Fun Ways to Design with Ferns

With a little imagination, and expert advice, ferns can become a gorgeous garden asset.

Classic Summer Perennial

Classic Summer Perennial

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Ancient ferns fit beautifully into modern gardens as exceptional foliage and color complements.

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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.

Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Bring a slice of woodland to your 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.

Tone Down a Rock Wall

Tone Down a Rock Wall

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Ferns and mosses tucked into rock walls create a strong naturalistic effect.

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. 

Perfect Touch

Perfect Touch

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Adding a classical statue or even something whimsical brings attention to the ferns, and the ferns frame and soften the accent piece.

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!

Fun With Ferns

Fun With Ferns

Photo by: Photo by Felder Rushing

Photo by Felder Rushing

Nothing like a whimsical accent—in this case, a cobalt blue bottle stuck in an evergreen Japanese painted fern—to set ferns off!

Find more ideas for decorating with ferns here:

Next Up

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Ferns Are Made for the Shade

Try these varieties for your shade garden.

Take a New Look at Ferns

Change the way you look at this most ancient flower-free plant family.

Choosing a Fern for the Bathroom

The bathroom is an ideal environment for ferns. They generally love the humidity, and their delicate fronds soften the lines of ceramic, metal and glass.

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Not your typical fern, this tropical is a must-have among houseplants.

How to Propagate Ferns

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How to Plant Ferns in a Pot

Even if you don’t have much space, you can create a lush green display by planting a mix of contrasting ferns in a container.

Grow a Sculptural Fern

Damp, dark gardens in mild areas are ideal for this dramatic plant.