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Growing hardy ferns

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Northern Maidenhair Fern
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)

Ferns are becoming popular again, and it’s no surprise. There’s at least one kind of fern for everyone’s needs and tastes.

Plants with plenty of lush foliage, like hostas and rhododendrons, are excellent partners for ferns, as they emphasize and offer a good contrast to the delicacy and details of their fronds.

Ferns can be just as easy and satisfying to grow as any other kind of plant, if you follow some simple basic rules from the start.

How much maintenance they require depends on where you choose to grow them, the type of soil and how you amend and mulch it. The more you obey these rules, the less time you’ll have to spend on upkeep.

With all this information in hand, you should have an easier time choosing the right ferns for specific spots.

For beginners, it is best to start by learning all about vigorous ferns.

Once you have the bug and have become used to the many aspects of cultivating them, you can move on and start planting ferns suited to ponds, ferns for dark, dry corners, evergreen ferns – in short, all the other species. Some, like those with variegated or deeply lobed fronds, are especially elegant.

Choosing a site

The first consideration when planting woodland ferns is to avoid exposing them to intense sun that would discolour their fronds and burn their edges. It is also very important to pick a site sheltered from strong winds, which would quickly dry out the plant and damage the rachis (or stems) and fronds, since many of them are easily breakable.

Type of soil

The key to obtaining lush fern colonies is soil type. Ferns prefer light, well-drained, crumbly soil, with a high percentage of organic matter and a constant source of fresh, non-stagnant moisture. Ideally, it should be 50% well-decomposed compost or leaf mould, 25% peat moss and 25% sand. Unless otherwise indicated, most woodland ferns prefer neutral or slightly acidic soil. Before they start growing in the spring, it is a good idea to amend the soil with a granular, slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen. If you fertilize your ferns later in the season, be careful not to sprinkle it directly on the fronds, to avoid damaging them.

Mulch

Regardless of the type of plant, people too often ignore the importance of mulch. Ferns are no exception. Applying a mulch of well-decomposed compost or leaf mould will help maintain your soil fertility, gradually improve its structure and, also important, avoid the stress caused by wide temperature and moisture fluctuations. The stabilizing effect of mulch means that you won’t have to water your garden regularly except during dry spells. You’ll also have to spend less time weeding, and won’t have to shift the soil around the plants’ roots – something ferns don’t appreciate. Since most ferns are not deeply rooted, it’s important not to disturb their roots.

Planting

Always make sure to plant your ferns so that the crown is just at or slightly above the soil surface. Burying it too deeply can cause it to rot.

Based on an article by Michel-André Otis in Quatre-Temps magazine, Vol. 18, No.2.

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