Pacific Northwest Regional Reports

The Versatility of Ferns in the Northwest

These design and care tips and top plant picks will transform your shade garden in no time

ferns growing in a woodland garden
A menagerie of different fern species grow in this shady woodland garden. Photo: Susan Calhoun

In the past three years I have become a firm fan of ferns. The fiddleheads, which emerge in spring, are very subtle and primeval in shape. They draw you back every couple of days to see the progress of the unfurling fronds. The variety and size of the ferns we can grow here are less than those of the giant ferns of the tropics, but they are nevertheless quite remarkable and have several uses in the garden.

Chilean hard fern
Chilean hard fern and ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ bugbane juxtapose color, form, and texture. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Unbeatable textural contrast

I like to use ferns in shade garden plantings where the rough textures can contrast with other soft colors and textures. Take a look at the contrast in textures between Chilean hard fern (Blechnum chilense, Zones 7–9) and ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ bugbane (Actaea ‘Hillside Black Beauty’, Zones 4–8) in the photo above. Both of these plants take full to partial shade.

ferns with summer flowers in front
Ferns give the perfect structural background for brightly colored summer flowers such as those of candelabra primrose. Photo: Susan Calhoun

A firm backdrop for bigger stars

Ferns also look great when grouped together in a fern-only garden or as a main part of a tropical or shade garden. I used them as a base in my stream-side garden to contrast with rarer plants and plants with more color, such as candelabra primrose (Primula bulleyana, Zones 5–8) and variegated petasites (Petasites japonicus ‘Variegata’, Zones 5–9).

Ostrich fern fronds
Ostrich fern has bright, almost lime green foliage and can reach a whopping 6 feet tall. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Top-performing favorites

Here are a few of my favorite ferns for the Northwest: Robust male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Undulata Robusta’, Zones 4–9) reaches 3 feet tall and can grow in shade or sun. Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, Zones 3–8) grows 3 to 6 feet tall and prefers shade and moist soils. Jeweled chain fern (Woodwardia unigemmata, Zones 8–10) can grow from 3 to 7 feet wide in shade.

Robust male fern
Robust male fern has foliage with a delicate texture on a compact plant. Photo: Susan Calhoun

Easy annual maintenance

Many ferns are evergreen, and sometimes the new leaves are masked by the rough remaining foliage. Just like with hellebores (Helleborus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9) and epimediums (Epimedium spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9), these ferns can be trimmed back to reveal the next round of emerging foliage. Several ferns can grow in more sun, with less water, as ground covers and can maintain smaller sizes. Explore these amazing plants that can take on many roles in garden design.

Check out these articles to learn more about unique fern species:

lots of ferns next to a small stream
My Tasmanian tree ferns, which are about one or two zones too tender for this area, have successfully overwintered in the ground with several layers of insulation. Photo: Susan Calhoun

An update on my fern overwintering project

I’ve previously written about my attempts to overwinter my marginally hardy tropical ferns in the ground. For these Tasmanian tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica, Zones 9–11), I chose to dig three of them out to overwinter in the greenhouse and leave three in the ground in my stream-side garden with insulation to protect them. I’m happy to say that the three in the garden have made it through with flying colors—or should I say unfurling fronds? I was so excited to see the firm crowns and emerging fiddleheads in March.

My ferns grow in open shade with high branches overhead. But without leaves on the deciduous trees, heavy frost can get into the glades. After winter, several mature fronds were still attached to the plants and looking a little ratty but still green and viable. I left the ferns wrapped until the new fronds had visible green growth showing. The ones in the greenhouse were put back into the tropical garden in mid-May and are doing well with a good crown of fronds. The ferns that overwintered in the greenhouse are a little further along than the overwintered ones in the stream-side garden, but those ones are not that far behind.

—Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plantswoman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

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