Northern Shade Gardening

Fern Combinations for the Shade Garden

Monday, June 28, 2010 Category: Perennials

The feathery texture of ferns look good in the shade garden, and even better when mixed with other foliage perennials. I especially like them paired with other plants that have shiny or large, thick leaves.

Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red' and Asarum europaeum

Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red' and Asarum europaeum

Above are some Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’ (lady in red ferns) with Asarum europaeum (European ginger). This is one of my favourite foliage pairs for the shade. The pointed fronds drape over the rounded leaves of the groundcover, and the light texture of lady fern looks great next to the highly reflective European ginger leaves. ‘Lady in Red’ fern stands out a little more than the basic lady fern, because of the dark axis down the middle. It gives the frond more emphasis and definition than the species lady fern, which is all green.  The central axis of the fronds are noticeably red when they first emerge, and then turn a brownish red.

Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red' and Brunnera macrophylla 'Mr. Morse'

Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red' and Brunnera macrophylla 'Mr. Morse'

These Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’ are combined with Brunnera macropylla ‘Mr. Morse’ (Siberian bugloss). The lacy fronds are behind the wonderful heart shaped leaves with beautiful silver and green patterns. ‘Mr. Morse’ gets white flowers, instead of the usual Brunnera blue.

Athyrium filix-femina and Brunnera macrophylla 'Mr Morse'

Athyrium filix-femina and Brunnera macrophylla 'Mr Morse'

For about 6 weeks in spring, the white flowers of the Brunnera are entwined with the ‘Lady in Red’ fern, looking like a flower arrangement that’s heavy on the greenery.

Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) and Pulmonaria Majeste

Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) and Pulmonaria Majeste

In another garden area I have Athyrium filix-femina next to some Pulmonaria ‘Majeste’ (lungwort). These Pulmonaria leaves are just developing their overall silver grey colouring after flowering. The early leaves, and ones on the flower stalk are still polka dotted.

Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) and Hosta 'Francee'

Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) and Hosta 'Francee'

Another good combination is  Athyrium filix-femina with Hosta ‘Francee’. The thick Hosta leaves look even better when contrasted with the filigree design of the fern. The lady fern keeps sending up new fronds through the summer, creating a thick look. When there is a breeze, the lady ferns sway over top of the solid Hosta foliage, a very pretty look in the garden, but not appreciated when you are trying to take a picture on a windy day.

Athyrium Ghost fern and Hosta Francee under conifers

Athyrium Ghost fern and Hosta Francee under conifers

These Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (ghost fern) have a fantastic silver cast, which coordinates with another Hosta ‘Francee’ in my front garden. I like the pale colour of the fern with the white edge of the Hosta. These both lighten the area under my conifers, and the dappled light plays on them as the sun moves through the day. I started this garden bed under some pine and spruce last year, and I’m currently expanding it.

Athyrium 'Ghost' fern and Helleborus 'Ivory Prince'

Athyrium 'Ghost' fern and Helleborus 'Ivory Prince'

Above is an Athyrium ‘Ghost’ fern with Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ (Ivory Prince hellebore). This hellebore has light marbling on the thick leaves, which goes well with the silvery green of the ghost fern. The Helleborus is still holding onto the green flower sepals from spring, and a few blue Brunnera flowers are leaning over from the right. I have an Athyrium niponicum ‘Regal Red’ (Japanese painted fern) on the other side of the Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’.

Athyrium 'Ghost' and Actaea

Athyrium 'Ghost' and Actaea

Another Athyrium ‘Ghost’ is put together with Actaea (bugbane). The Actaea has a subtle purple edge and its leaves make a nice partner with the fern. In the above photos, you can see how the fern glows in the shade compared to other foliage.

Matteuccia struthiopteris and Pulmonaria flower

Matteuccia struthiopteris and Pulmonaria flower

This Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) is adjacent to a Pulmonaria ‘Samourai’ (lungwort) that always sends a few blue flowers in through the fronds.

Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair fern) and Brunnera macrophylla

Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair fern) and Brunnera macrophylla

The lacy Adiantum pedatum combines with another Brunnera macrophylla. The delicate looking fronds wave over top of the heart shaped leaves. This fern adds a lot of movement of the garden. It has shiny, black stalks from which the leaflets radiate out in a horseshoe shape. The long, slender leaflets give it a more delicate look.

Dryopteris expansa and Hosta 'Francee'

Dryopteris expansa and Hosta 'Francee'

Dryopteris expansa (spiny wood fern) is matched with Hosta ‘Francee’. This Dryopteris is semi-evergreen, keeping some of its fronds past the frost, so it is good for a northern garden. The spiny wood fern has papery spines on the lower stalks that are soft and flexible. It is well behaved, slowly increasing in size.

Athyrium filix-femina Brunnera Sanguinaria

Athyrium filix-femina Brunnera Sanguinaria

This Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’ frond meets a Brunnera and some Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot) which flowered earlier.

Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair ferns) and Impatiens 'Fiesta Ole Frost'

Adiantum pedatum (maidenhair ferns) and Impatiens 'Fiesta Ole Frost'

Adiantum pedatum works well with annual impatiens, too. These are Impatiens ‘Fiesta Ole Frost’, with double white flowers. The Adiantum is tall, so the fronds dance over top of the Impatiens flowers.

The fine texture of the ferns looks great in the garden when combined with other substantial perennial foliage. I like it when their lacy texture is complimented by glossy, thick or large leaves. You can read more about Athyrium in this previous post, and about other cold climate ferns in this post. There are photos of fiddlehead ferns here. Do you have any favourite fern combinations?

23 Responses to “Fern Combinations for the Shade Garden” »

  1. Rebecca @ In The Garden :
    June 28, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Hi Northern, your ferns are beautiful. So many different shades and even textures. I especially like the combination with Brunerra. I only have 3 ostrich ferns, but they seem to get trampled every time they get some height to them. I have them with Hostas, they do make a nice pairing when they are not flattened!

  2. Northern Shade :
    June 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Rebecca, it sounds like your puppy is frolicking in the ferns. The ostrich ferns don’t really send up new fronds after the initial surge, so they don’t recuperate well. The lady fern will keep growing through the summer, with more fronds, so I find they will bounce back from transplanting, etc.

    Catherine, the Japanese painted fern is so distinctive with its extra colour. I should have included pictures of them, too. Ferns are a classic combination with Hosta.

    Joanne, so far, I haven’t had too much of a slug problem. Last year for the first time, I got a few in late August, but I put out some beer traps, and that seemed to work well for the small numbers.

    Jennifer, ostrich ferns, with their vase shape would look good as a large group, as well. I have most of my ostrich ferns in groups of three, but the odd new one pops up here or there.

    Laura, you’re right, Jack Frost is one of the easiest plants to pair up in the garden. I’ve added it to so many of my garden beds. When I’m planning a new garden bed, I often think, “A Brunnera would make this look just right.” :)

    Lisa, ferns can be like the greenery you add to a bouquet, to make everything look more beautiful, and many can stand out as focal points, too.

  3. Catherine :
    June 28, 2010 at 8:46 am

    You really have some beautiful combinations. I love how the ferns soften the plants they are growing by. Most of my shade is so dry that ferns don’t do too well. I have some near my pond, but aside from a Japanese Painted fern I’ve lost track of the names. My favorite combination is the one growing by some Hostas.

  4. Joanne :
    June 28, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Your ferns look so inviting as I hide away from the sun on this very hot day. You are brave with your dainty Hosta, the slugs demolish even my more robust hostas.

  5. Jennifer :
    June 28, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Ferns are among my favorite plants as well. I love to mix them in with other perennials as you have suggested here. I also have a large patch of Ostrich ferns that make a great statement en mass.

  6. Laura :
    June 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Beautiful! But honestly, what doesn’t Jack Frost look good with! What a champion of the shade garden!

  7. Lisa at Greenbow :
    June 28, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I really like your combinations. I have some I like. At this very time I can’t think of what they are. Ha… I will have to keep this question in mind as I stroll the garden this evening.

  8. Jeff :
    June 28, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    This is a good topic for me since I started to expand my fern collection last season and have added several new ones so far this year. I really like your Ghost fern. A local home center had Lady in Red ferns for something like $3.00 each (they were small) and I almost bought a couple, but put them back. Good post.

  9. Northern Shade :
    June 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Jeff, the lady in red ferns grow fairly quickly, and would probably fill in soon for you. That’s a good deal. They look especially nice in spring with their bright red axis.

    Ghost fern looks great in the shade, because the light colour shows up well in the shadows. I find them more robust than the Japanese painted fern.

  10. Birgitta :
    June 29, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Lovely ferns. Some of them I recognise but some are new for me.

  11. Northern Shade :
    June 29, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Birgitta, I should have put a picture of the Athyrium niponicum (Japanese painted ferns), since they add quite a bit of colour to a garden bed, too.

    The Garden Ms. S, I like the leaves of those two together as well, and the white flowers look nice with the fronds. The Ghost ferns seem to get a better silver colour as they develop.

  12. The Garden Ms. S :
    June 29, 2010 at 6:21 am

    ‘Lady in Red’ and ‘Mr. Morse’ make a lovely couple. :-)
    Great combinations. Your Ghost Fern is really quite gorgeous.

  13. Ann :
    June 29, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Your combinations are absolutely lovely. In the perennial trial garden we have Athyrium niponicum (Japanese painted ferns)underplanted with Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’. They complement each other very well as they are similar in colour but very different in leaf form.

  14. Northern Shade :
    June 29, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Ann, the colours of those two would be great together. Do you find that your Athyrium niponicum increase in size? Mine stay very small, and only send up a few fronds. I’ve seen pictures of more vigorous ones, and I’m wondering if it is our climate and short growing season that keep them small.

  15. Ann :
    June 29, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    They do stay quite small, however I am just happy that they survive in our climate!
    I think it is even more difficult to grow ferns in Calgary than in Edmonton. Edmonton usually has more snow cover in winter and more rain in the summer (although the past several years have been much dryer than normal in Edmonton). I am amazed at the variety of beautiful ferns you have.

  16. Northern Shade :
    June 30, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Ann, under the trees, most of mine get a good leaf mulch cover for the winter, too. I love the lush look that ferns give to a garden. Another fern that stays healthy and survives, but grows smaller than normal in our climate, is the Osmunda regalis (royal fern).

    Diane, ferns and Hosta make a great duo. I especially enjoy looking out on a windy day, and seeing the ferns swaying in the breeze, next to the immobile and steadfast Hosta.

  17. Diane :
    June 30, 2010 at 12:13 am

    I really like your pairings of the ferns with other things. I’m really glad that I put my Lady in Red ferns next to hostas with white edges now that I see what yours look like. Everything is looking lovely in your gardens!

  18. Shady Gardener :
    June 30, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    What beautiful combinations! :-) It’s fun seeing your shady ferns and the other plants that accentuate each other. Very very pretty.

  19. Northern Shade :
    June 30, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Shady Gardener, you can tell there are certain favourites that get reused a few times.

  20. Diane :
    July 1, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Happy Canada Day!

  21. Northern Shade :
    July 1, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Diane, Happy Canada Day. This is the first day all week that is not predicted to have evening thunderstorms, so the fireworks should be great.

  22. guild-rez :
    July 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Great info..
    Love the Ghost fern. Will look for it in our garden nurseries!
    We have a shade garden in front of our house. Besides astilbe, heucheria and many hosta plants, the ghost will look great.
    Thank you for your visits and comments, I appreciate your posts.
    Happy Canada Day,

  23. Northern Shade :
    July 1, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Guild-rez, the ghost fern would give a nice soft texture, like the Astilbe, with your Heuchera and Hosta.
    I will look for the info and pictures on the pink Annabelle Hydrangea.

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