Transform ‘dead’ zones in the garden into fairy-tale features with ferns, says Adrienne Wild


If your garden has a limy soil, ferns are a great choice © iStock

Lush ferny foliage can bring low-maintenance splendour to shade, and when mass-planted will allow you to transform an otherwise drab area into a leafy, tranquil paradise where you can sit, relax and unwind from the tensions of everyday life.

Gardening with ferns first became popular in the Victorian age, when adventurous gardeners began making the most of their rustic charm, using them to mimic woodland spots under the shade of a few trees or even some large shrubs.

Stumperies became all the rage, constructed similarly to an alpine rockery only with tree trunks and logs, and interplanted with unusual ferns. In larger gardens, they were also often combined with rocks and water to reflect a more craggy natural landscape of the British countryside.

All shapes and sizes

Ferns come in an amazing range of texture and colour, sizes and shapes, so take the trouble to get to know them in all their splendid glory by visiting a specialist grower during the summer months.

As well as British native ferns that are ideal for planting in naturalised drifts in shady corners, there are fashionable, tall-tree ferns available that make excellent dot plants to create an exotic mood and atmosphere in a sheltered spot.

These will thrive in dappled shade provided you keep them well away from the edge of a lawn – so that the thirsty grass won’t deprive them of food and moisture.

Shapely and structured

Shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and the hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) are particularly useful for contemporary schemes where they are planted in geometric blocks or combined with ferns with lacy fronds to create a textured tapestry of green to replace lawns and borders.

Wall-hugging plants

The maidenhair fern (Adiantum cuneatum) is also perfect for squeezing into the nooks and crannies of dry stone walls and in a modern setting can be arranged in such a way as to create modern wall art.

Hardy evergreens

Polystichums are particularly good for giving winter interest and especially magical effects when their frost-encrusted lacy fronds shine in the winter sun and produce ghostly outlines when the mist descends.

Plant combinations

Spring blooms such as wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa), snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and hellebores are excellent partners for unfurling fern fronds. Herbaceous perennials such as lilies and irises associate well in the summer garden. Give them plenty of space so that their shapely outline can be fully appreciated.

You can use the royal fern (Osmunda regalis) in particular, to create interest around the boggy edges of a pond where they look good in association with moisture-loving ligularias and hostas.


Ferns from steamy tropical regions of the world make excellent conservatory or houseplants © iStock

Planting and care

Ferns should be planted in dappled shade or where the site receives early morning sun. They mostly prefer slightly acidic soils and ones that are rich in organic matter, which will hold on to moisture at their roots.

They will only thrive if drainage is good, although aspleniums, including the Crispum and Cristatum groups that have attractive ruffled fronds, and the soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum), which has new fronds that resemble octopus tentacles and mature to soft, much divided, mossy green pinnae, grow best in limy soils.

Dryopteris is highly tolerant to dry shade, so great in shallow stony soils, and the British native Dryopteris filix-mas will grow in the deepest, darkest shade, so will survive spots where most other plants would die.

Ferns generally require very little maintenance throughout the year but they will look best
if any yellowing deciduous fronds are removed in late autumn and the older fronds on evergreen varieties removed in late winter or early spring to make room for the new season’s growth.


You don’t necessarily need to have a garden to grow ferns as most can be planted in pots and displayed in a cool, shady spot.

Aim to choose different types and especially ones with coloured fronds, such as the silvery grey-leaved Japanese painted lady fern (Athyrium niponicum) and the buckler fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) that produces bright coppery red fronds in spring, and which age to dark green as the season progresses.

Good idea

Ferns from steamy tropical regions of the world make excellent conservatory or houseplants, where the winter temperature is maintained at 10°-15°C. The daintiest plants such as the maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum microphylla) are perfect for planting in terrariums and bottle gardens, as they provide the optimum conditions for plants which like a humid atmosphere.