How Do You Plant a Fern?

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:25 pm

How Do You Plant a Fern?

Whether with bright autumn colours or in wintergreen splendour: there is a semi-shady spot in every garden for the many fern species available. We would like to introduce you to wintergreen ferns and explain what to look out for in terms of location and planting.

Wintergreen ferns

How Do You Plant a Fern?

Love for ferns rarely begins at first sight. Colourful flowering perennials usually turn our heads more quickly. But when the fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) or the forest lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) turn beautifully yellow and orange in autumn, we become very attentive.

When the cold season arrives, the many wintergreen fern species really come into their own. With their numerous shades of green, they bring life to the border and undergrowth. Their diversity is enormous – it ranges from the tiny Fireland Fern (Blechnum penna-marina) as an ankle-high ground cover to the huge Soft Shield Fern (Polystichum setiferum) with its metre-high, elegant leaf patterns.

And then there are the fronds: all have different textures. Between the all-edged, leathery deer’s tongue fern (Phyllitis) and the plush, triple-pinnate downy feather filigree fern ‘Plumosum Densum’ (Polystichum setiferum), everything is in there. With each new fern discovered, the fascination then matures into a deep, intimate connection.

Already perennial gardener and garden philosopher Karl Foerster (1874-1970) enthused a good half century ago in his book “Einzug der Gräser und Farne in die Gärten”: “This wonder world of rhythmic filigree unfolding of the most beautiful green from spring to autumn, which in many species remains evergreen, is still unknown territory to most gardeners, although the plants wait for their garden places with a power of indestructibility and willingness to serve without care”. And since then, even countless new ferns have been added to the assortment of collectors and professional gardeners.

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Another plus point: ferns are a horror to workaholic gardeners, because they would rather stay in the same spot forever, keep their old fronds as winter protection and preferably collect loads of fallen leaves underneath them. Resourceful fern lovers chop up large autumn leaf masses with a lawn mower and pack them close under medium-high and high specimens. This also improves young soil where the forest dwellers will soon feel at home.
The right companion plants

Suitable companion plants such as hazelwort (Asarum), bergenia ‘Autumn Blossom’ (Bergenia), Japanese sedge ‘Ice Dance’ (Carex), hosta (Hosta), ivy flower (Epimedium) and forest honeysuckle ‘Johannisfest’ (Aruncus) also like the chopped autumn leaves. Plant ferns together with these plants and they will thank you.

Planting planning and location

Now is a good time to take a seat on the sofa to plan the planting of new areas. With a cup of tea by your side, it’s great to browse through the catalogues of fern nurseries – whether online or on paper. How big can the fern grow later? A cardboard box with edges of 50 centimetres each simulates an overgrown fern in the bed.

The right place to plant ferns also needs to be considered: in partial shade under trees or on the north side of the house. Ferns do not like blazing sun at midday. Medium and large species between 50 and 100 centimetres high look nice as soloists in the border or as a group of three or five to form the background for smaller perennials.

Planting and caring for ferns: Growing, fertiliser and co.

When planting ferns, you can hardly imagine that the little newcomers in the 9-pot will ever grow into stately specimens. Two years later, everything looks quite different. Deep loosening of the planting site and meticulous removal of all root weeds will help.

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Then two buckets of needle chaff or lime-free leaf compost should be worked in spade-deep per square metre of bed. Topsoil from coniferous forests was used in the past. Now immerse the ferns in a bucket of water, set them two centimetres deeper and then water them. Then fertilise with horn meal and four litres of mature compost per square metre and apply a mulch layer of leaves or bark – done.

In the first year, especially during hot summer periods, it is important to water the planting sufficiently. Only when the various fern species have taken root will they survive a few weeks of rainless summer without a hitch – and become more lush and beautiful from year to year without much intervention.

Do you know fiddleheads?

Every spring, gourmets in Canada and the New England states go wild for fiddleheads, the name given to fern tops that resemble violin heads. They are picked young and blanched in boiling salt water. Their taste resembles green asparagus, which goes well with savoury crêpes, mixed salads or grilled food. Here, too, the rampant ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) lends itself to harvesting the tops. But beware of other species such as the bracken fern (Pteridium) or worm fern (Drypteris), whose fronds are poisonous.

which fern species are suitable as a robust starter assortment?

You can’t go wrong with the common forms such as woodland lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), gold scale fern (Dryopteris affinis), red veil fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) and the filigree fern ‘Dahlem’ (Polystichum setiferum). Without wandering, they shine individually in an off-sun border or are an effective backdrop for other shade plants under large woody plants.
They propagate over 200 different ferns. A unique selling point?

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You could say that! For a long time, ferns were not good business, more of a hobby. Other perennials sold better. But now they are incredibly sought after and will probably become a trendy plant in the future.
Growing them is considered extremely tricky.

Almost every amateur gardener knows how to divide them in spring. But sowing the spores is tricky, because they move at the slightest breeze. Sow them in seed trays with sowing soil and do not cover them, because ferns are light germinators. Carefully sprinkle the soil with a little moisture and cover with cling film. A windowsill on the north side is the right place. With a bit of luck, young plants will have emerged after one or two years, which can then be potted.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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