Fabulous Ferns

Master gardener Paul James presents some of the best hardy and tropical ferns.

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As a result of all his wanderings, master gardener Paul James has fallen in love with a spectacular group of woodland plants, namely ferns. "There's just something about them that I find irresistible, which is why I've planted well more than 100 of them in my landscape."

Here are some of his favorite hardy ferns. All are readily available at nurseries, garden centers or online sources.

Figure A

  • The autumn fern is a splendid example of how versatile ferns can be. Its bronze-colored fronds emerge in early spring, then turn green later in the season. And in mild climates--say, USDA Zone 6 and south--the autumn fern is semi-evergreen even during the harshest winters. Autumn ferns are extremely easy to grow and well behaved.

  • Figure B

  • The royal fern can grow up to four feet tall. It requires fairly acidic soil and regular watering, but it's otherwise easy to grow.

  • Figure C

  • The cinnamon fern, which gets its name from the color of its new fronds, is a real showstopper. It too can get rather large--up to three or four feet tall. It grows best in constantly damp soil.

  • Figure D

  • The ostrich fern is capable of reaching heights of up to five feet. It also has a tendency to spread via underground runners, especially in the wet, marshy areas it prefers. However, in the landscape it tends to stay in bounds reasonably well.

  • Figure E

  • The Japanese painted fern can be a huge hit in the landscape. Its silver fronds and wine-red stems are a departure from the usual green. Colors vary somewhat from plant to plant but all are beautiful. If it's kept well watered during the hot summer months, the Japanese painted fern will last well into late fall.

  • Figure F

  • One of the most delicate of all hardy ferns is the common maidenhair fern. It's easy to grow, but it must be kept moist at all times, especially in the South. It won't perform well in hot, dry climates, but there are tropical maidenhairs that grow in USDA Zones 9 and 10.

  • Figure G

  • A great performer in the South, however, is the southern wood fern. It grows to about three feet and can take a fair amount of direct sun, even in the summer.

  • Figure H

  • The male fern, sometimes called the robust male fern, was once considered rather rare, but it's made a comeback in the last decade and is now easy to find. It's also easy to grow, although it doesn't like to be planted in windy areas.

  • Figure I

    Tropical ferns

  • In its native land, the Australian tree fern can grow up to 20 feet tall. In a container on James' patio, it grows to only about six feet or so before the first frost.

  • The staghorn fern, so named because its fronds look more like antlers than traditional ferns, is fun to grow because it's epiphytic rather than terrestrial, meaning it doesn't need soil. Instead, it's often mounted on a piece of wood and packed with sphagnum peat moss.

    One thing staghorn ferns do need, however, is plenty of humidity. So if you're growing them indoors, mist them often, and outdoors spray them frequently with water from the hose.

  • Figure J

  • The bird's-nest fern gets its name from the way the leaves spread from the crown to form a nest. It makes a great houseplant, but you have to mist it at least every day.

  • Figure K

  • Though not actually a fern, the asparagus fern nevertheless gets its name from its fernlike foliage and is indeed related to asparagus the vegetable. It makes a delightful container plant.

  • Figure L

  • The Boston fern is by far and away the most popular fern and one of the most popular houseplants ever. Native to Florida, it prefers moist soil but doesn't take well to overwatering. Boston ferns do well outside in the shade, provided temperatures are above 50 degrees F.

  • Figure M

  • The macho fern has a coarse texture, but it looks great in containers.

  • Care and culture

    When given the proper conditions, many ferns are easy to grow. Nearly all of the so-called hardy ferns are native and will thrive all the way to USDA Zone 3.

    Ferns want a fairly rich but loose-and-well-drained soil, a pH that's slightly acidic, and shade throughout the day--although a little morning sun is fine. They simply will not grow well in heavy soils, and although they like plenty of moisture, they'll drown if the soil stays wet. So before planting it's best to amend the soil with leaf mold, which you can sometimes buy in a bag or make yourself by shredding and composting fallen leaves for a few months.

    As for pH, use a simple, inexpensive pH test kit to determine whether your soil is acidic or alkaline. If it's alkaline, you can acidify it by mixing two tablespoons of white vinegar in a quart of water and dousing the soil.

    A curious thing about ferns: they can sometimes cross-fertilize to form new hybrids.

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