The enthusiasm Piedmont gardeners have for ferns and other shade plants is natural, given the vast canopy of large trees that we have to deal with in the landscape.
Gardeners love hostas in their many forms, and hardy ferns are their best companions. This combination is especially effective when there is a contrast between the smooth leaves of hostas and the frothy fronds of ferns.
Other good companions are Lenten roses and Solomon’s seal, both easy-to-grow perennials for shady spots.
While appearing delicate, hardy ferns are quite rugged – they are, in fact, quite ancient. Given the right spot – some like it damp, others will take life on the dry side – they should prosper for many years.
Their preferences naturally stem from their origin. For example, the royal fern likes damp shade, such as creek banks or the base of your rain gutter’s downspout. The autumn and interrupted ferns will take drier soil. As a general rule, hardy ferns prosper in good, woodsy soil, with normal rainfall. When you shop, check the tag for height: a cinnamon fern can reach 5 feet tall when it gets the water it requires. But the woods ferns tend to be suited for edges of beds, growing a foot or so tall.
Plants are in garden centers now, ready for planting. Look at the tags for mature size and moisture and light requirements. My favorites:
Autumn fern. If you can only have one, this is it, and the best plant there is for dry shade. Evergreen, but not always green, its new fronds are pinkish-copper in spring, green through the summer, then turn goldish-brown in autumn. Plants rise to a useful 2 feet.
Japanese painted fern. It’s the most beautiful hardy fern that is reasonably easy to find in the marketplace. The grayish-green fronds have silver markings with a touch of reddish-purple. Rising about 1 feet, it requires moist but well-drained good soil. Match it with a small hosta with golden-green or lemon-green foliage for an outstanding combination.
Cinnamon fern. This fern demands water and space because it can get very tall, but the plant is so interesting when it bears cinnamon-brown fronds covered with spores. The contrast with the bright-green foliage is gorgeous. The royal fern is its cousin, and it can eventually get even taller.
Tassel fern. One of the best and most distinctive evergreen ferns, tassel is easy to grow. Dense and lacy, the tassel fern deserves a spot where it can be seen easily. It grows around 2 feet tall, or a bit higher, and has dark-green foliage.