ferns are easy to grow and a wonderful addition to any garden.

How can I use ferns in my landscape? Ferns can be used as groundcovers, specimen plants, groupings and background plantings. They are great anchors for the shade garden, adding foliage and structure that remains relatively unchanged throughout the season.

Do all ferns prefer the shade? There are a few ferns that will tolerate a sunny location, provided they have adequate moisture and good soil conditions, but all will do well in shade and most prefer it. For a sunny spot that you can keep well watered, try Interrupted and Cinnamon ferns.

What kind of soil do they prefer? Most ferns grow best in a moist, loose, loamy soil. If your soil is sandy, work in lots of compost and peat moss. If your soil is clay, add lots of compost and some sand. If the variety you are planting prefers an acid soil, check your soil pH and adjust accordingly.

Are there any ferns that will grow where the ground stays wet? For soggy situations, try growing Cinnamon, Interrupted, Ostrich or Royal ferns. All of these will do well planted where they stay very wet most of the season. What kind of fern can I plant where my ground tends to dry out? Not as many ferns like it dry; they may look a little ragged by mid-summer. For your drier sites, try growing Christmas and Lady ferns.

What is meant by fronds, fiddle heads and spores? Ferns really are different from most other plants, with specialized names for their parts. Fern leaves are called fronds, their newly emerging shoots are called fiddle heads and what they produce instead of seeds are called spores.

What are the brown parts on my Cinnamon ferns? Those are the spore cases. On some ferns, they are simply rows of rusty brown spots on the back side of the older fronds. Other varieties send up a separate spike covered with spores called a fertile blade.

Do ferns work well with other plants? Ferns can be successfully inter-planted with almost all other perennials, or try using them as a backdrop for a bed of impatiens.

Are there ferns that will do well in containers? They are beautiful in containers for the growing season and if you put hardy types into the ground after a light frost and mulch them heavily, they will usually winter successfully. Do ferns spread by themselves or do I need to divide them? Most of the ferns available here have a central rhizome. These ferns tend to stay in a clump and spread slowly. Others have a creeping rhizome and can spread quickly. Ferns prefer to be divided in spring.

Is there anything special about planting ferns? Simply slip them out of the pot and plant them at the same level without disturbing the root mass. If you find ferns bare root (packaged), plant the rhizome about an inch deep and Ferns in the Landscape don’t worry too much about which way is up … the plant will figure that out.

How much watering do they need? To get them well established, be sure to keep the soil evenly moist all season. Once they have been in a year or so, they are much more adaptable, doing well with naturally available water unless there is a drought. And even in a drought, they simply go dormant early to protect themselves, and come back great the next season.

Do I need to keep the weeds out? Competition from weeds will keep ferns from looking their best. Try to keep all the weeds out the first season or two. Once established, the heavy foliage on your ferns will shade out most competition.

Should I mulch my ferns? Ferns, leaves and wood mulches are a natural combination culturally and esthetically. A two to three inch layer is sufficient.

How often do I need to fertilize my ferns? What type of fertilizer should I use? Ferns are not heavy feeders. Early in the first growing season, fertilize several times with a water soluble food (acid for those that need it). Once they are established, they appreciate a yearly application of a garden food with a mix of 10-20-10. Avoid any fertilizing late in the growing season.

Sometimes my ferns begin to look a bit ragged late in the summer. What can I do to prevent that? Try keeping them well watered. But if it gets too hot, even water won’t help much. When they look really bad, just cut them back. As the weather cools, they often send up new growth.

I made a mistake and put a large fern in the wrong place. How should I go about moving it? Ferns are most successfully moved in early spring. As soon as you see the fiddle heads starting up, dig the clump, being sure you take some of the surrounding soil, and replant it.

Do I need to watch for insects or diseases on my ferns? One of the best things about ferns is that they rarely are bothered by anything. In fact, once established, they are probably the most reliably carefree plant you can grow in the shade. Occasionally, some varieties of ferns will be visited by slugs. If this happen, treat for slugs as you would in a Hosta garden.

Ferns are beautiful green foliage that will help bring the magical feel of the woods and forests right to your landscape. Ask a professional at McShane’s Nursery and Landscape Supply for any help you may need with your landscape.