by Colleen O’Neill Nice

Gardening has been my passion for over 30 years. In my twenties, vibrant everblooming annuals took center stage in my unpretentious garden. After all, they were inexpensive (ten seed packets for $1) and easy to grow. The perfect plants for a busy working mom. New varieties inspired me to experiment with different color combinations and contrasting forms every spring. In my thirties, I discovered perennials. I loved the challenge of arranging textures and orchestrating bloom times, constantly searching for “the” perfect plant. Dividing and propagating perennials was gratifying. I enjoyed sharing exuberant seedlings with friends, family and even strangers. In my forties, I mastered the art of blending annuals and perennials with a diverse array of self seeders and bulbs. With a multi-talented lineup, I was always guaranteed a captivating and ever changing vista.

It has been in my fifties, that I have discovered a need for tranquility in my garden. And although I do keep the public spaces lively with color, it is in my private sanctuary where muted blues and glossy greens of intriguing foliage surround me. Tall trees create a canopy of dappled shade creating cooler temperatures that beckon on hot, steamy days. It is my oasis where flowers aren’t needed if lush vegetation dances to the sounds of trickling water. It has been in my fifties, that I finally discovered the enchanting world of ferns. Oh, I knew they were out there. I had admired their beauty and elegance on many a garden tour, but never really considered using ferns in my own garden. They seemed so delicate and hard to grow. It wasn’t until I started propagating ferns, that I finally realized the numerous qualities they possess. The sheer number of fern species and diverse cultural requirements offer endless opportunities for every garden setting. Amazingly, deer, rabbits, pests and disease are seldom a problem. What more could a gardener ask for?

Need a low maintenance ground cover for dry shade?

Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ better known as the Japanese painted fern is all that and more. Voted the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year, it energizes my garden continuously with multi-colored fronds brushed in soft shades of purple, pink, silver and pale green. And although it desires moist, well drained soil, I grow several at the base of a huge maple tree where conditions are very dry. It harmonizes flawlessly with the charming dark pink hearts of Dicentra ‘Luxuriant’. Once established, both thrive with no supplemental water. Growing just 20 inches tall, the Japanese painted fern (zones 3-9) makes a colorful ground cover preferring shade or part shade conditions. Established clumps can be divided in early spring or try propagating spores that blanket the underside of the fronds in late summer.

How about a hardy, evergreen fern useful as a woodland weed suppressant?

Let me introduce you to Dryopteris filix-mas commonly called the male fern. Upright, lance-shaped fronds reaching 2 to 5 feet tall, enhance orangey-brown stalks on this clumping charmer. Rich and cool in mass, it matures into a deep, green carpet that shades out any weed seeds that blow in near the edge of my woodland garden. Since it produces multiple plants at its crown, the male fern can be divided in the spring to increase its quantities and maintain its amazing symmetry. For a focal point in a woodland garden, leave it undivided to mature into an impressive specimen. As an added bonus, the male fern (zones 4-8) remains evergreen during most winters in my zone 5 garden. Propagation is easy from spores gathered from August to November.

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Need a trilogy of sun-loving, native ferns?

