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Ferns in the garden

Although the undergrowth populates, the ferns seem to be more successful as houseplants than in the garden; in reality there are many species of this plant that can easily find a place in the most humid, cold and dark places of our gardens or terraces, without fearing frost or bad weather. These are very ancient plants, which produce particular leaves, called fronds, long petioles carry a single elongated leaf, with a jagged margin; it distinguishes the particularity of not having sexual organs, therefore they do not produce flowers or even fruits, instead they produce, on the inferior page of the fronds, small dark spores, from which the new plants will originate. Most of the varieties of this genus have a globular development, almost without stems, the outermost fronds dry up, while the plant always produces new ones, at first completely rolled up, they take place over a few days. Some instead have shrub development, these are the arboreal varieties, typical of tropical forests, some species of trees are also found in Europe.

Characteristics of ferns

Ferns are the first plants to have developed on dry land, around 400 million years ago.
Vascular cryptogam plants are technically defined and differ from others due to some peculiar characteristics. They are totally devoid of flowers, fruits and seeds, but (unlike mosses and lichens) they are endowed with all the other organs that distinguish the plant world: roots, stems, leaves (called in this case "fronds") and lymphatic vessels.
Their reproductive cycle is very particular and is comparable to that of mushrooms: it is in fact made possible by spores. These ripen on the back of the foliage and are collected in capsules, called sporangia.
They are transported by the wind and germinate when they are deposited on the ground. At that point a so-called "protallo" develops which can be equipped with only male organs, only female or of both genders. Water is essential for the male gametes to enter the female ones at this stage: it is for this reason that the ferns they develop exclusively near streams or in very humid environments.
In Europe and in temperate areas they are generally small in size (rarely exceeding two meters in height). In tropical forests, on the other hand, are very common tree species, really gigantic, which remind us of prehistory, when these plants were the undisputed rulers of our planet.

Type of plant Persistent or deciduous herbaceous leaves
Height at maturity Up to 2 m
Cultivation Easy
Maintenance Low
Growth Average
Rusticitа Some very rustic, others delicate (for interiors)
Exposure Generally shade, half shade / some even full sun
Ground Rich, light, fresh, well drained
pH Acid, neutral subacid
irrigations medium
Soil moisture Always fresh and slightly moist, no puddles
Propagation Spore, division
Use Full earth or vase, even for interiors

Crop care

The varieties of this genus suitable for planting outside are fairly easy to cultivate; they prefer shady and cool locations, with soft and well-drained soil, but always slightly damp. They do not fear the cold, while they fear the sultry heat and drought; throughout the year it is good to check that they do not receive direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time.
Watering should be carried out with great regularity, avoiding to leave the soil constantly soaked with water and avoiding water stagnation. To increase the environmental humidity, during the hottest months of the year, remember to vaporize the ferns frequently, using demineralized water.
It is good to check the formation of water stagnation, because it can cause damage to the plant.

Fertilizations and parasites

Most ferns prefer slightly acid, fresh and deep soils; they settle in the common garden soil, mixed with peat, sand and small pieces of shredded bark, in order to guarantee a sufficiently acid and soft substrate, and also a good drainage. In autumn it is possible to uproot the plants and divide the clumps of roots, immediately planting the obtained portions, so that they start to develop again before the arrival of winter.
These varieties of plants can also be cultivated in pots, by planting them however in a good sized container and remembering that the soil contained in the pot will tend to dry out quite quickly and therefore our fern will be a little more thirsty than a fern cultivated in full ground.
Every 15-20 days we supply the ferns with fertilizer for green plants, mixed with the water of the watering; if we grow them in the garden we can sprinkle, every 4.6 months, at the feet of the slow release granular fertilizer. We avoid to fertilize during the autumn and winter period; often during the cold months it will not even be necessary to water.

Grow ferns in the garden

Ferns, thanks to their decorative foliage, can make a decisive contribution to the charm of a garden. They give life to the shady and damp areas and grow wonderfully along the waterways.
The varieties are innumerable and meet the tastes of all. Furthermore, they are resistant plants that require little maintenance and are also suitable for beginners.

Ground ferns

The ideal substrate for the ferns it must be light, fresh and well drained. It is however essential that the pH is from subacid to acid. The forest land is ideal; if our plot is the opposite heavy and clayey, it will be good to extract it and replace it completely with a product for acidophilic or mixing it with abundant peat.
Many grow well even in tight spaces like vases or in cracks in walls creating beautiful decorative effects.

Exposure and climate

Rustic ferns generally prefer a shade or partial shade positioning. The ideal is that produced by deciduous trees, in a wooded environment.
However, it is possible, especially in the Center-North and in the mountain areas, to place them in full sun provided that the soil is fresh and the irrigations and leaf vaporisations are never lacking.
There are deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen: their behavior also varies depending on winter temperatures.


