Lush Ferns for a Cold Climate

The lush fronds and texture of ferns make the shady areas interesting in the garden. I love the soothing green patterns they make, and the look of dappled sunlight on them. The foliage is not only interesting in its own right, it coordinates well with other plants.

Ferns are also very low maintenance. Giving them some supplemental water and removing some foliage in the fall are about the only chores involved in their culture. If I could, I would grow tree ferns, but in zone 3 I’m limited by the cold winter. Some of my ferns are quick to grow in spring, and others like to play it safe and wait until June to start. Here are some of the ferns growing in my northern garden now, and the progress they’ve made.
Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern)
Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) is my tallest fern, some growing over 130 cm (4 feet). These add a faux tree fern look to the garden. Here you can see their distinctive cone shape, with a narrow base and spreading top. This is such an easy care fern. You can see the difference that a month makes in their size. These ferns grew this year from emerging fiddlehead to over a metre (4 feet) in 25 days, but some of my others are only a half a metre (2 feet) now. When your garden gets a late start because of long winters, you appreciate a fast growing plant. This fern does not grow more of the long green fronds during the season like some others, but it does develop short fertile fronds in the centre. These gradually turn brown. Here are some more photos of what my ostrich fern fiddleheads look like when they first emerge.
osmunda regalis (royal fern)
Osmunda regalis (royal fern) is my next tallest fern; well eventually it will be. Its fronds look more like leaves than the typical fern pattern. They get fertile clusters on the ends of their fronds. It is slow about growing in the spring, being one of the last plants to start coming up. You definitely want to remember where you plant it, and resist the impulse to fill in the space with new plants. Here’s the poky little fern now. Come on, unroll those fronds. I promise all the frost is gone. It’s probably pining for the ancestral days of the Jurassic period.
Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern)
Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) is a medium sized fern that keeps generating new overlapping fronds through the summer. The dense fronds give the typical lush look. It spreads gently and can be easily divided. They are a medium green colour. This fern is very hardy, easy care and quite pretty.
Athyrium filix-femina \'Lady in Red\' (Lady in Red lady fern)
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’ is a red stemmed version of the lady fern. The deep red stalks make a great contrast with the green fronds. Here you can see a closeup of the distinctive colouration. I think it’s very attractive. This variation is new to my garden.
Athyrium \'Ghost\' (ghost fern)
Athyrium x ‘Ghost (ghost fern) is similar to the lady fern, but the foliage has a silver cast, like ‘niponicum’. It is related to both ferns and combines their characteristics. The 2 ferns in this area are growing well, but I have a third plant that only sends up a few small flat fronds late each season. Even the all green ferns have such variation that I find them interesting, but having different foliage colours really stands out in the shade.
Athyrium niponicum \'Pictum\' (Japanese painted fern)
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese painted fern) is another fern that takes its time popping up in the spring. It looks happy in the duff here. The colourful foliage has reddish purple stems, with silver tinted fronds. Here you can see the midribs already coloured, and the fronds are starting to show the silver shade with slight purplish tints, even though the plant is barely out of the ground. These ferns remain fairly short in my garden.
Dryopteris expansa (spiny wood fern)
Dryopteris expansa (spiny wood fern) has a classic fern shape. They keep their fronds through the frost, under the snow. The older fronds tend to die back then in the spring, as new ones grow. The new foliage is now beautifully green and healthy. I like the appearance of this fern, even though it doesn’t get as full as the lady fern. The pinnules (the smallest divisions of the frond) are more separated, and the leaflets don’t continue to the ground. The long bare stalks at the bottom are covered in distinct brown scales. I’m not sure if that’s where it got its common name. It is also covered in them when it first emerges. They do look a bit like thorns, but are actually softer and flexible.
Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern)
Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern) is a wonderfully delicate looking fern, with a lighter look. The wiry black stems and bluish green foliage look great. Here you can see the fronds are arranged in whorls. They grow new whorls through the season. This fern sways more in the breezes. One of mine got heaved out of the ground over the winter and it’s not growing as well as the others. I’ll have to dig it in deeper.

These ferns are all successful in the shade, in a zone 3 cold climate, but some fill in much quicker than others in the spring. Each type of fern has its distinct look and subtle variations. Although I eagerly anticipate the bloom cycle of the flowers in my garden, I also like to walk around and admire the subtle beauty of the ferns, the way they move in the wind, the patterns of dappled light and shadow on them and under them, as well as think about their ancient history on Earth.

There are more photos and information about my Athyrium ferns in this post, and about fern combinations in another post..

13 thoughts on “Lush Ferns for a Cold Climate”

  1. Lovely, lush, cooling greens…they are wonderful looking! We are lucky to have an evergreen fern…Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), he tolerates our dry soil.

  2. Beautiful. I didn’t know there was such a variety available for this zone. I will be shopping for ferns!

  3. Gail, I like the ferns that keep their foliage, since our frost free period is so short. It’s great to have something green before the growing season gets underway and that lasts after the first frosts.

    Ms. S, I like the way ferns add rich texture to the shade garden, and there are many that add colour too.

  4. I love ferns too and have already a little collection of them. I’ll probably also do a post sometime on this wonderful and interesting plant. It’s one of the oldest plants we have in our world.

  5. Barbara, I can almost picture dinosaurs stalking around my largest ferns. Oh wait, that’s not a dinosaur; that’s my neighbour’s cat coming to inspect the birdbath.

  6. That spiny wood fern looks like a winner; it looks like it wouldn’t take over and flop all over everything around it.

  7. Don, it’s well behaved, holding itself erect and aloof. You can put delicate plants next to it without worrying about them being mugged. It’s a nice looking fern that would look good in a woodland garden.

    1. Pat, if the fern is the ostrich fern (those tall, vase shaped ones), then it develops a natural stalk above the ground, almost like a miniature tree fern, and it’s okay if it appears to stick out of the ground. Other ferns can be dug up and replanted deeper. If it is a lady fern, they don’t mind being dug up and divided to make more ferns, then replanted at a natural level.

    1. Dan, one time I transplanted my ostrich ferns in the middle of summer, not the best time, but I had been putting off redoing a bed and needed the space. After transplanting, they tilted over, and all the fronds yellowed one at a time. I kept them watered anyway, and the next year they came back as strong and healthy as before.

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