Fabulous ferns

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

The Victorians were mad for ferns, growing them in Wardian cases in their drawing rooms, conservatories and ravine gardens, and hunted many of our native ferns to the verge of extinction. Then they fell from favour, until the stately tree fern, Dicksonia antartica brought them back to our attention when makeovers were all the rage on TV gardening shows in the 90s.

Statuesque tree ferns can be used to create an exotic mood and atmosphere in a sheltered spot

Tree ferns are not cheap as they are usually supplied as a 60cm dry and lifeless-looking trunk log, which is likely to be over 20 years old, with fronds about to emerge. The log is really a mass of fibrous roots that expands as the tree fern grows – potentially reaching 25m tall. The huge fronds will reach up to 1m each year.

You’ll most likely come across tree ferns being used as statement pieces in a modern garden

Tree ferns are one of the top plants likely to be chosen for creating an exotic urban space that goes with lots of glass and metal. The others are the banana and spiky phormium or New Zealand flax, astelia and cordylines. Feed and water through the top – roots take a year to form provided you keep them cool and the centre well watered.

All hardy ferns can be used to create a tropical looking garden. One of the favourites for adding texture to a scheme is the Japanese Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, which grows to about 60cm with delicate looking leaflets and a yellow lime green appearance on the new foliage.

Stumperies, are another feature that was fashionable during Victorian times where they graced the doom and gloom

Stumperies are constructed similar to an alpine rockery only with tree roots and logs and planted up with a collection of unusual ferns. The best one that still remains in the UK is at the National Trust garden at Biddulph Grange. Prince Charles also has a stumpery in his Woodland Garden at Highgrove, which in this case he made using pieces of sweet chestnuts, which are held in place by steel rods.

Stumperies are definitely worth considering and especially for making a design statement in today’s eco gardens as their construction of combining sculptural tree roots and also rocks and water to reflect a more craggy natural landscape of the British countryside, make a perfect habitat for insects and other wildlife.

Ferns never look at home among cottage garden herbaceous plants. The best approach when using any type of fern is to look to nature for inspiration and take ideas to make the most of their rustic charm. Use them mimic woodland spots, such as under the shade some large jungly shrubs, like rhododendrons.

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 during the summer months by visiting a specialist grower. As well as British native ferns that are ideal for planting in naturalized drifts in shady corners.

Matteuccia struthipteris is a hardy deciduous fern producing elegant lime green fronds which unfurl gracefully in spring, giving the plant a shuttlecock-like appearance. Also known as the Ostrich Fern, it is superb for tricky damp areas of the garden and is incredibly low-maintenance. Slowly spreading by underground rhizomes

Look out for shapely, structured ferns such as shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthipteris) and the hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) as these 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.

Add to the mix the Cinnamon Fern or Osmunda cinnamomea, which produces bright green clumps of upright shuttlecocks, which reach 90cm tall that surround plumes of cinnamon brown spore-bearing fronds in the centre.

Ground hugging plants like the maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum) are perfect for squeezing into the nooks and crannies of a dry stonewall and in a modern setting can be arranged in such a way to create modern wall art and be panted at the front of a north wall in well-draining soil

Another fern that creeps into gaps in a rocky wall is Polypodium ‘Cambricum’. Happy in full sun or a little shade, the thin, papery fronds, which reach 40cm tall, emerge from July and continue through to spring.

Hardy evergreen ferns such as the polystichums are particularly good for giving winter interest and will create magical effects when their frost-encrusted lacy fronds shine in the winter sun and produce ghostly outlines when mist descends.

Tough and easy-going, the British native Blechnum spicant thrives in damp soil and shade where it grows up to 45cm tall

Blechnum spicant, also known as Hard Fern, is one of those evergreen ferns, which produces two completely different types of growth. The stiff vertical fronds carry the spores and fade to brown as the spores ripen whilst the long slender fronds are divided into opposite pairs of dark green leaflets.

Shade-loving hostas are excellent partners for ferns

Spring blooms such as wood anemones or Anenome nemorosa, snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and hellebores are excellent bed fellows for unfurling fern fronds and herbaceous perennials such as lilies and irises associate well in the summer garden – give them plenty of space though, so that their shapely outline can be fully appreciated. You can use the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, to create interest around the boggy edges of a pond where they look good in association with moisture-loving ligularias and hostas.

Most ferns should be planted in dappled shade or where the site receives early morning sun. They mostly prefer slight acidic soils and ones that are rich in organic matter, which will hold onto moisture at their roots. Good drainage is important for them to thrive.

Aspleniums, including the Crispum and Cristatum groups that have attractive ruffled fronds, and the soft shield fern or Polystichum setiferum, which has new fronds that resemble octopus tentacles and mature to soft, much divided, mossy green pinnae, grow best in limy soils. The native Polystichum aculeatum or Soft Shield Fern thrives in shade and produces neatly divided, arching evergreen fronds.

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

Dryopteris erythrosora is evergreen and curiously the new fronds that emerge in sprig are the colour of autumn foliage that mature to glossy dark green. Each 60cm frond is divided into opposite pairs of leaflets. The variety Brilliance is worthwhile looking out for.

Ferns generally require very little maintenance throughout the year but will look best if 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 new growth.

The fern leaf coiled in a bud is known as a fiddlehead or technically a crosier

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. For effect, aim to choose different types and especially ones with coloured fronds such as the silvery-grey leaved Japanese painted fern or Athyrium nipponicum and the buckler fern, known as Dryopteris ethyrosora, which produces bright coppery red fronds in spring that age to dark green as the season progresses.

One of the best UK gardens to see a Victorian fernery in all its glory is Canonteign Falls in Christow, near Exeter Devon. This delightful garden was discovered in 2009 when snow wreaked havoc and branches of an old laurel broke and revealed the treasure that was lurking beneath. The fern garden, which is planted in a small, quarry-like hanging valley through which a waterfall stream flows is currently being restored to its former glory.


Ferns from steamy tropical regions of the world make excellent conservatory or houseplants where the winter temperature is maintained 10-15C and 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.


Hardy ferns do not produce flowers or seed but develop spores – fine brownish, yellow, green or powdery spots on the underside of their leaves between May and October, which can be sown and grown on to produce new plants

If you have patience and fancy a challenge then have a go. Cut off a frond with ripe spores and to release them place it between two sheets of paper for 24 hours then sprinkle them onto the firmed surface of a pot of moist compost. Keep the compost moist with rainwater – covering it with a sheet of glass will help as will putting them under a fluorescent tube for 14 hours a day.

In several weeks, each spore will germinate and produce a tiny green heart-shaped platelet that looks more like a liverwort but will go on to sprout a new fern, which can be potted on as soon as it is large enough to handle and transplanted outdoors when they reach 10-15cm tall.

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