Fun Ways to Design with Ferns
With a little imagination, and expert advice, ferns can become a gorgeous garden asset.
I have a fossil in my garden of a fern, embedded in a really old rock, reminding me that ferns have been around since way before people have been gardening. I mean, whatever killed the dinosaurs, couldn’t kill ferns. Any plant that ancient, and that good-looking, I want in my own garden.
Funny, because (and I almost hate to admit this) for years, I was mostly a “woody shrub” lover. I thought ferns and other shade plants sort of looked alike. Not up close, mind you—there are some incredibly striking ferns that stop me in my tracks.
But for a long time I just saw them as filler plants under my grandmother’s shrubs.
But now that my garden has matured into a shady retreat, which is what happens when you plant trees and shrubs, I have started looking for stuff that fills in between the gaps— with ferns at the forefront. And as I look around, I’ve been nearly overwhelmed with the variety of fern species available today, far more than what “Mammaw” Rushing grew.
Ferns are a study in delicious contrasts. Some ferns are so tough they grow in cracks in rock walls, or on tree limbs. They thrive in sun or shade, or wet, humid conditions or dry. Some are very tiny, while I have a faded photo somewhere of myself standing under a giant tropical tree fern. And there are some great fern “allies” that look and grow like ferns, including asparagus, Selaginellas, and the even more ancient horsetails (Equisetum) which are often the bane of gardeners because they spread so vigorously.
But I’m way past wanting just a big, lumbering hanging basket of water-thirsty Boston ferns, which ends up being a ratty winter storage nightmare. I’m looking for interesting new ways to show off some of my ferns.
And by the way, I think ferns are perfect for softening garden statuary and accents—and the accents make the ferns stand out.
Here are a few ideas you may want to play around with in your own garden:
- Hanging baskets: Ferns do well in containers, from hanging baskets (which dry out quickly and require frequent watering) where their fronds can droop and cascade, to huge wall hangings of “staghorn” fern, which forms a big ball when grown in sphagnum moss tied to a piece of wood.
- Green Walls: The current popularity of masses of plants on walls, with their need for regular watering, makes tucking ferns in here and there a natural choice.
- Accents: Many of the larger ferns are so striking they are best used as accent plants against walls, mixed in with rocks, or as a contrasting texture and shade with shrubs and other perennials.
- Water Gardens: One of my little water gardens is in a shaded spot and has such a splashy fountain that nothing but ferns will tolerate the damp conditions—but they do it perfectly!
- Understory: Shade gardens are perfect habitats for ground cover ferns, where they mingle well with other shade perennials such as hosta or dwarf gingers.
- Terrariums: Tiny ferns, interplanted with bits of moss and miniature landscape accents, do very well in the closed humidity of glass terrariums—even indoors.
- Mass planting: Spreading ferns can be troublesome in some areas, but can be welcome when planted in large masses, especially good for large formal shaded areas or a shady nook in the woods.
- Fern Allies: There are many plants, including ancient Selaginellas and different species of compact asparagus plants, that look very much like and complement real ferns.
So…There is nothing primordial about ferns, when used in innovative ways in contemporary gardens!
Find more ideas for decorating with ferns here: