Best Outdoor and Garden Ferns

I have been asked many times what I consider to be the best dozen ferns for general cultivation. So much depends on one’s personal preferences, and were I to be tied down to grow but a dozen varieties, probably I should confine myself to those species and varieties which are suitable for planting rock gardens and rock walls.

But for general cultivation, and bearing in mind that a large number of gardens are subject to atmospheric pollution, my personal choice of a dozen good ferns, including exotic ones, would be the following: two of the Lady Ferns, Athyrium filix-femina varieties.

Lady Ferns

First the well-crested Athyrium Filix-femina Corymbiferum. This handsome fern is quite deciduous; that is, the fronds are annual, dying down with the first frosts, and therefore more or less immune to winter town atmosphere. The fronds may be anything from one to two and a half feet long, broadly lance-shaped, and the tips of all the frond divisions are well crested with tasselled or bunch crests.

There are many variations of this fern which may be raised from spores, and the good ones may be very good indeed. It is very hardy. Very worthwhile varieties of it should be propagated by division to be sure of keeping the stock true.

Garden Ferns
Bright Beautiful Lady Fern Outdoors

The other choice would be Athyrium Filix-femina Plumosum. I choose this because of the lovely light green color and its finely divided fronds which are very fine indeed. Some forms produce spores freely and these come pretty true to type, though the odd crested one will turn up in most sowings.

It is not such a strong grower as the last, and needs a little more care in placing, so that the delicate fronds are not damaged by blustery winds. It is equally hardy, but repays good cultivation.

Male Ferns

Next, I think, for all-round usefulness, are the Male Ferns, but I would not plant the wild type except in large areas. Instead I would choose some of the finer varieties of it, as they are not so rampant. Dryopteris filix-mas has given us many fine varieties, and from these I shall choose the following:

1. Dryopteris Filix-mas Decomposita

Garden Ferns
Dryopteris Filix-mas Decomposita

This is a more graceful variety than the wild type, the fronds are rather broadly lance-shaped and are more finely divided than the wild species, and they arch out more. There are crested forms of it. It comes quite true from spores.

2. Dryopteris Filix-mas Linearis Polydactyla

Garden Ferns
Dryopteris Filix-mas Linearis Polydactyla

This fern is rather a mouthful until one gets the rhythm of it. However, it is a most decorative species, not so strong growing as the type. The frond divisions are very slender and terminate in many-fingered crests; the frond apex itself has a freely branched but delicate-looking crest, though the frond texture is tough.

It may reach two feet or more in height, and comes from spores, so that good stocks can be built up in a fairly short time. It has a tendency to multiply its crowns rather freely.

3. Dryopteris Affinis ‘Cristata

Dryopteris Affinis 'Cristata'
Dryopteris Affinis ‘Cristata’

This is a variety of the Golden Scaled Male Fern and generally is regarded as the best of the Male Ferns. It breeds quite well from spores. This is a particularly elegant fern; the rather golden-green fronds are lance-shaped and may be up to two and a half feet long.

Their stems are adorned with golden-brown scales which are conspicuous in the spring. The whole frond is neatly crested and is very symmetrical, rather erect, bending outwards towards the tips.

4. Matteuccia Germanica

Matteuccia Germanica
Matteuccia Germanica

Also known as Struthiopteris Germanica, the Ostrich Feather Fern or Shuttlecock Fern. This is found in Europe but is not native to Britain. It makes, as its name suggests, a very neat, symmetrical, shuttlecock-shaped cone of fronds up to three feet high; the fronds are narrowly lance-shaped, tapering away to nothing at base and apex.

It repays good cultivation, but is very hardy. It spreads by underground runners fairly freely when well established and these afford a ready means of increase. It has separate fertile fronds in the center of the shuttlecock, which distinguishes it from any native fern with the same habit. Deciduous.

5. Osmunda Regalis

Osmunda Regalis
Osmunda Regalis

This can be a really majestic fern given the best conditions, growing up to six feet and more, but is not likely to exceed three to four feet in most gardens. It has been known to attain ten feet, but this is very exceptional.

The fronds are of two kinds, which however merge into one another; the fertile fronds in the center bear masses of spores completely covering the upper part of the fronds; these turn brown when the spores are shed and give the plant its other popular name, the Flowering Fern. Of course, there are no flowers in ferns, but there is some resemblance to the faded flowers of an Astilbe.

All the fronds are broadly lance-shaped, and of a rather glaucous green, and they are much divided. This is a true species and comes very readily from spores, provided that these are sown immediately they are ripe — they lose their germinating power within three days. They prefer a very moist soil, but are very adaptable and do well in my very light loam, over limestone, though they never attain more than three or four feet with me.

All the above-mentioned ferns are deciduous, and therefore are very adaptable to town conditions.


