To the surprise of many, there are lots of perennials that grow well in shade – Astilbe, Bleeding Heart, Columbine, Epimedium, Heuchera, Hostas, Solomon’s Seal, and Tiarella…just to name a few. But by far, my favorites for shade are the ferns.
In fact, I think ferns are the most ornamental of foliage plants, and they do well in areas that might discourage fussier plants. They grow best in a moist, “woodsy” soil (plenty of organic matter), a slightly acidic pH, and shade. But they’ll adapt to less-than-ideal conditions, and some will actually grow in a good deal of sun, namely Lady Ferns and Hay-Scented Ferns.
Ferns are fairly slow growers, but the payoff for your patience is one of the longest-lasting perennials on the planet. (And by the way, ferns have been on the planet since before the dinosaurs roamed. Talk about long lasting!)
They can be combined with any of the other shade lovers mentioned above, but they’re also striking when planted in masses as a ground cover or as the focal point in containers. And given the many textures and types available, there’s got to be at least one fern that’s right for your garden.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite, readily available ferns.
Autumn Fern – Easily my favorite of all, and for a number of reasons. It’s exceptionally cold hardy, adaptable to most soil types, puts on gorgeous coppery/bronze-colored fronds in spring and again in fall, and is evergreen. It’s also the most drought tolerant of the hardy ferns. Grows to about two-feet tall.
Lady in Red Fern – The light green fronds are gorgeous, but it’s the reddish stems that make this one a standout. It’s plenty hardy, and will easily reach three feet.
Dixie Wood Fern – Need a four-foot fern? This is it. The fronds aren’t quite as delicate as other ferns, but the upright growth form of this one is hard to beat. Will slowly spread if it likes where it is.
Ghost Fern – The gray-green to silver fronds give this fern a distinctive look. It grows to about two-feet tall and wide.
Cinnamon Fern – This is a real beauty, with its rust-colored fronds that top out at three feet or so. A classic fern, for sure.
Japanese Painted Fern – Gorgeous! The dark, blue-green central rib of each frond fades to silver at the edges. Grows to around two-feet tall. Don’t let this beauty dry out!
Ostrich Fern – Another three-footer, and one that will slowly spread by underground roots. The fronds are said to resemble ostrich feathers. (I’ve never gotten that close to an ostrich, so I wouldn’t know.) This is the fern from which fiddleheads are harvested. They’re delicious lightly sautéed in butter and finished with a little salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon. They go well with grilled ostrich, of course.
Are there more choices of hardy ferns out there? Absolutely. But these are the ones I’ve grown for nearly 40 years, which means I can attest to their merits. Let me know if you’ve got a favorite that’s not on the list.