Choosing Hardy Garden Ferns

 In Plant Focus

Choosing hardy garden ferns can be daunting! But it needn’t be and you shouldn’t be put off by the tongue twisting names!

Why plant hardy ferns?

Hardy garden ferns may not hit you in the eye with showy blooms but nevertheless if you take time to look closely, they are every bit as beautiful!

When the fresh fronds unfurl in spring there is an un-rivaled beauty in the detail of ferns. Likened to a coiled spring or a bishop’s crosier, these fronds are exceptionally beautiful!

Great native ferns

Choosing Hardy Garden Ferns, Asplenium, harts tongue fern

Unfurling fronds of native Hart’s Tongue fern

Most of the ferns we grow in gardens are selections of native ferns.

Recently, I overheard someone describing the fronds of one of our evergreen native ferns as being just like those paper party horns that unroll as you blow into them. This could have only been the locally common Hart’s Tongue fern. This (Asplenium scolopendrium) is a very useful plant for softening and greening unloved and poorly lit areas in the garden. Whilst it enjoys a cool place where little if any direct sunlight falls, it is remarkably tolerant of summer drought.

The Soft Field fern (Polystichum setiferum) is also a tough British native and remarkably tolerant of dry soils once established. There are many selected forms of this to choose from.


A moisture loving fern

Many hardy garden ferns prefer moisture. They are intolerant of prolonged dry periods or even direct sunshine.

Another native, and perhaps the most spectacular that we can grow, really needs plenty of moisture around the roots. I’m thinking of the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis). This can be seen at its best in wet woodlands on the Somerset Levels. A visit to the reserve at Shapwick in early summer will give you a view of these spectacularly large growing ferns. A visit then might also give you the possibility of seeing hobby falcons hunt and catch dragonflies on the wing! If this weren’t enough, there’s a good chance that you may hear the manic call of Cetti’s warbler and the more leisurely and rhythmic boom of bittern!

But I digress! The Royal fern is a good choice to plant at the water’s edge or in a bog garden. Planted there, come autumn, you will be rewarded with a spectacular display of rich orange colour as the fronds die down.


Native selections

Royal fern, Osmunda

Royal fern [Osmunda regalis] at Shapwick Heath, Somerset Levels

Invariably many ferns we grow in gardens have been collected by enthusiasts when out walking on the moors and wild valley bottoms of Britain.

But some originate from further afield and some of these are often not as winter hardy.

Generally, the vast majority of ferns that we grow are very hardy but more decorative forms of British native ferns.

That isn’t to say that you won’t stumble upon the same thing growing in Scandinavia, Russia, Canada and all the places in between since the distribution of ferns is widespread.




The main native ferns include Asplenium scolopendrium, Dryopteris affinis, Dryopteris felix-mas, Polypodium species, Polystichum setiferum and varieties of these. Asplenium trichomanes is a diminutive but tough little fern worth growing too.  Osmunda regalis is a stunning deciduous fern found in damp places such as the Somerset Levels.


Choosing Hardy Garden Ferns, deer fern, ladder fern

Deer fern – Blechnum spicant

Evergreen ferns

Some hardy ferns are evergreen and these are particularly useful garden plants.

I’ve already mentioned the evergreen Hart’s Tongue fern and there are various forms of it to plant too.

The diminutive Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) grows in limestone walls. This too is an evergreen. It’s also one that tolerates particularly dry condition.

A third evergreen hardy fern grows in the woods nearby.

I’ve noticed that it tends to be confined to those areas that are poorly drained invariably due to ruts caused by forestry vehicles.

This so called ‘hard’ or ‘deer’ fern (Blechnum spicant) and a favourite of mine.

There is something very pleasing about the regularity of the Blechnum fronds. For this feature, this fern is a great choice for planting in pots where it might contrast with the leaves of other plants with good foliage.

Using ferns in the garden

For me, ferns are not plants to tuck away in some dingy corner of the garden! They can play a vital role in transition of colours from one end of the colour spectrum to the other and avoiding a clash!

They are especially good at giving the illusion that things have always been that way. That the garden has been established for years and is ancient!

This is hard to achieve with any other group of plants.

I’ve planted quite a few hardy garden ferns in my garden over the years but the most useful ones have invariably planted themselves!

Ferns may not have flowers or seeds but they do produce millions of spores. They have a knack of finding just the right spot in which to grow! A crack in the concrete, a gap in the steps, a hole in the wall, these are all places where ferns look great and these are exactly the places where they sow themselves!

Choosing Hardy Garden Ferns, soft shield fern, ferns

Newly emerging soft shield fern crosiers

The largest group of ferns

When you are choosing hardy garden ferns you will certainly find the biggest group of hardy ferns. They are the Polystichum and Dryopteris ferns.

Polystichum Shield Ferns are mostly evergreen. Fronds are generally tall and they get noticed!

This is a hardy fern that can be planted with other plants with big leaves. Try planting them with big glossy leaf Fatsia, cool grey leaf Hosta, purple leaf Ligularia or any other plant with big bold leaves. I think that you will agree that the effect is spectacular!

Dryopteris ferns, just like Polystichum, may or may not be evergreen in winter. So much depends on the degree of cold that your garden experiences in winter. It might also be influenced by the protection given by overhead trees and shrubs for ferns are excellent plants for under-planting.

Many of the Dryopteris ferns [variously called Male, Wood, Buckler or Autumn ferns] have beautifully delicate looking and finely divided fronds.

Athyrium ferns also are deciduous but many of these have spectacularly coloured young fronds in spring. They need to be positioned carefully so that they do not receive direct sunshine in summer. I find that it’s important that their roots remain moist in summer too. Athyrium niponicum ‘Metallicum’ is a fine example of this and you can see this as my blog header image.





Choosing hardy garden ferns – not evergreens

Matteuccia struthiopteris, Shuttlecock fern

Matteuccia struthiopteris – Shuttlecock fern

Not all Dryopteris are evergreen and so it’s worth checking this out before you choose.

The most popular by far is the so called ‘Autumn Fern’ [Dryopteris erythrosora]. This one looks good in all seasons and not just in autumn.. The new fronds emerge and unfold to delight with a rich yellow orange colour.

This then fades through summer only to change to this warm hue again in autumn! This is a fern that I wouldn’t be without. It’s a tough fern that puts on a show whether in the ground or in a pot.

A hardy garden fern that most certainly is deciduous is the ever popular Shuttlecock Fern – (Matteuccia struthiopteris).

This is a damp lover but will tolerate bright sun if that moisture is provided.

It looks fantastic in spring when the fronds emerge in a tight and neat shuttlecock shape and is the softest of green colours.




Tree Ferns

Tree fern, Dicksonia

Tree fern – Dicksonia antarctica

Now the big daddy of all ferns is the tree fern!

These grow well in the South West if you can find a shady sheltered cool spot. But the hail from the Southern Hemisphere!

Most of the tree ferns that you see on sale are imports. They are saved from crushing as forests are harvested in New Zealand.

Of course tree ferns aren’t true trees. They very slowly produce a trunk of 2-3 metres high and there is no wood inside that trunk! The dead frond bases form the trunk. It’s important that the trunk should be kept moist at all times.

Once established normal ferns go on doing their thing for years on end.

They suffer from very few if any pests and diseases but it does pay to get the moisture and the light conditions right.


Propagating ferns

Unfortunately propagation of hardy garden ferns is a very slow process. It’s not a thing to be undertaken lightly.

Some older plants may be divided but most will be reproduced by ‘sowing’ the collected spores into trays of compost. You will then need to wait for several years before you have a little plant that eventually starts to look like a fern!

Have you a dark and unloved corner of your garden that could be a home for a hardy fern? Do you use ferns in planted containers?

I’m sure that you have a cool shady spot where a hardy garden fern will feel at home. I certainly hope that you’ll now find choosing hardy garden ferns to grow less daunting.I also hope that you won’t be put off by those tongue twisting names!


Seven of my favourites

Athyrium niponicum Burgundy Lace [Japanese Painted fern] – silvery fronds with burgundy colour through the centres.

Blechnum spicant [Hard fern] – distinctive, elegant, evergreen, RHS AGM

Dryopteris erythrosora [Autumn fern] – described above but a true beauty and an excellent addition to winter containers!

Matteuccia struthiopteris [Shuttlecock fern] – described above and such a delicate beauty in early summer.

Osmunda regalis [Royal fern] – also described above, good by water and fab rich autumn frond colours.

Polystichum polyblepharum [Japanese Tassle fern] – evergreen, rich deep green new fronds are covered in golden brown hairs when young, RHS AGM.

Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ [Soft Shield fern] – daintily finely cut fronds, evergreen with a very ‘soft’ look.

Dryopteris erythrosora, autumn fern, ferns

Dryopteris erythrosora – the Autumn fern

If you enjoyed reading this I think that you’d find this article on ornamental grasses planted with perennials interesting.

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