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Don Nicholson

Ferns have been, in essence, with us since the beginning of time and could be found when dinosaurs roamed the earth. There are about 12,000 species of ferns in the world today. The majority of ferns are green but over forty shades of green would not be an exaggeration.

The frond is the part of the fern that we see when we wander through the woods; it is the leaf of the fern having two parts . . . the stipe (leaf stalk) and the blade (the leafy expanded portion of the frond). Ferns reproduce by spores which are found on the underside of the fronds and are usually brown or green. Fronds vary greatly in size, from the tree ferns with 12 foot fronds to the mosquito ferns with fronds only 1/16 of an inch long. I had the privilege of seeing the tree fern in Santiago de Cuba last February. In that garden, the owner had the largest collection of ferns (over 3000) in the Latin Americas. A group of Master Gardeners/Horticulturalists from Peterborough will be visiting there this year.

Ferns vary in texture and height as well; some forming a low spreading mound, while others create a bold upright clump. With such a range, even the smallest garden can have a woodland feeling by planting a few ferns along with other moist-shade lovers such as Hostas, Heucheras, Primroses and Astilbes.

Ferns are among the most widely used foliage plants and are generally hardy except for the tropical species that we grow indoors (like the Boston Fern, which we find in the plant section of any store selling plants. As an aside, the Boston ferns are descended from a mutation that turned up in a parlor in Boston around 1890.).

As with many other plants, growing ferns is easy so long as their basic cultivation requirements – site, moisture, food and sunlight or shade – are taken into account. There are many different ferns with a wide range of cultural requirements and varieties that can be found.

Ferns require moist, humus rich soil. If your soil is poor, dig in 4 to 6 inches of well-rotted compost or peat moss. (Take advantage of our city-produced compost and purchase some.) This will provide a loose, water-retentive soil in which ferns can thrive. Ferns do well under trees, but tree roots (especially maples and many evergreens) may rob the soil of water and nutrients. Also, rain may not penetrate the branch canopy. You may have to provide regular watering to these areas if you want to grow ferns there. This is especially critical just after planting until the ferns become established. It is a good idea to mulch your ferns with compost or leaf litter at least once a year. This will improve the soil, keep the roots cool and help to retain moisture.

The following is a sampling of ferns. By the way, in order to preserve nature, I prefer to purchase my plants from a garden centre or nursery rather than digging them out of the woods. Many of these ferns I have grown in my own garden.

The Ostrich Fern is the one we are most familiar with, it is the one from which we cut out the fiddleheads or frond shoots when they start to unfold in the spring. We steam them as we would asparagus. These ferns can grow over four feet tall and have lovely yellow-green feather like fronds.

The Maiden Hair fern is one of my favourites. This fern forms a medium-sized 1- 2 foot tall mound of very delicate, lacy foliage. The leaf-stems are a striking black colour. The plant prefers rich, moist soil with medium shade.

The Royal Fern is one of the most handsome ferns with deep forest green 3 – 4 foot foliage will long, smooth-edged leaves and prefers moist, shady sites.

The Cinnamon Fern has handsome, deep waxy-green foliage which is deeply cut. It is able to thrive in wet, swampy or dry shady spots and grows 2-3 feet tall.

The Lady Fern is a real 2-3 foot favourite and grows in partial shade and moist soil. It has lovely, bright yellow-green wide, deep cut or laciniate leaves.

The 2 – 3 foot tall Christmas Fern should grow well in this area, but I don’t think I watered it enough and it died.. It is supposed to be a very hardy evergreen fern. It has deep, bright green foliage. The leaflets are lance-shaped in dense clusters. It too grows best in shade to partial shade.

And I save my favourite to the last – the Japanese Painted Fern. The leaves are a soft shade of metallic silver-gray with hints of red and blue. Japanese painted fern grows about 18 inches tall and makes a clump more than two feet wide, and as a result, they are very popular plants in the shade garden. The Perennial Plant Association chose this plant as the 2004 plant of the year. This fern is now being hybridized to offer variations on a theme. The fern may not flower as do Primroses, Bleeding hearts and Astilbes, but there variations of texture, height and hue create a restful and relaxing garden. Try them . . . soon you will become fond of ferns too.