No problem. The key to growing sun-loving ferns is to maintain adequate soil moisture with ideal habitats like bogs, ponds, streams or consistently irrigated beds. Adding a lush, tropical appearance, Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) shimmers with graceful, bright green fronds that turn shades of gold and copper in the fall. A long lived perennial, it is easily identifiable by its rich, cinnamon brown fronds arching from the center of the crown. The distinct, fertile stalks shed masses of spores by midsummer. Hummingbirds relish the hairy stipes (stems) which provide a soft down used to line their nests. Division of the cinnamon fern can be done in spring or fall. Dig and lift the rhizomes, then slice through the roots with a sharp spade or soil knife. Thelypteris noveboracensis makes an ideal ground cover for sunny, moist areas. Commonly called the New York fern, it develops feathery, apple green foliage just one to two feet tall. An easy to grow native, it produces tapered, upright fronds that spread quickly by underground rhizomes creating lush, bright colonies. I first encountered this beauty in a friend’s Southern Tier garden near her pond. Clusters were thriving in full sun, punctuating pockets of multicolored perennials. Hardy in zones 4-8, the New York fern’s shallow, black, wiry roots can be divided or mature spores can be collected in early to mid-summer. Rounding out the triplets, Athyrium filix-femina endearingly referred to as the northern lady fern, is one of my favorites. Extremely popular during the Victorian fern craze, it unfurls soft, airy, yellow-green tapered fronds that are the perfect backdrop for spring flowering bulbs. The lady fern’s bright foliage compliments my favorite orange tulips – ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Daydream’. If you love bringing the outdoors in, be sure to include their long-lasting, arching fronds in your flower arrangements. A great beginner fern for zones 4-8, it spreads slowly, forming dense clumps. Fresh, new fronds are prolific all summer long, if the soil is consistently moist. Ideally, division is recommended in the spring every 4 to 5 years, but I prefer to divide large clumps in the fall. I pot up my divisions, then in the spring, donate mature plants to our local plant auction. I keep all my sun loving ferns looking great by top dressing them with compost and mulch to retain moisture. During their first season, I use soaker hoses to help my newly planted ferns get established.

What ferns can be grown in moist shade?

Conditions where soil retains moisture yet offers good drainage can support several fascinating ferns. Some grow bigger and faster with constant moisture. The easy to grow, Dryopteris erythrosa (autumn fern) displays coppery-pink to orangey-red new croziers that contrast with its mature glossy, dark green fronds. Native to China and Japan, it spreads slowly by short creeping rhizomes creating mass plantings in shady, moist areas. The autumn fern will tolerate somewhat dry soil with a yearly dressing of compost and peat moss to help supply nutrients and retain moisture. Hardy in zones 5-9, this deciduous fern grows one to two feet tall. Red sori (spore producing structures) develop on the underside of its leaflets and can be gathered in late summer and fall. Established plants can be divided in spring or fall. A noteworthy fern for moist shade is Osmunda regalis, frequently called the royal fern. It predates the existence of dinosaurs and has flourished on all continents except Australia, for hundreds of millions of years. Growing two to five feet tall, unique fronds with rounded leaflets are variably shaded light green, tan and reddish brown. Black rootstock is curiously elevated above the soil surface about six inches. The royal fern is distinct. It is quite large and imposing, almost shrub-like, resembling no other fern. Hardy in zones 3-10, its huge arching fronds are stunning rising above a mélange of woodland plants. Mature green spores, viable for only two days, are released from large fertile leaflets in mid June.  Brown leaflets signal that the spores have been released. Mature plants can be divided in spring, positioning the crown at soil level. One of my favorite natives of the northeastern U.S. is the dainty Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair) with fan-like fronds balancing on thin, black, wiry stipes. It is deciduous and extremely cold hardy (zones 3-9) despite its very fragile appearance. Using tall, vase-shaped hostas as a backdrop and miniature hostas dancing in the foreground, the Northern Maidenhair makes a stunning focal point. It is easily propagated in early spring by dividing the creeping rhizomes just as they emerge or collecting inconspicuous spores in the fall.

Adiantum pedatum

Northern Maidenhair

Dryopteris erythrosa

Autumn fern

How about ferns for shady window boxes?

Dryopteris carthusiana (spinulose wood fern) a native fern hardy in zones 3-7 displays bright yellow-green, finely-divided lacy fronds. It is one of the first ferns to appear in spring, so pair it up with pansies for a colorful early season combo. Then, sizzle through summer by tucking in warm season annuals. The wood fern’s arching fronds grow two to three feet tall and look lush all summer. Propagate by division or collect mature (dark brown) spores in midsummer. Add interest to your window boxes with the unique texture of Crytomium fortunei. The hardiest of the holly ferns, it displays a whorl of shiny, tough, leathery fronds that surround an erect crown. The pronounced leaflets are pale green and sickle-shaped. Hardy in zones 6-9, the Japanese holly fern grows one to three feet tall. Mature brown spores can be collected in late summer or check for rooted bulbils at the base of the plant.

What ferns grow well in pots and urns?