It is a very simple operation, to be performed in early spring. First of all, hold the jar in a basin full of water for about 10 minutes: in this way the extraction will be simpler and less risky for the fragile rhizomatous roots.
A hole is dug about three times the bread of earth, the specimen is placed there and filled with a mixture obtained with 1/3 of sand, 1/3 of garden soil and 1/3 of woodland. We compact and irrigate well. It is very useful to prepare a thick mulch based on leaves, bark and conifer needles. It will nourish the soil and help keep it acid.
To have a nice full effect it is good to mix different varieties, perhaps with fronds of different colors, combining at least 3-5 specimens (always in odd numbers).


Ferns love always fresh soils: however, excesses that could cause rottenness must absolutely be avoided.
If the location is rightly shaded and the substratum is suitable, in the Center-North it is rarely required intervention during spring and autumn. However the best technique to test the humidity of the area and avoid excesses is to insert a finger in depth and then act accordingly.
Surely you will have to be more assiduous in the warm months and in the southern regions. In that case, help may come from frequent vaporization of the leaves and good mulching.
We always prefer, if possible, rainwater or at least decanted water, so as to make as little calcium as possible.


Particularly appreciated are soils rich in organic matter. It is therefore advisable to sprinkle in the autumn and in the spring abundant seasoned flour manure, incorporating it to the ground. Instead, synthetic fertilizers should be avoided or reduced to the maximum because they are usually too rich in nitrogen. This element stimulates vegetative growth too much and, consequently, the fronds will become enormous, but very weak and thin.

Pruning and cleaning

It intervenes at the end of winter, towards the middle of February: in the deciduous varieties, the withered fronds are removed and the heart of the specimen is carefully cleaned to avoid the onset of rot and water stagnation. The evergreen ones require cleaning from the older or damaged leaves: this will stimulate the vegetative restart and the general renewal of the plant.

Winter period

The varieties considered "garden" are generally very cold resistant. The ideal is however to place them in an area sheltered from the cold wind, which tends to dehydrate the leaves and can irreparably damage the entire plant.
It is advisable to protect the evergreen varieties with special fabric only if the temperatures drop below -10 ° C: the cover can in fact favor cryptogams and prevent light from reaching the leaves.

Pests and diseases

It is very rare that ferns get sick. The most frequent problems are only two.
First of all the fronds can show chlorosis due to the malabsorption of the iron. To remedy this it is imperative to lower the pH of the soil by adding peat and adding iron sulphate to the irrigation water. In extreme cases we resort to chelated iron (but as soon as possible, preferably in spring, we extract the specimen completely change the substrate).
The other usual affection is the cochineal. You can fight with specific products if the attack is severe. Otherwise it is better to use washings with specific soap and manual removal.


Here are some of the most common varieties on the market, suitable for cultivation in open land in most of Italy.
Athyrium: to this genus belong about 200 species of deciduous ferns, easy to grow and with a graceful habit. In their spontaneous state they grow in wet forests all over the world, but they are particularly frequent in East Asia. They are mostly rustic, but in cultivation only a few varieties and cultivars can be found. In general they have beautiful arched and thin fronds. Spores are produced by short, straight or J-shaped structures.
The most interesting species and cultivars are:
Lady in red up to 60 cm high with finely divided fronds with central veining and bright red stem.
Bradford Rambler yellowish-green fronds with red stems. Very decorative, rustic and compact (about 30 cm high).
Filix-femina very large, up to 1.5 m, and elegant with medium green lanceolate fronds and green or dull red stems. He wants damp and shady places, but he fears the wind. It is early in the year, but it already runs out in August. Endemic to all of Europe. The most widespread cultivars are: Cristatum, minutissimum (dwarf form), Rostiel (with red stems), plumosum the frond is very finely divided and creates a feathery appearance.
Niponicum var. pictum it has lanceolate and arched fronds of a beautiful light green or silver with purple central rib. They are among the most colorful garden ferns. Easy to grow in a cool and moist environment.
Otophorum with lanceolate and doubly divided fronds. The central and lateral ribs are purple-red. More resistant and persistent than others in the winter period. Up to 45 cm in height.
Blechnum beautiful variegated and mostly evergreen, large ferns. The fronds are lanceolate with a simple arrangement of undivided segments. The new spring growth is reddish. They are native to temperate zones. Recommended are the resistant B.spicant and B. pen-marina. The B. Chilense, if sheltered, can become the tallest among the evergreen ferns that can be cultivated in the garden.
Dryopteris they are robust and easy to grow ferns, mostly deciduous. The genus includes up to 350 species from the woods and marshes of the northern hemisphere. They are magnificent garden plants, of great effect and some resist rather well to drought. Varieties: affinis, carthusiana, clintoniana, cristata, dilated, filix-mas
Osmunda very beautiful and adaptable ferns, about 15 medium-large sized species; Robust and particular Regalis for the rusty color it takes in autumn. It tolerates alkaline soils.
Polystichum one of the most beautiful rustic ferns for new spring shoots covered with silver or tawny scales. Mostly evergreens. Species: acrosticoides, manitum, polyblepharum, setiferum
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