Plunge into an emerald abyss of ferns this summer and cool off with their scintillating swirls of fronds and exotic mixes of hues. With their lush tropical foliage, ferns have a remarkable knack for instantly softening shade gardens, and offer a cool sense of vitality where few other plants will thrive. Though tender in appearance, these stalwart summer beauties pack punch with their luxuriant leaves as they effortlessly work to enliven courtyards, patios, containers, and flowerbeds.
As long as eye-catching marvels like Australian tree ferns, autumn, maidenhair, and Japanese painted ferns continue to dazzle the earth, gardeners no longer have grounds for leaving bare spots under their largest of shade trees. Instead, indulge in ever flowing fountains of green this summer by ensuring your beds are brimming with a menagerie of flourishing ferns.
The Secret to Growing Great Ferns:
Ferns thrive in completely shaded beds, filtered light, or areas that receive direct morning sun; afternoon sun burns too bright for growing ferns in Louisiana. They like moist conditions, preferably on the north side of buildings, and well-drained flowerbeds rich in organic matter. Mix two inches of composted pine bark or other organic matter to amend heavy clay soils. Fertilize ferns in the spring after new growth has begun so as to ensure lush foliage the entire growing season. Since ferns are sensitive to over-fertilization, consider using a complete slow-release product such as Osmocote Pro. As with any fertilizer, make sure to follow package instructions for proper rates. Mulch with two inches of pine straw or fallen leaves in the spring and fall for optimum water retention and root protection.
Spellbinding Ferns for Louisiana:
Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) are much sought after tropical splendors that are highly esteemed for their giant statures and gorgeous open canopies. Although seldom seen at their mature size in landscapes, these slow growing ferns can stretch up to 30 feet tall in tropical climates; ‘Brentwood’ cultivars reach an impressive 15 feet in over 10 years. Most noted for their lacy lime green fronds that unfurl from striking wooly trunks, Australian tree ferns bring a world of interest with both color and texture. You might also enjoy learning that their sensational russet colored trunks add to the show as well—a feature not often found among most other ferns.
Australian tree ferns are hardy to 26 degrees F, but keep in mind they require winter protection if temperatures drop lower. Integrate these exquisite ferns in shade gardens with Japanese painted ferns, East Indian holly ferns, and variegated flax lilies. Japanese maples create a spectacular effect when standing behind the elusive Australian ferns, while groundcovers like ‘Gold Standard’ hostas and ‘Yellow Ripple’ Hedera helix brilliantly elicit the rich verdant green. Incorporate ‘Golden Globes’ Lysimachia at the base of Australian tree ferns when planting them in containers.
Another outstanding fern to consider is the autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosa). Different from Australian tree ferns, autumn ferns are evergreen perennials that average only two feet in height. Considered one of the top 10 ferns for gardens, autumn ferns are acclaimed for their low-spreading habits and copper-toned leaves. During the spring and summer, new fronds emerge with coppery pink hues that elegantly contrast the existing lustrous green. As their name suggests, in the fall these hardy ferns change colors once again, this time turning rusty brown, making them excellent companions for oakleaf hydrangeas, ‘Amber Waves’ Heuchera, and ‘River Nile’ begonias.
Be on the lookout for ‘Brilliance’ autumn ferns, since these new cultivars boast brighter colors longer, which aid in illuminating shade gardens. Autumn ferns look best in wooded settings when integrated with lace ferns, cinnamon ferns, and variegated fig ivy. Add further color to the summer display by including Stromanthe sanguinea, ‘Patriot’ hostas, and ‘Sashay’ Heucheras.
Southern maidenhair ferns (Adiantum capillus-veneris) are extraordinary low-lying ferns that average 15 to 20 inches in height. Growing in every continent except Antarctica, these rugged ferns can be found as far north as New York in the United States, and have been detected thriving in sunny landscapes in Texas. Like most ferns, maidenhairs prefer moist shady spots, but can withstand direct sunlight when provided adequate moisture. Their light, airy texture and strong versatility make them perfect for mixed containers and flowerbeds, as well as terrariums and indoor plantings. Maidenhair ferns look best when tucked in shade gardens alongside Selaginella, Irish moss, and ‘Kolibri’ Hedera helix. Fig ivy, ‘White Queen’ caladiums, and ‘Wojo’s Gem’ Vinca major also help to heighten the delicate texture of this hardy fern. When planting in open containers or terrariums, consider integrating ‘Benitochiba’ rex begonias, Japanese painted ferns, or Australian tree ferns for added stature.
If you are looking for a fast growing, oversized fern for your patio or garden, ‘Macho’ fern (Nephrolepis falcate) is the one for you. Sometimes called ‘Tropical Sword’ fern or ‘Giant Boston’ fern because of their noticeable similarities, macho ferns yield glossy green fronds almost eight inches wide and four feet long. Create a New Orleans style balcony or courtyard instantly by planting macho ferns singly in large terra-cotta planters or by allowing their thick masses of tendrils to hang wantonly from overhead hanging baskets. Keep in mind that when planted in flowerbeds, macho ferns can reach four feet tall and almost six feet across – take care not to plant smaller ferns or shrubs within five feet, since the macho ferns will envelop them. Japanese maples, Australian tree ferns, and indigo wonderfully enhance the dense texture of macho ferns. Bicolor irises, ground orchids, and lace ferns also look remarkable when integrated with these sizeable ferns.
No shade garden is complete without Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’). These phenomenal beauties are rated by fern wholesaler Casa Flora as the top selling fern in America due to their knack for acclimating to any growing condition in the country. They became the first nonblooming perennials to receive the Perennial Plant of the Year Award, bestowed by the Perennial Plant Association for their attractive silvery leaves and outstanding performance. Japanese painted ferns average 10 to 20 inches tall, and prefer dappled sunlight and afternoon shade. Although they lose their leaves in the winter, these gorgeous ferns retain silvery purple fronds from spring through autumn. Plant painted ferns with East Indian holly ferns, Dichondra, and ‘Midnight Rose’ Heucheras.