Fantastic Ferns

Pam Gubrud, Anoka County Extension Master Gardener


Do you have a shady area where no grass or flowers easily bloom? Consider planting ferns.

Unlike seed plants, ferns set out on the breeze as single cell spores. Ferns produce billions of spores that blow in the wind in search of a suitable spot: damp soil, wet rock or patch of moss. They can also increase by clumping or with runners. Ferns highlighted here generally prefer moist, somewhat acidic soil, part sun to shade, with organic matter added.

Interrupted fern is easy to grow, a slow spreader, height 2-4 feet, width 3-4 feet. In the center part of each fertile leaf, (where the spores mature), are four or more pairs of dark green leaflets. After the spores are released, those leaflets wither and fall off, leaving an interrupted space from early summer onward.

Royal fern is another slow spreader and easy to grow. Height is 2-5 feet, width 3-4 feet. It likes light shade and moisture is essential. Supposedly it got its name from an English legend where a king hid among these ferns to escape fierce Viking raiders, and thus, was saved. It is also called flowering fern. It resembles a shrub-like locust tree. Its golden fall color lasts well into November.

Lady fern is a well-behaved, adaptable fern. Height is 1.5-2 feet, width 2 feet. In a dry spell, this fern will go dormant but send up new fronds when moisture returns. It has a feathery, peaceful texture, with green fronds all season. There are many cultivars of this Minnesota native. The Japanese painted fern is one that is native to Asia. It is smaller, 1-2 feet and spreads to about one foot. What is unique is the color; shades of pink, red, purple, and white in its fronds and stem. Other cultivars to consider include lady in red, ghost fern, burgundy lace, Dre’s dagger fern and many others.

Ostrich fern is a spreader, sometimes what is needed near a foundation in heavy shade. Height is 2-4 feet, width is 3-6 feet and can spread up to one foot per year. It prefers moist to wet soil, but average garden soil in shade is fine. Lemon-sized rhizomes protrude a few inches from the soil, so it is easy to spot new plants that may be forming and dig them out where unwanted. The fertile, spore-producing fronds grow in midsummer.

Northern maidenhair fern is a Minnesota native, normally grows in rich woods, but readily adapts to the shade garden. It grows 1-2 feet high and spreads slowly. The paper-thin fronds grow above thin black stems, layering atop one another, looking like lace. It is very well-behaved, growing from shallow, wiry rhizomes. Ferns can be planted among hostas or planted with your spring bulbs amidst a fern grouping. When those plants are dying back, the ferns will hide them. I love to watch ferns emerge in spring, some resembling the end of a violin or fiddlehead, others looking like alien furry creatures. Enjoy the beautiful world of ferns.