These low-maintenance perennials are a must for dark, damp places in your yard. Their feathery leaves mix well with lots of other shade-loving plants.

By Sheryl Geerts
Updated May 08, 2020

For shady spots, you can rely on ferns to deliver welcome color and texture, especially when mixed with flowering plants that also do well in shade. They also make an excellent choice if there are too many deer in your neighborhood to grow hostas and other shade-loving plants, because ferns tend to be low on the menu. Many ferns are natives, and they come in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes. Their hardiness varies by species, but overall, ferns make tough but beautiful additions to any shady garden. Whether you use ferns as specimen plants or for background plantings, here's what you need to know about growing ferns in your garden and the best varieties to try.

ostrich fern painted fern at base of stone wall
Credit: Robert Cardillo

How to Grow Ferns in Your Garden

Plant ferns in part to full shade and rich, well-drained soil. In all climates, they need protection from afternoon sun to prevent drying and leaf scorch. Ferns can reach 12 inches to 6 feet tall, depending on the type and growing conditions. Most prefer rich, humus-filled soil so make sure to mix compost into planting holes and cover them annually with 2 inches of organic mulch. Like other perennial plants, you can divide ferns in spring or fall. Keep the new divisions well-watered until plants are established.

Some ferns spread by underground runners, which can be helpful in places where you want a groundcover, but unwelcome in an orderly, formal planting. Research the characteristics of each fern before you plant it.

Plants That Grow Well with Ferns

Ferns are ideal companions in a woodland garden, where they offer a texture change when planted with other perennials such as hostas, dicentras, and caladiums. Other deer-resistant companions include astilbe, hellebore, barrenwort, and heart-leaf brunnera.

Best Fern Varieties

If you want to include a few ferns in your landscape, start with these favorites.

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holly fern growing outside
Credit: Andre Baranowski

1 Holly Fern

Native to the Eastern United States, holly ferns (Polystichum spp.) get their common name because their tough green leaves often persist through winter and can be cut for Christmas decorations. Clip last year's leaves off these valuable garden plants in early spring before new growth appears. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

western sword fern growing outside
Credit: Laurie Black

2 Western Sword Fern

One of the most robust and reliable ferns, Western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) thrive in coastal settings and grow glossy deep green fronds 3-4 feet tall and wide. The fern gets its name from its elongated blade-like fronds and the plant can have as many as a hundred leaves. Hardy in Zones 5-10.

japanese tassel fern growing outside
Credit: Denny Schrock

3 Japanese Tassel Fern

As a shorter variety, Japanese tassel ferns (Polystichum polyblepharum) are beautiful in mass plantings as a groundcover, especially under flowering shrubs. This plant is 18 to 24 inches tall and 10 inches wide and does well in containers. Its fronds emerge stiffly, then droop backwards to form a tassel. Hardy in Zones 6-10.

hay scented fern growing outside
Credit: Matthew Benson

4 Hay-Scented Fern

Native to the eastern United States, arching yellow-green fronds of this hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) have the distinction of smelling like freshly mown hay when bruised or crushed. The plants, 3 feet tall and wide, quickly spread as a groundcover. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

japanese painted fern growing outside
Credit: Peter Krumhardt

5 Lady Fern

Both beautiful and dainty, lady ferns (Athyrium spp.) live up to their name. These ferns vary greatly in size and structure. Some are strongly upright; others are spreading. Lady ferns are relatively tolerant of sun and dry soil and drop their leaves in fall.

Three showy cultivars to plant in your garden are Japanese painted fern (A. niponicum pictum); Athyrium 'Ghost'; and 'Lady in Red' lady fern (A. filix-femina 'Lady in Red').

Japanese painted ferns unfurl silver fronds brushed with red and blue tints on burgundy stems. They reach 12 to 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide. The silvery foliage achieves its best color when it gets a few hours of morning sunshine. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

The 'Ghost' variety is more upright than the Japanese painted fern but has the same silvery foliage. It reaches 1 to 3 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

'Lady in Red' lady fern is a cross between Japanese painted fern and Southern lady fern. It grows with a strongly vertical form, showcasing its brilliant red-violet stems and lacy, light green foliage. It reaches 20 to 24 inches tall and 3 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

There are many other lady ferns that make fine garden plants, each with interesting qualities, including the crested lady fern (A. filix-femina 'Cristatum') with frilly double edges on each leaf.

maidenhair fern plants in pots outside
Credit: Doug Hetherington

6 Maidenhair Fern

The delicate, airy look of maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp.) belies how tough these plants really are. Each wiry stem holds broad leaflets at the tip of the stem, creating an umbrella-like appearance. These noninvasive ferns look good planted together in a group.

Northern maidenhair fern (A. pedatum aleuticum) grows 24-inch black-purple stems topped with arching branchlets arranged like fingers on a hand. The straight species is beautiful as well as its variations, such as 'Miss Sharples' (light yellow-green new growth) and 'Japonicum' (pinkish-bronze new growth). Hardy in Zones 5-8.

Southern maidenhair fern (A. capillus-venerus) is a native southerner. It thrives in heat and humidity and requires consistently moist soil. Bright green fronds grow on blackish stems 18-24 inches tall. Hardy in Zones 7-10.

osmunda fern growing outside

7 Osmunda Fern

Among the largest ferns home gardens can plant is the Osmunda fern. Native everywhere east of the Mississippi and a few places to the west, it thrives in very moist soil. Its common name, flowering fern, comes from the fact that the top of the plant resembles groups of flowers.

Cinnamon fern (O. cinnamomea) takes its name from the erect, 36-inch-tall, reddish-brown spore-bearing fronds that grow in the center of light green fronds that can reach 5 feet tall in a 24-inch-wide clump.  Grow these tough deciduous beauties at the edge of ponds or in informal woodlands. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Interrupted fern (O. claytoniana) takes its common name from brown fertile leaflets that appear to interrupt green sterile leaflets on larger fronds. At 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide, this large garden presence is deciduous in the fall. Hardy in Zones 3-6.

ostrich fern foliage
Credit: Marty Baldwin

8 Ostrich Fern

If you want a plant to take over a wet woodland space, choose ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). These large, vase-shape ferns unfurl fronds that can reach 5 feet, although 3 feet tall and wide is typical. The green fronds resemble ostrich plumes. Don't plant this fern with well-behaved perennials or other tidy plants; it will quickly bully them. With space to roam and average to moist soil, they quickly make a junglelike groundcover. Ostrich ferns tolerate sun as long as the soil never dries. When soil dries in shady locations, however, fronds burn. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

wood fern growing outside
Credit: Edmund Barr

9 Wood Fern

Tough, beautiful, and drought-tolerant once established, wood ferns (Dryopteris spp.) are great for planting in the garden. Some types of these medium-size ferns are evergreen plants while others drop their leaves in fall. Divide the clumps every three years or so to maintain their symmetrical forms. Undivided clumps become large and unattractive.

Autumn fern (D. erythrosora) opens in spring with coppery fronds, 18 inches tall and wide, that shift to green in summer, then provide rust-color in fall. Consider 'Brilliance' for brighter red new growth.

Marginal wood fern (D. marginalis) is a native of rocky woodland slopes typically forming a vase-shape clump 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 3-8.


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