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Ferns add texture to a shade garden

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

I love ferns. Ferns make areas greener and provide interesting texture. Let's look at a few that are commonly grown in home shade gardens.

Hardy, outdoor ferns are easy to grow and are essential in the woodland garden. Ferns come in all shapes and sizes, but most require similar growing conditions. Nearly all ferns do best in dappled shade. Most ferns require a soil rich in organic matter, with good drainage, and slightly on the acid side. Although most ferns also prefer moisture, there are several that will tolerate dry situations.

The most commonly grown hardy ferns are the lady fern, cinnamon fern, Christmas fern, ostrich fern, and Japanese painted fern. The lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is easily grown and often found as foundation plantings. It has very lacy leaves, grows 1 to 3 feet tall, and spreads well. It prefers shade but will tolerate some sun as long as the soil is moist.

The cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamonmea) is named for its bright cinnamon-colored fertile fronds. This is a member of a majestic group of quite large ferns called flowering ferns. This fern will grow in the sun or shade but needs moisture and acidic soil. It grows 3-4 feet tall and has attractive fiddleheads in the spring.

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) resembles a Boston fern but has much darker leaves and cascades less. It withstands sun or deep shade and grows up to 2 to 3 feet high. This one also doubles as a houseplant. It gets its common name from the fact that the early settlers used it for Christmas decoration.

The ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has a vase-shaped form and grows 2 to 6 feet tall. Also easy to grow, the ostrich fern tolerates sun to full shade, with moist soil. This is one of the most widely used ferns in temperate gardens.

The Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum') is unique due to its exceptional coloring. An interesting addition to any garden, it boasts dark green fronds with silvery centers and red stems. It grows 10-15 inches high. The best color develops on plants in light shade. Too much sun washes out the color. With moist, loose soil it will send up fronds all summer and into the fall.

These are just a few of the hardy ferns available to us. Lush ferns create a cool, calming effect. They are useful in any shady area, along a pond, or in a woodland garden. Also, many tropical ferns are used as annual outdoor plants, but also make beautiful houseplants. Include ferns in your garden: indoors and out.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.