A Tale of Two Ferns

Assuming the quote, “Happiness is not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have,” is true, what I have is shade and I better get on with making the best of it. It really does me no good to pine for showy, brightly-hued flowers, does it? By and large, my lot is foliage. And the trick to adding interest and variety to my shady space is foliage plants with color and texture. Though I’m still adapting to this method of gardening, I have two grand champions, both ferns.

The first is ‘Ghost’, a cross between our lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’), a stunner with gray-green foliage and an upright form that combines the vigor of the native with the beauty of its Asian cousin. This fern mixes well with nearly any plant and is especially useful in dark corners that need a bit of sparkle. It even looks good under the bird feeders, where it tolerates marauding pigeons and chipmunks. There, it rubs elbows with hosta ‘Warwick Comet’, an eye-popper with cupped and corrugated round leaves featuring a shiny gloss and stunning variegation.

Hosta 'Warwick Comet' with Ghost fern (Athyrium 'Ghost')

Hosta ‘Warwick Comet’ with Ghost fern (Athyrium ‘Ghost’)

I’m equally enthusiastic about autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), not only for the bold copper tint that graces new foliage, but also because it tolerates drier soil than most of its kin. In my garden, I’ve used this to advantage by planting it under moisture-greedy hardwood trees and as a groundcover at the base of a Japanese maple.

Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) with mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicas)

Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) with mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicas)

Under the maple, the autumn fern’s glossy fronds stand out against dark blades of mondo grass, which is used as a lawn substitute to soften the expanse of asphalt driveway that dominates the front garden.

To see more plants with exceptional foliage, including those that bask in sunshine, follow Garden Bloggers’ Foliage Day, which is sponsored by Christina at Creating my own garden of the Hesperides. Just click the link!

17 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Ferns

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Will–I’m determined to make a go of it, though I’m not devoting enough time to the garden to make much progress these days. I’ve been enjoying your column too. Hope our paths cross again soon; I would love to see you.

  1. Christina

    Hi Marion, thank you for joining in GBFD this month. I know it sounds strange but I would love to have some of your shade; I do enjoy my sunny garden but often there are plants I would love to grow and my garden just isn’t shady enough; ferns are one of the plants groups I would love to have and it is interesting that this month ferns are what everyone is talking about, perfect. I love the ghostly silver one, what a perfect plant for a dark space.

  2. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Christina–I would gladly trade a small plot if I could. We all want a little of everything, don’t we? I always enjoy reading about your evolving garden and the challenges that make it interesting. In truth, we are both lucky:^)

  3. Debra

    I do pine after color though, hahaha. But you are right that accepting and appreciating reality is important. As the Deathstar (texasdeb’s invention!) approaches the deep shade is going to feel more and more welcome. =)

  4. kikisrewinddesigns

    I LOVE Autumn fern! It’s evergreen in our Wake County NC woods and works in pots or shady beds. I agree this fern can stand up to thirsty trees–which includes all our mature hardwoods. It is one of the stars of my shade garden.

    I will have to try the ghost fern. Thanks for recommendation. Great post.

  5. Pauline

    Like you Marian, I had to learn to love shade when we moved here, my previous garden had been very sunny. I now actually prefer my shady borders and the woodland because I can plant with such beautiful plants that would shrivel up in the sun. There are lots of plants that will still flower in shade but the foliage can be made to look very interesting.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Pauline–I don’t know why I make such a fuss, I travel so much in the summer anyway. Plus, it is always a bit cooler here which is nice when the temeperature soars. The biggest change for me is that my sunny garden was planted for autumn abundance. I am truly starting to love spring blooms, though.

  6. Chloris

    And shade is the best thing for the spring plants that we all love.
    I haven’ t seen that lovely hosta before, it’ s gorgeous. The ghost fern is fabulous I am going to look out for it. I love ferns but I just can’ t get to grips with all the names, and I hate not knowing the names of my plants. Bamboos are tricky too. Their names don’ t exactly roll off the tongue.

  7. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Chloris–You are right, I always have to look up the name of ferns, I just can’t seem to remember them. I’m very impressed with the hosta. I purchased it last summer, when conditions were not ideal, but it has come back strong.

  8. Cathy

    The Hosta must show up nicely with those golden green leaves. It really is lovely. I have two shady spots in my garden where hostas are the only plants… a couple of ferns would be an excellent idea. Thanks for inspiring me Marian!

  9. Janet/Plantaliscious

    A lovely pair of ferns, I have made a note of Athyrium ‘Ghost’, I think I could find that very useful in my shadier areas. I completely understand what you say about having to adjust to shade, my last garden was mostly shady, and I used to continually pine for open sunny borders that I could plant lots of sun worshippers in. But the beautiful combinations of foliage and subtle spring flowers that require shade have their own magic, and if I could only have one or the other, it would be shade, as it is always so calming.

  10. Gloria Ballard

    Marian, Like yours, my garden has much more shade than I like to imagine, and I’ve had adapt to shade-loving perennials. As it happens I planted a ‘Ghost’ fern and an ‘Autumn’ fern the day before you posted your “Tale of Two Ferns,” so I was happy to see I’d made some good choices! I’d like to have many more hostas, but we have rabbits that eat them like candy.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Gloria–I’ve lost two fatsia to voles this year so the hosta are probably living on borrowed time. I wish I could find more Ghost, but they are snapped up so quickly I can’t get my hands on them.


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