With their interesting foliage and textures, ferns are easy to grow and require little maintenance. Some species are evergreen, giving year-round interest, while others die back in autumn and produce new shoots (also known as croziers) in spring.
Ferns are best known for growing in shade. Most are in the Dryopteris genus, commonly known as woodland ferns. There are several to choose from – each shoot produces what looks a little like a large shuttlecock of often evergreen leaves. These are split into pairs of oppositely arranged leaflets, and may be again, and again. It’s the overall shape of each of these fronds – and then the shape and arrangement of the individual divisions – that creates the individuality of these woodland plants.
Some woodland ferns feature colourful amber or brown or black scales covering the unfurling fronds, the fronds of others turn attractive autumnal shades at the end of the season. Some make tight compact specimens, contrasting with the spreading foliage of hostas and bergenia, while others spread into attractive colonies around mature shrubs. They do best in shade and moist soil but once established many woodland ferns will tolerate sun and also drought.
Other types of fern to grow include maidenhair ferns and Japanese ferns. Find out the best ferns to grow in your garden, below.
How to grow ferns
Ferns are versatile, and there are many types to grow to suit your garden. Some ferns grow in sun while others prefer shade. Nearly all ferns grow best in moist but well-drained soil, though some will thrive in dry shade.
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The hard fern (Blechnum spicant) and the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), are invaluable shade plants. In this video, Steven Fletcher of Fernatix gives his three golden rules when caring for them, to keep them healthy and ensure fantastic feathery foliage.
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Browse our list of the best ferns to grow, below.
This evergreen Himalayan maidenhair fern, Adiantum venustum, does well in shade or dappled shade. Its delicate, light green fronds darken with age. Protect from wind.
You often see British native Asplenium scolopendrium growing wild – if you spot it in your local area, it will probably grow well in your garden. It's evergreen, and needs very little care – just a little tidying in spring.
Asplenium scolopendrium Crispum Group
A cultivar of Asplenium scolopendrium, Crispum Group is an eye-catching evergreen that has distinctive wavy edges that become more pronounced as the plant matures.
Deciduous painted Japanese fern Athyrium niponicum is flushed with silver and burgundy, making it an unusual, eye-catching choice. It's growth is more prostrate than upright; it likes moisture. There are several pretty cultivars.
Known as the autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora is an unusual fern with red new growth in spring, which eventually turns bronze and then green. It's evergreen and just needs a little tidying up in early spring.
In spring, deciduous fern Dryopteris wallichiana unfurls to produce striking fronds that are 90cm high. If you have the space, it looks particularly effective planted in a group.
The shuttlecock fern, or ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris is not a British native, but has naturalised in parts of Britain. It sends up bright green 'shuttlecocks' in early spring and develops into a handsome plant. It prefers a moist soil.
This delicate fern, Onychium japonicum, is known as the carrot fern, as its foliage resembles that of a carrot top. It hails from Japan, Thailand and India so isn't fully hardy in the UK, although it should come through the winter in an unheated greenhouse.
Also known as the royal fern, Osmunda regalis is a deciduous fern with a stately look, that can reach quite a size. Its foliage turns bronze in autumn. It likes a damp spot.
Polystichum polybelpharum is an easy-to-grow evergreen, also known as the Japanese tassel fern. The tips of the fronds are covered in golden hairs which give it an alternative name of the golden tassel fern.
One of the toughest ferns, Dryopteris filix mas forms clumps of deciduous, pointed fronds and thrives in various situations.
Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata'
Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata’ is semi-evergreen, bearing deep green, upright foliage of this with a crest at the tip of each leaflet.
Height: 1.2m x 1.2m