Learning to Grow: Ferns a resilient pick for shady areas in gardens

Some of my favorite plants for tough to fill shady spots in the garden are ferns. Delicately arched fronds mask a hardiness that helps these plants withstand our frigid Midwest winters, as well as summer’s heat, and their uniquely textured leaves make them an ideal companion for hostas, bluebells and other mainstays of the shade or woodland garden.

Ferns thrive in those tricky places – beneath a canopy of trees, along the north side of the house – that often leave us stumped, as long as shade is plentiful and soil is rich and well-drained. They appreciate mulching to retain moisture, and regular watering, but are otherwise low-maintenance, and largely pest-resistant.

Extremely tough and hardy to zone 4, the native Lady fern grows 1 to 4 feet tall, and even can withstand some sun. Foliage is lacy and light green, and looks lovely as a foil for plants with darker leaves, or as a bright spot in a shady corner.

Another fern hardy to zone 4 is the Ostrich fern, which gets its name from feather-like fronds that grow 3 to 4 feet in height, and provide a perfect backdrop for lower-growing shade plants once unfurled.

One of my favorites, the Japanese Painted fern has ornamental silvery green and gray fronds branching out from red stems. Tolerant of almost total shade, these ferns reach a height of 12 to 18 inches, and provide interest to dark corners, especially when planted in large groupings.

Autumn ferns, also known as Japanese Wood ferns, first emerge in shades of coppery red in springtime, then develop into a rich green as the season turns to summer. Autumn ferns are lower growing than some other varieties, usually reaching 18 to 24 inches tall, and their spreading makes them a good alternative to groundcover for bare spots.

If you’re looking for an evergreen to add interest to the winter garden, one option is the Christmas fern. Growing in 2-foot-tall, fountain-shaped clumps, the Christmas fern’s fronds are silvery in spring, and often green at Christmastime, as their name would suggest. Lovely when planted en masse, these glossy ferns are a good choice for sloping areas, where soil is perhaps a bit dry, or even rocky.

For best results, choose a shady spot, or one with dappled sun, and work some organic compost into the soil to provide nutrients and improve drainage. Dig a shallow hole, and plant fern so that its crown, (the area where the stem joins the roots), sits slightly – 1 to 2 inches – above ground level. Adding a layer of mulch after planting will help ensure soil stays consistently moist, but not wet.

Once established, these plants require minimal attention, and you’ll enjoy the tranquil appearance of ferns in your garden for many seasons to come.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at uiemg-kane@illinois.edu for more information.