Few plants are as at home in shaded gardens as ferns. Thriving in cool, moist locations from the Pacific Northwest to Northern California ― even in the West's coldest climates, with some winter protection ― they bring beauty and motion to woodland landscapes.
What makes this group of stemless, flowerless plants so popular are the exquisite colors and patterns of their leaves, which bob gracefully in the gentlest breeze. Some ferns are evergreen and some are deciduous, but every spring each sends out a fresh batch of fiddleheads (named for their likeness to the curved scrolls at the tops of violin necks), which unfurl from a tight coil of delicate foliage. And many kinds continue to wow with summer or fall color that ranges from silvery to burgundy and copper.
In most ferns, the fiddleheads expand into delicately divided fronds that last from six months to a year. When they die back and become tattered, cut them all the way to the base. Most ferns take partial to full shade without missing a beat; just give them rich, loose, acid soil and regular water.
Use them as accents among lower-growing plants such as sweet woodruff, or tuck them among boulders beside ponds. Mossy rocks, especially when wet, make beautiful foils for ferns. For other ways to use them, see our four combinations.
The fern family is as diverse as the plants are beautiful; we show six stunners for home gardens. All ferns adapt best to garden conditions when they're planted in fall.
Most nurseries and garden centers carry a good selection of ferns. You can also find them at home improvement stores, but caveat emptor: Mass merchandisers often include in their stock a few varieties that won't grow where you live. Two good mail-order sources for ferns are Big Dipper Farm (360/886-8133) and Fancy Fronds (360/793-1472).