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Evergreen Ferns

The next five ferns are evergreen, or more correctly winter-green in that they retain their fronds in green condition until the new fronds appear — at least they do so in the country. In towns they are likely to brown off earlier, according to the prevailing pollution.

1. Polystichum Aculeatum Pulcherrimum ‘Bevis’

Polystichum Aculeatum Pulcherrimum ‘Bevis’
Polystichum Aculeatum Pulcherrimum ‘Bevis’

This is a beautiful variety of the Hard Shield Fern found originally in a Somerset lane many years ago. It is generally sterile, but can be propagated from the offsets which are freely produced. It requires a few years to build up good stocks in a nursery, so it is not always readily obtainable.

However, it is one of the most beautiful of British ferns and must be included. The fronds are narrowly lance-shaped, beautifully cut, with a silken sheen. The upper divisions of the frond curl inwards towards the apex to give a kind of fishtail effect. A good specimen can be nearly three feet high and through.

2. Polystichum Setiferum

Polystichum Setiferum
Polystichum Setiferum

This fern is a native fern chiefly from the West Country. The lance-shaped fronds arch gracefully and can reach up to three feet long. The frond divisions are very characteristic with thumb-like projections to the pinnules, and the whole frond is edged with small bristles.

Easily raised from spores. It is well worth growing in its own right, but it has produced many fine varieties of which I select:

3. Polystichum Setiferum Acutilobum

Polystichum Setiferum Acutilobum
Polystichum Setiferum Acutilobum

This has a narrower frond than the type, more finely divided, and having fine points to all subdivisions. The fronds tend to arch out more widely, approaching the horizontal, and usually do not exceed two feet long.

The frond midribs produce hairy bulbils at their lower part and these can be induced to form young plantlets, affording a ready means of propagation.

4. Polystichum Setiferum Divisilobum

Polystichum Setiferum Divisilobum
Polystichum Setiferum Divisilobum

This is even more finely divided than the last, and is a stronger-growing fern, producing fronds up to three feet long, in good conditions, nine inches or more wide. The ultimate divisions are very slender, giving the frond a most elegant appearance.

Towards the end of the season the fronds tend to become horizontal, so that a good specimen needs plenty of space. Raised from spores, a very good proportion of youngsters come true to variety, but there is some variation. All, however, are useful and handsome garden plants.

Bulbils sometimes are formed, though not so freely as in the last-mentioned variety. Good cultivation helps to encourage the formation of bulbils.

I have not selected the exceedingly beautiful Plumose Divisilobums, as they are sometimes damaged out of doors, in town conditions, and also they sometimes get their fronds blackened through the attentions of incontinent tom cats.

5. Phyllitis Scolopendrium Crispum

Garden Ferns
Phyllitis Scolopendrium Crispum

This exists in several forms, but being sterile must be propagated by vegetative methods, which means that it is a fairly slow job to build up big stocks. The fronds are glossy dark green, strap-shaped, with a sharp apex and usually a heart-shaped base, twelve to eighteen inches high.

The fronds are not divided, but their margins are frilled as though treated with a goffering iron, used to press pleats and ridges. The crowns ultimately branch, making a clump which can be divided, but the quickest method of propagation is to make use of the property of bulbil-making by the old frond bases as described in the section on propagation.

Having picked out my dozen recommended varieties, I must say that I should not like to confine myself to these, when I think of all the other striking ferns I have left out.

In fact, in all honesty, I cannot think of any fern I have grown — apart from the rogues among my seedlings — which I would like to do without. In fact, I think that of all the branches of gardening I have attempted, I find the cultivation of ferns the most interesting and rewarding.


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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Can garden ferns survive winter?

Garden ferns are like little green Houdinis; some can magically survive the winter with a bit of mulch as their escape cloak. Others might die back, only to reappear with a flourish when spring casts its warm spell. It’s all about choosing the right variety.

Some fern are tough as nails, while others are a bit more delicate. But with a cozy layer of mulch for warmth, even the tender ones can often make it through the chill.

Are garden ferns toxic to pets?

They are generally the peacekeepers of the plant world, with most varieties being non-toxic to pets. However, it’s always best to check the specific type you own because, like in any good spy novel, there can be a rogue agent in the mix. If you’re unsure, keep your furry friends from treating the ferns like a salad bar, just to be safe.

How large can garden ferns grow?

Some of them can grow as tall as a basketball player, while others are content being the height of a toddler. It all depends on the variety and the growing conditions you provide.

Give them enough space to stretch their fronds, and they’ll grow up to be the big, beautiful plants they were destined to be. Just remember, a fern’s ambition is only as limited as the room it has to grow.

How do I choose the right garden fern for my space?

Picking the right garden fern is like choosing a character in a video game; you need the right match for your environment. Consider the amount of shade, moisture, and space you have.

Research different fern varieties, as some love the cold, others adore the heat, and a few are just happy anywhere. It’s all about finding the fern that fits your garden’s personality.

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