Ferns work well in many different garden settings but are the perfect solution for a shady garden. Few perennials have such a distinctive and instantly recognisable form as ferns, despite their huge variation in appearance and size.
The conditions under which ferns will flourish is also quite variable. Hart’s tongues or Asplenium scolopendrium, for example, often find their way from the flower border to gaps in walls and paving, and are tolerant of deep, dry shade, while the beautiful Osmunda regalis will thrive in wet conditions (even with its feet in water) and will make strong colonies of fronds more than 1.2m tall.
The best ferns to grow in your garden
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’
Arching fronds and very reduced pinnae (individual leaflets). Needs careful positioning to be noticed, but it’s a fern that is worth the effort. 40cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.
Polystichum setiferum ‘Smith’s Cruciate’
Another narrow-fronded fern mutation but much more substantial and robust than the Athyrium. It can take sunshine with enough moisture but is best grown in shade on humus-rich soils. 40cm. RHS H7.
Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Revolvens’
A substantial fern with matt, softly textured and slightly limp, mid-green pinnae held on arching fronds. Will tolerate some dryness once established. Best in dappled shade. 1m. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochfordianum’
This fern with arching sprays of glossy foliage, is best grown in moist, rich soil but has done well in drier sites. 50cm. RHS H3, USDA 6a-10b.
The native hart’s tongue fern with arching green fronds will self-seed in nooks and crannies. Remove old leaves in spring. 50cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Athyrium niponicum var. pictum
A fern that has unusual metallic grey-purple pinnae on small triangular fronds. Can be tricky and needs moist, free-draining soils. 30cm. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 3a- 8b.
This dainty maidenhair fern casts airy fronds of delicate pinnae on thin black stems. Very beautiful and good for front of a border. 45cm. AGM. RHS H6.
Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Crispa Cristata’
A cristate (crested) form of the native male fern. Looks good in May when the croziers are unfurling and into winter. 70cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
When grown well this fern’s foliage has large, green, palmate fronds peppered in striking sori (spore capsules). Needs moist, rich soil and part shade. 30cm. AGM. RHS H6.
A fern that has huge presence in a garden with large arching fronds that form a radial core atop chocolate-coloured fibrous trunks. 4m. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 9a-10b.
An evergreen fern collected in northeast Himalaya. Initially thought to be tender, it has now survived three winters in the stumpery. Long ascending fronds are lustrous on the upper surface and glaucous underneath. 50cm. RHS H7.
Asplenium scolopendrium Cristatum Group
Cristate form of hart’s tongue fern with delightfully unruly foliage that catches the light on shiny, crumpled fronds. Once established will tolerate some drought. 30cm. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
In spring, this deciduous fern unfurls to produce fronds with striking, dark rachises (main stalks) and shimmering green pinnae. 1m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 6a-9b.
A clump-forming fern with lovely, soft, broad fronds, the new croziers are particularly hairy, and the overall effect is a flatter congregation of fronds than most other ferns. 40cm. AGM. RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b.
Asplenium scolopendrium Ramomarginatum Group
An extraordinary fern with wonderful branched foliage. Grow in a sheltered site on good soil. 30cm. RHS H6, USDA 4a-9b.
Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’
Normally used as a houseplant, the Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue star’ fern will persist in a sheltered site outdoors with handsome, blue-green fronds.50cm. RHS H7.