Best ferns for a low-water garden

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

Planting a low-water fern garden

Photo 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.

Giant chain fern

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian

Giant chain fern

Species: Woodwardia fimbriata

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.

Sunset climate zones: 2b–9, 14–24

More: All about Woodwardia fimbriata

Autumn fern

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian

Autumn fern

Species: Dryopteris erythrosora 

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.

Sunset climate zones: 2–9, 14–24

More: All about Dryopteris erythrosora

Male fern

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian

Male fern

Species: Dryopteris filix-mas

Found in: Much of the West and beyond, where it grows in forests, upland pastures, and rocky slopes.

Grows to: 2 to 5 feet tall and wide. Semievergreen.

Why this fern? The subtle evolution of its fronds: They start out light green in spring, then darken to a rich emerald green in summer.

Sunset climate zones: 2–9, 14–17

More: All about Dryopteris filix-mas

Western sword fern

Photo by Thomas J. Story; written by Janet Kinosian

Western sword fern

Species: Polystichum munitum

Found in: Coastal forests from Alaska to California.  

Grows to: 5 feet tall during wet years, 1 foot tall in drought years. Evergreen.

Why this fern? A mature plant can produce up to 100 dark green fronds, which creates a woodsy feeling all year.

Sunset climate zones: A3; 2–9, 14–24

More: All about Polystichum munitum

Planting & care tips

Photo 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.

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