Ferns for the Shade Garden

If you have a shady space and deer then this one is for you. There are many plants which will work in your shade garden that are deer resistant; brunnera, pulmonaria, epimedium, astilbe, and wild ginger to name a few. We are going to focus in on the wonderful world of ferns because they do it all. These workhorses of the shade garden quietly remind you of the woods no matter where you are.


Let's start with the natives. There are many in Ohio but we are going to look at some that are commonly found at your local nursery and you can branch out from there.


  • Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) - She spreads in masses and mixes well with other perennials, good for slopes with erosion and although she prefers moisture will tolerate drier soils better then other ferns. 1' wide by 1-2' tall (Lady in Red is a taller version with beautiful red stems)


  • Eastern Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) - Slower growing, clumping fern that maintains its foliage in the winter and also tolerates dry soil once established. 18-24" wide and tall


  • Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopeteri) - This is the king of the ferns. Large, spreading and the happier it is the more it will colonize. It prefers moisture which is why it thrives along stream banks and may brown out mid to late summer with lack of rain. It does tolerate a wide range of soils and once established is a great backdrop to other plantings. (3-6' wide by 3-5' tall)


  • Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) - An evergreen, clumping fern that does not appreciate heavy clay soil so make sure its location drains well. You can use this under Walnut trees and mix it will other shade plants as it behaves and stays in its space. 1-2' tall and 1-2' wide


Then there are the non natives that bring their own beauty to the shade garden. These are also easy to find at your local nursery.


  • Japanese Beech Fern (Thelypteris decursive-pinnata) - I know it isn't native but I love this plant. It has great structure, slowly colonizes and maintains foliage late into the fall. Although like most ferns it prefers consistent moisture throughout the growing season mine only brown a bit mid summer and then rebound with fall moisture. 18-24" wide and tall


  • Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var.pictum) - Small and well behaved with lovely color variances of silver and maroon in the leaves. It does like its moisture and a more protected location but once settled it is a beautiful texture in the garden. 18-24" wide and 12-18" tall


  • Ghost Fern (Athyrium 'Ghost') - This fern is the child of the Japanese Painted and Lady Fern featuring the coloring of one and the more upright habit of the other. Prefers moisture but not sitting in heavy wet soil and a more protected site. 18-24" wide and 24-36" tall

The biggest issue with ferns is mid to late summer browning that can occur if it is hot and dry, so either mix them with perennials that hold their own in dry soil or water once a week to keep the green going. It is well worth the extra effort.


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