Ferns are a group of plants from the dawn of time and are extremely successful in different climates and regions. Fern plants grow all over the world.

No matter what your temperate zone or climate, you will be sure to find species that are adapted to, and will grow well, in your environment.

Prolific Copper Shield Fern Dryopteris erythrosora var. prolifica

They can provide a lush green and almost tropical look to any garden, range in height from just a few inches high to taller than an adult, and are extremely useful in landscaping.

They are shade plants and generally indigenous to woodlands. This means that they will rarely, if ever, tolerate direct sunlight, preferring to live in partial shade or even deep shade.

They are therefore just right for those shady spots in your garden or woods where nothing else will grow. If the growing conditions are right, they can be not only very hardy, but can even multiply.

If, for example, you have woods where sunlight hardly ever reaches the ground, and where very few plants will grow at ground level, introducing some of these shade loving plants might perhaps be the best thing that you could do in that environment.

Plant ferns in groups, preferably of different species with a height difference to give a three dimensional texture to the foliage. As woodland conditions greatly favour the growth and spread of ferns, you will soon have gently waving green fronds covering the ground.

Big Fern Frond Opening on Shade Fern Plant

Choosing Ferns

There are different growing habits to consider. Some fern species will stay in clumps, while others tend to spread. Choose the correct species for the needs of your garden design.

Clumping fern types:

Harts Tongue Fern in Deep Shade

If you want to naturalize an area these would be your best bet.

Spreading fern types:

  • New York Fern – Thelypteris noveboracensis
  • Hay Scented Fern – Dennstaedtia punctilobula
  • Bracken (WARNING, bracken can be poisonous to horses if they should have access to grazing where bracken is growing)


Most ferns will generally grow 6 to 36 inches tall.

Growing Fern Plants

Shade Garden Ferns

Generally speaking, if you would like a rarer species, you will have to buy it from a nursery.

Be careful that whatever fern plants you buy, they are suited to your climate type – a highly tropical variety that may look beautiful but is really only suited to growing in a greenhouse isn’t going to be successful outdoors in a cool climate.

A good way to acquire ferns and suited to your climate is in the local wild. If they grow in the wild near where you live they will be hardy for your garden and will require very little care and supervision to survive. It’s always a good idea to plant native plants.

Ferns are ancient plants that do not propagate in ways you may expect. If you have native ferns nearby and want some in your garden, dig up a wild fern in the spring and plant it. As the new fronds open out, they will release spores that will increase the number of plants.

Ferns in Containers

Ferns in Shade

Ferns can be grown in containers and/or can be planted as companions to other container perennials.

A good mix for potting would be; one part peat-free multipurpose compost, one part John Innes No 3, and the final third of the mix should be gritty sand.

Incorporate a controlled release fertiliser for the initial planting and a general fertiliser in the second year growing season.

How to Take Care of Ferns

Fern Fronds in a Shady Garden

Though these plants will tolerate full shade, they actually do best when also given a little dappled sunlight.

They prefer a richly moist soil as do many woodland species. Mix in some rich compost to about ten inches into the soil before you plant them, and they will flourish.

Make sure the soil is kept damp in dry spells and add slow release fertilizer from time to time. Mulching to protect the plants from cold weather is advised.

Shade loving fern plants thrive in rich, moist, humus soil with an acid PH. Ideally 1 part soil, 1 part clean sand and 2 parts peat moss. Adding compost mulch twice a year will keep the roots cool and moist in the summer and protect the rhizomes from freezing and thawing in the winter. Mulching will also help keep the soil PH near to an ideal reading.

These plants make a great addition to any shade garden. There are so many to choose from and many different types, shapes, sizes and colors.

Feeding and Watering Ferns

Ferns for Deep Shade

When in an open garden area ferns do not normally need feeding but do appreciate a mulch of well-rotted farm manure in spring.

If they are planted in poor soil however, they would benefit from a balanced fertiliser or some fish, blood, and bone in the springtime.

Water when needed to prevent soil drying out. Always apply the water to the roots and to prevent rot do not water the fronds or crown.

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