These luxuriant ferns don’t need to drink a lot to be happy. Get our tips on the best types to plant and how to care for them
1 of 6Photo by Norm Plate; written by Janet Kinosian
Planting a low-water fern garden
Ferns are the Tilda Swinton of the plant world—graceful, cool, yet full of contradictions.
Graphic, flower-free fronds make them seem modern, but they’re among the most ancient plants around. They can be both evergreen and deciduous, depending on where they’re planted. They’re often pictured in humid rain forests, yet a few can grow happily in (moist) desert canyons. Their lush foliage makes them look thirsty, but some can survive summer heat with almost no water.
The ferns shown here can thrive on little water once they’re established, as long as you plant them against a shaded wall or in a woodland setting beneath tall trees. They’re especially pretty among blue hydrangeas, or beside dry creekbeds with sweet woodruff or baby’s tears scrambling around them.
2 of 6Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian
Giant chain fern
Found in: Mild, wet coastal areas from British Columbia to Mexico.
Grows to: 9 feet tall in its native habitat; 4 to 6 feet tall in most gardens. Evergreen.
Why this fern? With thick, leathery fronds that shoot up straight and then spread out at the top, the plant resembles a cool green fountain.
3 of 6Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian
Found in: Woodlands and forests of China and Japan.
Grows to: 18 to 24 inches tall and wide. Semievergreen.
Why this fern? As its name indicates, it changes color dramatically with the season: In spring, the fronds are a blend of copper, pink, and yellow; in summer, they turn green, then a rusty brown in fall. Red spores appear on their undersides in winter.
6 of 6Photo by Tish Treherne; written by Janet Kinosian
Planting & care tips
In hot months, buy potted ferns at nurseries and set the pots in shaded spots among groundcovers that take the same conditions. In mild climates, after temperatures cool at summer's end, you can plant them in the ground. (Plant in late spring in the coldest climates.)
Choose a sheltered site that’s protected from wind and gets partial to full shade—east and north of a house or wall or beneath tall trees. The soil should be rich, well-drained, and acidic. If the soil is too heavy, work compost or peat moss into the top 10 or 15 inches before planting.
Space plants 2 to 4 feet apart, allowing them to reach their mature size without crowding. To reduce water loss, apply a 1- to 3-inch thick mulch of fine bark or decomposed leaves.
Water regularly for the first year or two after planting to establish the roots; check often to make sure roots stay damp. Once established, occasional deep soakings during hot spells will keep these ferns looking their best. In Southern California and the desert, avoid frequent sprinklings that wet only the leaves and the soil surface; this contributes to salt buildup. Instead, soak the soil thoroughly, then let it go slightly dry before watering again.
Feed most ferns once or twice a year after watering. Start in spring; use a mild fertilizer such as fish emulsion diluted at half-strength. Do not feed the giant chain fern; just apply compost around it.
When fronds look tattered, cut them off at the base.