Potted ferns can be used to camouflage areas when bulbs die back or perennials go dormant. Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) is my go-to-fern when my bleeding hearts hibernate. Tropical looking, the large vase-shaped clumps are easy to grow and very dependable in containers. I overwinter several ostrich ferns outside in pots and they emerge reliably every spring. Dark green fronds reach for the sky, growing three to five feet tall, if kept moist. Hardy in zones 2-10, the ostrich fern produces fiddleheads (tightly wound immature fronds) in the spring which are a woodsy-tasting delicacy and sought after by food junkies everywhere. New crowns are formed by underground rhizomes that can be dug up and replanted at the soil level in spring or early summer. Chocolate brown, fertile spore-producing fronds develop in autumn, remain vertical over the winter and release spores in early spring. Use  several fertile fronds in a clear, coffee bean-filled vase for a simple winter arrangement. For mixed containers, the glossy, wide, leathery fronds of Asplenium scolopendrium (hart’s tongue fern) are a real stand-out. Growing just 12 to 16 inches tall, the hart’s tongue fern (zones 4-9) prefers moist, well drained alkaline soil. Adding a little extra lime to your potted specimen is suggested. In midsummer to late winter, look for cinnamon-colored, centipede-shaped sori on the back of the blades. The sori contain the spores. Mature plants can be divided in late winter or early spring.

Need shade-loving ferns for hanging baskets?

Break away from the overused Boston fern and try something more creative like Dryopteris undulata ‘Robusta’ (robust male fern). Deeply divided dark green fronds grow two to three feet tall, creating a sturdy, upright habit. Hardy in zones 4-8, the robust male fern can be overwintered in a protected location outside and then reused year after year. It’s semi-evergreen arching fronds even hold up well during rainy periods. Traditionally, hanging baskets work great on porches, but try a few fern-filled planters on shepard’s hooks or dangling from long S-shaped hangers suspended from tree branches. Swaying in woodland gardens, the hanging fern adds a unique dimension between the ground cover and the canopy. Every spring, birds find my floating gardens irresistible for nesting and nurturing their young. To help retain moisture, mix water retaining gel into the soil before potting and top dress with decorative mulch. Divide mature plants in spring or summer.

The ostrich fern

grows great in pots!

Crytomium fortunei complements annuals

in this window box.

Dangling from a tree branch, this tropical fern is a great hideaway for small birds

How about a few ferns for your fairy garden?

The lacy petite, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’ commonly called the tatting fern, is the perfect addition to a miniature garden. Its narrow, arching fronds with tiny, fan-shaped leaflets, are bright green and add a bit of whimsy and personality to the garden. Growing just 12 inches tall, the distinctive beaded look appears to be the loops and knots of tatted lace. Hardy to zones 4-8, it prefers rich, moist shady areas, but will adapt to somewhat dry, rocky sites. A yearly spring fertilizing will ensure lush growth throughout the season. ‘Frizelliae’ has been known to produce non-conforming fronds related to its parents. To maintain a consistent appearance, remove the non-conforming fronds as they arise. Divide mature plants in spring. Another cutie, Athyrium filix-femina 'Minutissimum', is a dwarf form of the lady fern. Reaching just ten inches tall, delicate, upright, light green fronds form dense clumps. Robust and hardy in zones 4-8, 'Minutissimum' naturalizes in moist, well drained soil. Divide mature plants in spring.

No need to wait until you are fifty to experiment with ferns, nor is it ever too late to try a few. If propagation interests you, visit the Hardy Fern Foundation ( or the American Fern Society ( Both offer spores to their members for a nominal fee, as well as extensive information about ferns. I also invite you to visit my web site ( where I host a mini spore exchange and share my observations about ferns. Patience is the key to growing ferns. After six years of experimentation with nearly 100 different species and cultivars, ferns have creatively enhanced my garden in unexpected ways. I am not sure what my sixties will bring, but I do know that my passion for propagating and growing ferns will persist.

Printed in the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, March-April 2012


Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’ (tatting fern) mingles with miniature hosta and colorful impatiens


Use Dryopteris filix-mas

(male fern) for an evergreen weed suppressant