Bring on the Ferns


First, I recommend to you Adrian Higgins’s recent love letter to ferns – Fronds with Benefits:  A Guide to Ferns.  The article includes his favorites, a tour of the ferns at Chanticleer Garden, and some reasons for their growing popularity – they’re easy, untouched by critters and disease, and make a garden look both primal and sophisticated.


All this fern talk got me photographing the ones in my garden, starting with the Autumn Fern ‘Brilliance’ that Adrian includes in his five favorites.  The two plants on the left are full-grown after two seasons and on the right are some of the 20 new ones I planted this spring.  The next photos show why I did that.

New Back Garden3

These shots taken in February and March prove that at least here in Maryland, the Autumn Fern is truly evergreen and only slightly tattered by repeated dumpings of snow. That’s in contrast to the hydrangeas seen growing alongside them in this shady spot. They looked great for a few weeks, passable for a few months and then terrible all winter in this spot just outside my living room window. With no regrets I gave the Hydrangeas away at our spring plant swap.


The other fern I grow is the Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), shown here where my back garden slopes down to a well-used inner sidewalk running through the neighborhood. Sensitive fern isn’t evergreen but it IS free, arriving here as a volunteer, and it’s native in this region. I’m allowing it to replace the very boring hostas that once dominated this bank. The ferns complement the evergreens without competing with them.


Speaking of the evergreens here, the three ‘Yoshino’ Cryptomerias are quickly becoming too big for this spot and have got to go. I confess that I was in a hurry to block an ugly view and simply chose my favorite fast-grower. Just three years later, it’s time to replace them and with what, I’m not sure.

It’s rather humbling to make gardening mistakes like this after 40 years of trial and error.


  1. I have plenty of ferns—I have to, with all my shade. Recently, I have great appreciation for the Athyrium ‘Ghost.’ It stands up straight and is much more sculptural than other ferns. And the silvery grey foliage stands out–better than The Japanese painted, which I don’t like nearly as well.

    Otherwise, I have ostrich, the painted mentioned above, and a few others I’d have to find the tags for.

  2. I also love ferns and many different ones grow in my woods (not planted by me) and I am trying to learn to identify all of them. I moved a few sensitive ferns that popped up under my apple trees to a shade garden near the house and I do want to mention that something likes to eat them.(As in insect, I think) However, the ferns seem to grow back from this. I live in SE Michigan.

  3. Great article – I’m thrilled to see the resurgence of ferns in the marketplace. I adore ferns of all kinds and use them extensively, but stand on my soap box to encourage gardeners and nurseries to learn and use their botanical names. If you don’t do it anywhere else – do it for ferns. This is one group of plants whose common names can be so region specific that it is difficult to get a fix on the plant being discussed. Love the varieties you grow Susan, and would highly recommend Arachnoides standishii and A. simplicior “variegata” (the latter I think you could grow within the embrace of that warm beltway). A. simplicior is STUNNING grown next to Dryopteris erythrosora (autumn fern).

  4. I loved how Higgins called ferns primordial — my feelings exactly. I’m going to disappoint Marianne Willburn by not knowing what ferns I have in my NJ yard, as I stole them from upstate NY woods. Some varieties spread a bit too fast, growing out into the grass and overtaking my hydrangea. But great for fill in the shady spots. Mine aren’t evergreen here, but perennial is good enough for me.

  5. The Osterich ferns are over 5′ and taking over the bed. The Jap. Painted ferns are popping up in between the pavers. I have an unknown fern that the &@€£# Jap. beetles eat.
    Love the contrast between ferns and hostas.

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