My friend Adam is a bit of a fern-aholic. He wants to know what to plant with them.
Ferns have this immensely ancient quality to them, a glimpse of the prehistoric, a promise of lurking dinosaur. They are cool and calm and beautiful. I love the way the fronds push up and quietly unfurl, without fuss or ceremony. But once uncurled they provide a marvellous backdrop for other flowering plants, or if planted en masse they can be quite arresting in their own architectural right. The Victorians were obsessed with them and displayed them in wardian cases – first constructed by Dr. Ward, a would-be botanist who, on finding that the noxious air was posioning his ferns in his London garden, decided to have these wooden and glass cases constructed to keep them in and in which they thrived.
Ferns are known as shade-loving plants but some will also take some direct sunlight – for example Polystichum setiferum – provided the soil is humus-rich and moist. They come in many sizes from the ground- hugging Asplenium trichomanes, growing to 20cm, an extremely useful native evergreen fern which will take the deep shade under trees, to the deciduous Osmunda regalia or Royal Fern, which reaches a stately 1.5 metres, particularly suited to waterside locations. Most ferns will thank you for giving them a good mulch of well-rotted manure or leaf mould prior to the growing season.
Below is a small selection of suggested plants to grow alongside ferns and which should thrive provided the conditions are right. Click on the image for an enlarged version.
Tall Plants – to go with Osmundia, Mateuccia, Polystichum varieties
- Actaea (was Cimicifuga) to 1.4m in partial shade, moist conditions – stately and slender, bottle brush flower heads, dramatic dark stems and leaves, flowering in September and October.
- Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ – to 90 cm in partial shade, any soil – clump forming with semi-evergreen leaves, with soft pink flower spikes in late Summer, early Autumn.
- Polygonatum giganteum or Solomon’s Seal – to 1.5m in partial to full shade, moist soil – has greeninsh white flowers, appearing in Spring and early Summer. Smaller varieties available.
- Rodgersia – – to 1.5m in partial shade, moist soil – green to purple deeply divided ‘chestnut’ leaves with white or pink flower plumes.
Medium height plants – to go with Athyrium, Dryopteris, Asplenium varieties
- Digitalis lutea – to 60 cm in shade or partial shade, moist soil – this foxglove has creamy yellow flowers, try also parviflora for something more exotic in burnt orange
- Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae – to 70 cm in shade or partial shade, any soil – evergreen leaves with architectural lime green flowers from April. Toxic – handle with gloves.
- Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ or plantain lily – to 70 cm in partial shade – a slug resistant hosta with pale lilac flowers in July. Huge range of other varieties.
- Dicentra spectabilis Alba or Bleeding Hearts – to 60 cm in dappled shade, any soil – pure white flowers in Spring.
Low Planting – to go with Asplenium, Polypodium, Andiatum varieties
- Asarum europaeum or European ginger – to 20 cm, in shade, moist soil preferred – evergreen rounded glossy leaves, hooded red-purple flowers.
- Trillium or wood lily – up to 50 cm, in shade in moist woodland conditions, decidous with large green leaves and three petalled flowers in yellow, white or red in Spring.
- Tiarella ‘Iron Butterfly’ – up to 20 cm, in moist shade, frothy white flowers in late Spring to mid Summer, fragrant.
- Epimedium pinnatum subsp. colchicum – to 30 cm, cool shade, any soil. Almost evergreen leaves which flush bronze in Autumn, with yellow flowers in Spring. Carpeting.