Grow Foolproof Ferns in Your Shade Garden

Updated: Dec. 01, 2023

Shine a spotlight on these shade-happy plants. Check out how to grow and care for ferns, plus get picks for large and small types of ferns.

Ferns deserve more attention in landscaping discussions. They’re far outnumbered by hostas and other shade garden plants at local nurseries—and, perhaps as a result, homeowners tend to overlook these ancient inhabitants of the forest. But home gardeners who haven’t discovered the benefits of ferns are missing out!

Jewelled chain fern Photography
Jewelled chain fern

Add Garden Texture with Ferns

Thriving in full to part shade, ferns flourish where many other plants struggle. “Most of them have such a fine texture,” says Alan Branhagen, director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Few other plants have such delicate, intricate leaflets and divided-up fronds—ferns just create a lot of interest and detail.”

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Ostrich fern
Flowerphotos/Getty Images
Ostrich fern

Use Ferns to Give Wildlife a Boost

As a naturalist with an interest in botany, butterflies and birds, Alan appreciates the main benefit that ferns provide to wildlife. “Ferns don’t produce seeds or anything that birds eat,” he says, “but they provide good habitat for soil invertebrates and, in that respect, they are really good in a woodland garden for ground-feeding birds.”

He notes that he sometimes sees warblers hopping around on the forest floor under ferns. “A lot of our thrushes—from robins to the migrant thrushes that go up north—really like that sort of habitat to scratch around in,” Alan says.

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Northern maidenhair fern
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Northern maidenhair fern

Fern Care

To maximize the value of deciduous ferns, let their foliage die back on its own. “They don’t have big twiggy stems, so they compost themselves pretty readily,” says Alan. After a freeze, he suggests letting ferns become mulch, which will support earthworms, spiders and other helpful garden critters.

Deer occasionally browse on ferns, but not as their first choice. Slugs and insect pests aren’t normally a problem either.

“Ferns are pretty low maintenance,” Alan says. “They’re an ancient group of plants and they’ve been around a long, long time. There just really aren’t many issues as long as you choose a fern that is hardy for your zone and put it in conditions that it likes.”

Some other top fern care tips:

  • Plant ferns in fall or early spring so they establish before the heat of summer.
  • Find a shady spot. Mild morning light is fine, but their foliage burns in hot afternoon sun.
  • Add compost to promote the soil’s health.
  • Water well throughout their first growing season—many ferns can become drought tolerant once established.

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Giant wood ferns
Paul M. Dziuk
Giant wood fern

Fern Companion Plants

For the best and biggest visual effect, group ferns together in flowing designs inside a natural garden. “They pair well with azaleas in high shade or underneath small woodland trees,” Alan says.

Other fern companions Alan recommends include wood poppy, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian wild ginger and European wild ginger.

He also particularly likes planting ferns with spring ephemerals, such as Virginia bluebells. He says, “By June they are fading away, and that’s when the ferns come up and fill the space.”

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Royal ferns
fedsax/Getty Images
Royal fern

Large Types of Ferns

Carefully choose types of ferns to fit your available space. Here are some of Alan Branhagen’s recommendations for large ferns.

  • Royal fern (Onoclea struthiopteris), Zones 3 to 10. This native plant thrives in partially shaded areas that tend to have wet soil.
  • Giant wood fern  (Dryopteris goldieana), Zones 3 to 8. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall, and looks fantastic as a specimen plant or massed in woodland gardens along ponds or streams.
  • Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Zones 3 to 8. Typically 3 or 4 feet tall in most gardens but can tower to a dramatic 6 feet when it’s happy.
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), Zones 3 to 8. Make a big garden statement with this 3-to-5-foot-tall giant of the fern world.

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Japanese painted ferns
Lynn Gedeon/Shutterstock
Japanese painted fern

Small Types of Ferns

  • Japanese holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), Zones 6 to 10. It’s rarely more than 2 feet tall and has particularly shiny evergreen leaves.
  • Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum), Zones 3 to 8. Growing just 12 to 18 inches tall and wide, its intricate patterns add a dimension of color to landscapes.
  • Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum hispidulum), Zones 3 to 8 and southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), Zones 6 to 9. Delicate and small, the leaves of these two options provide texture in a shade garden.  

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