The most under-used group of plants... possibly! What is it?

What can you plant in inhospitable spaces:  under trees; in the shade; against a wall; even ON a vertical face? The answer is FERNS.

If there’s one group of plants that is vastly under-used, it's ferns. Think of an outdoor space that's rarely planted. How about the shady place under trees? You could consider this to be a perfect marriage: ferns and shade. Ferns, green, fronds, plants, shade Just a tiny selection of ferns that are available from Perfect Plants Ltd.     But why would you want to plant them? Why not? should be the question.   Unfurling frond, fern, shady, garden, under trees Beautiful unfurling fern frond. What exactly are ferns? There are about 12,000 species of these ‘vascular’ plants. They reproduce using spores and therefore don’t have seeds or flowers.     Cyrtomium fortunei, fern, shade, garden This Cyrtomium fortunei displays greatly contrasting spores on the undersides of the fronds.

Fabulous fronds

Their leaves are known as ‘fronds’ and when you actually look closely you will see that they are beautiful. Some of this highly versatile plants have remained roughly the same for at least 180 million years. We know this from fossils. Ferns are not only decorative but they have some amazing abilities as many of them can remove chemical impurities from the air. They can also improve contaminated soils. What’s more, some ferns can even be gathered for food (but not all).   Adiantum pedatum Imbricatum, fern, garden, plants, shade Beautiful foliage of Adiantum pedatum Imbricatum  

Shady characters

Why are ferns a good choice for planting under trees? There are many reasons. Firstly: because they can cope with shade. Some even thrive in dry shade, which is a rate attribute amongst plants. Secondly, because they suppress weeds, therefore once your plants have established it saves you a few garden clearance tasks. The third reason is their appearance: planted en-masse, they look amazing and can appear to act as a ‘green carpet’.  And last, but by no means least, they offer great benefits for biodiversity. There are plenty of hidey holes under those lush fronds.   Ferns, shade, planting, fronds, gardens, woods Planted en-masse, these Asplenium ferns make a lush green carpet How do you go about transforming your blank, scruffy under-tree-spaces into an oasis of calm? It’s relatively easy.

Most importantly, choose the right variety for the spot.

    Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata The King', fern Some ferns are evergreen, including this Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata The King' . It's a highly ornamental form of the Golden male fern, with arching evergreen fronds, Next, look at the soil conditions. Even dry-shade-loving ferns need a certain amount of humus-rich soil so you might need to add lots of leaf-mulch and compost to the target area. Bear in mind that some are deciduous and others are evergreen. You can use different varieties in order to make a ‘tapestry’ effect, but make sure you plant several of the same type together in order to avoid a ‘muddle’.   Ferns, mass planting, plants, garden, shade Beautiful mass planting of ferns Check the amount of light your plants will receive. Whilst they are shade-lovers, they do need some light and won’t thrive if they feel like the lights have been switched off! You can help matters by ‘raising the crown’ of trees or thinning the branches in order to let in some light. It’s best to plant quite densely in the first instance in order to achieve an instant impact. You can thin out later, once the plants establish.  

Not all are highly desirable

There are some you will want to avoid. Pteridium aquilinum is one of these – otherwise known as bracken. This sun-loving fern is invasive and is actually said to be the most common plant on the planet. It covers more than two per cent of the UK. It does, in fact, make good compost for plants such as heathers, camellias and rhododendrons. The carcinogenic spores are harmless once well composted.   bracken Bracken is poisonous and invasive Ferns suitable for dry shade include the Aspleniums; many Adiantum species; many Dryopteris; Polystichums and Polypodiums. You can look at many different ferns here.   2015-11-12 09.13.49   Athyrium otophorum var. okanum This Athyrium has delicate, luscious fronds Those that will feel at home in neutral soils include the Blechnums, Gymnocarpium and Oreopteris. Ferns requiring damp conditions include Athyriums; Dryopteris cristata; Matteuccia struthiopteris and Osmundas. Metteucia struthiopteris The shuttlecock fern, Metteucia struthiopteris, has a distinctive, upright stance   Did you think that ferns all look the same? Think again! They are really varied and some are fancier than others. The shuttlecock fern, for example, Matteuccia struthiopteris, grows during the spring and summer into a magnificent shuttlecock shape, with fronds radiating upwards from its crown, whilst the fronds of the deer fern (Blechnum spicant) are sometimes compared to the teeth of a hedge trimmer.  The wonderful evergreen, Asplenium (or Phyllitis) scolopendrium ‘Crispum’, has a gloriously upright habit with leathery strap-like fronds. These have decorative undulating margins that look like an Elizabethan ruff! Meanwhile, the most delicate of the ferns could be considered to be Adiantum, also known as the maidenhair fern. They have delicate leaves which seem to float on their stems. www.perfectplants.co.uk.