Gene Bush is a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer and nursery owner. Contact Gene at

This article applies to:



10 Favorite Ferns for the Midwest
by Gene Bush    

Ferns are much more than green filler for the shade garden. Ferns are great architecture.

Photo by Gene Bush
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Depending on the species selected, ferns can add a sense of structure by weaving around the bases and tying together trees, shrubs and other perennials into a connected garden. Ferns may be tall and upright, vase shaped, short spreading carpets or miniature clumps on a moss-covered rock. Some ferns are coarse textured with large leaves, while others have finely cut leaves giving a delicate lacy appearance. Still others are covered in tiny hairs giving them a soft downy look and feel.  Green is a color and ferns best illustrate all the many hues of green possible in a perennial. There are soft golden-greens, delicate gray-greens, silver-greens and black-olive-greens to mention but a few. Many species of fern change color during the seasons. One may begin as a rich deep green completing the season a golden tan. Another may have new growth in a pale green changing over to bronze red when winter approaches. If you can find a nursery with a large selection of ferns, stand and look at the rows of different species. You will quickly see all ferns are not “simply something green” for the garden.


In general, ferns are no more difficult to grow than a flowering perennial. Notice that I qualified the last statement with “in general.” There are some ferns that are quite site specific and either struggle or eventually die out when their specific planting needs are not met. You may be OK the first part of the year when we usually have abundant spring rains. The later part of July, August and early September is often hot and dry for long periods. This is the time you generally lose a fern that has not been planted in the right place. 

There are a few general rules that apply to planting most ferns. Soil should be relatively loose in structure with plenty of rich humus. If you have access to leaf mold, dig it in and thoroughly mix it into the existing soil. Compost, decaying hardwood mulch or chopped leaves are also good humus builders. Always mulch after planting and keep the ferns mulched. Chopped leaves, hardwood mulches, compost or a combination of these materials are essential for retaining moisture and helping to keep the root zone cool. Both these conditions (moist soil and a cool root zone) are keys to success with ferns. Do not allow your newly planted ferns to severely dry out the first year in the garden. They need time to get new roots spread out into the surrounding soil to support themselves during dry periods.

The Native Ferns

Picking up a wildflower guide for the Midwest I counted almost 40 species of ferns. That is quite a selection to choose from, even when eliminating the ones requiring exact habitats. I am a firm believer in beginning with the natives. It simply makes good sense, and easier gardening, to begin with plant material already adapted to the climate in which I garden. Keeping an eye on hardiness zones I can then select related species from around the temperate world. 

Maidenhair fern emerging through pachysandra ground cover.
Photo by Gene Bush

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), Zones 2 to 8, is in my opinion, the most graceful and delicate of all our natives. It is easy to grow in the garden, slowly spreading in clumps over the years. Its leaves are of a soft green with darker centers. An almost black wiry stem carries an open circle of five fronds at the top. The arrangement of the leaves around the circle has been compared to the hair on the crown of a lady’s head; in this case a maiden in particular. It is also referred to as the five-fingered fern. Height can range from about 1 foot to a bit over 2 feet. Somewhat acidic soil suits it best.

Photo by Gene Bush
Christmas fern coupled with rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) blooms.

Photo by Gene Bush
The fiddleheads of the marginal fern can be quite ornamental by themselves.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Zones 3 to 9, is a backbone fern for the shade garden. Situated in the correct location it is evergreen adding a bright deep green to a winter garden. Christmas fern grows to 1 or 2 feet in height. New fronds are erect in spring, but as the season progresses the fronds tend to lie over each other, forming a green mound. It also happens to grow in a wide range of habitats making it an easy-to-grow fern that is ideal for beginners. 

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), Zones 2 to 9, is a tiny fern with fronds reaching about ½ foot high. The fronds are only about ½ inch wide, bright green, and gently arch along their almost-black stems — very showy for its diminutive size. Add evergreen to the list of attributes for a must-have mini-fern. This native fern is found growing in shaded rock crevices, and that is the best location in the garden. A gritty soil mix between large stones is a prime growing environment. Next on the list would be hypertufa troughs or small containers with a gritty mix.

Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Zones 4 to 8, matures at 2 to 3 feet of tough-as-nails beauty. My preference is for the selection ‘Lady in Red’. It is lacy and delicate in appearance with red stems showing up well in afternoon light. It continually sends up new fronds, so it is possible to keep the fern looking fresh all summer into fall.

Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), Zones 2 to 8, has stood up to our hot and dry summers with a very minimal amount of watering. It reaches about 1½ to 2 feet in height. Fronds are bluish-green and erect on stems with a touch of arching in outline, lots of brown scales, all of which is held to a single crown. It is slow to form offsets, so I use it in between larger perennials and shrubs. 

The Non-Native Ferns

Photo by Ron Capek
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum)

Japanese painted fern, sometimes called silver painted fern, (Athyrium niponicum), Zones 3 to 8, has become one of my favorite non-native ferns, primarily because of the show it puts on all year, but also for its ease of growth. There are several color forms in the nursery trade, all under the same name, so look around a bit and purchase more than one form for the garden. All are great. The hybrid ‘Ghost’ is a favorite of mine. Fronds can reach anywhere from 1 foot to a just under 2 feet in height. One great feature on this fern is new growth forms continually all year. Since new growth is usually a different color than the mature growth, it is never the same in appearance from week to week. 

Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), Zones 5 to 8, has always been a bit of a slow grower after transplanting into my garden, but is it ever worth the wait. Full height is 2 feet at maturity. Tiny immature fronds begin the season in bronze and gradually change to a glossy coppery pink. Once mature they again change to a deep shinny green for the summer. In the cool of fall it once more changes back to a copper-bronze-pink.

Polystichum rigens, Zones 5 to 8, does not have a common name that I can locate, but it certainly should be more common in gardens. Fronds are stiff and leathery, reaching a bit under 2 feet. Fronds are highly polished, triangularly outlined, waxy and look for all the world like they are made of plastic. They are not fake, but they survive like they are artificial. I enjoy this fern enough to have it in several locations with different blooming perennials. 

Read More

To learn more about hardy ferns for your garden I would highly recommend the book Ferns for  American Gardens by John Mickel from Macmillan Publishing Company.

Holly fern (Cyrtomium fortunei), Zones 5 to 10, this fern comes by its common name rightly. The leaves do resemble the darkest green holly leaves. Fronds reach about 2½ feet and they are evergreen. When first unfurling, the fiddleheads are pale green with black scales that become matte green holly leaves. It has been very well-behaved over the years and has been a long-lived fern in my garden. 

Crested golden scaled male fern (Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata Angustata’), Zones 4 to 8, is 1½ to 2 feet high when mature. It forms a nice tight clump in the garden. Each frond is about 2 to 3 inches across with the tip of the frond crested and then each pina (leaf) tip crested as well to create quite a show. Each crest has to jostle for space causing twists and turns in all directions up the frond.

From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2013


Posted: 05/01/13   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading