Ferns—unusual, mysterious, majestic,
primitive. These unique plants that
carpet the shady woodlands have
been on earth, in some form, for
nearly 400 million years. But does their wild
beauty transpose well into the home garden?
Chicago Illinois, Hyde Park resident and fern-enthusiast Steven
Loevy thinks so. Loevy grows more than 25
different ferns in his shade-rich yard.
“My fern collection started because I bought this house
in 1984, and we had a silver maple in the yard, and a syca-
more next door that leafs out in late June. By the 4th of July
there is absolutely no sunlight. I realized that you take the
light you’ve got, and you go to work with it,” says Loevy.
For Loevy’s shady yard, ferns were a perfect fit. Anyone
with an outdoor space that has full or partial shade will find
a unique garden muse in the majestic fern. And as Loevy’s
yard clearly indicates, there is a wide variety of fern species
There is the delicate, graceful maidenhair fern
(Adiantum pedatum) with its black lacquered stems and
horizontal fronds, the cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinna
momea) with its erect stalk of honey-brown spores in spring,
the lush and primitive sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and
the royal fern (Osmunda regalis) with its rich wine-colored
fiddleheads and impressive posture.
In all, there are about 1,200 different species of ferns
in the world (and they can be found nearly everywhere
on the planet). But only 15% of these grow in temperate
For obvious reasons, the best choice when choosing a
fern for the garden is one of the many wonderful fern spe-
cies that are native to Illinois (although there are a few
non-native species that are good choices as well). Of his
many ferns, Loevy’s favorite is an impressive border of
native maidenhair that thrives under a canopy of coto-
neaster. “They get almost no sunlight except in the early
morning. They pick up the slightest breeze, and in the
afternoon when the sun is filtering through the shrubs, they Pink impatiens introduce a touch of brilliant color to this combination
of royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and mayapples.
just whisper to you. They’re so beautiful you can barely
stand it,” he reflects.
Loevy started his collection with the native ostrich fern
(Matteuccia struthiopteris), “My friend and fellow gardener
Sue Nohigren said [ostrich ferns] grow big and they’ll grow
in anything, and they do,” says Loevy. “They’re the perfect
Joe Sable, director of production at Cantigny Gardens,
agrees that the ostrich fern is not difficult to grow; however,
he warns of certain challenges that come with growing
this species. “[Ostrich fern] definitely requires a shady spot,
uniformly moist soil, large amounts of organic matter, and
slightly acidic soil, which can be hard to achieve in our
naturally alkaline northern Illinois soils, You will [also] need “[The maidenhair ferns] get almost no sun-
light except in the early morning. They pick
up the slightest breeze, and in the afternoon
when the sun is filtering through the shrubs,
they just whisper to you. They’re so beautiful
you can barely stand it.” Plan the right location for this plant in your
garden because it can easily reach up to 7 feet in height and
diameter,” says Sable. Loevy notes that “with the right con-
ditions, ostrich fern can be invasive,” He buries 1- by 8-inch
boards to contain its aggressive stolons.
Caring for Ferns
Like the ostrich fern, most other ferns are not hard to
grow, but they require relatively specific growing conditions.
“If a gardener understands the soil requirements of ferns,
growing them is not difficult,” says Charlotte Thayer,
horticulturist at The Natural Gardens in St. Charles. To
grow most ferns Thayer suggests adding peat moss and/or rich
organic matter if the soil is alkaline (pH of 6 or higher), She
says that mulch assists in maintaining moisture consistency
Ferns Native to Illinois
• Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
• Lady Fern (Athyrium fihix-femina) • Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
• Christmas Fern (Polystichurn acrostichoides)
• Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) • Hay-Scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) • Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) • Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Spin ulose wood fern
(Dryopteris carthusiana), Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponi-
cum ‘Pictum’), Sensitive fern (Onodea sensibilis), Western lady fern
(Athyrium fihix-femina var. cyclosorum)
and works on the soil to create the more acidic growing
requirements that many ferns require.
Besides being relatively easy to care for, ferns also have
very few pest and disease problems. “Slugs can be a problem
but usually confine their feeding to material close to the
ground and don’t cause significant aesthetic damage. Slug
baits and traps, liberally used, will usually keep them under
control,” says Joe Sable,
According to Loevy, slugs have been a persistent problem
with some of his ferns, “These maidenhair ferns are the
result of ten years of work mostly fighting slugs,” says Loevy.
“It takes constant vigilance and finding slug bait that actu-
ally works.” He buys Sluggo in 25-pound bags and does
broadcast applications three or four times a year.
There are only a few other threats. Fungal disease can
cause problems on occasion, but taking the proper precau-
tions should help prevent this, says Sable, “Planting in loca-
tions with plenty of air circulation and keeping the garden
clean of organic litter and dead leaves will greatly reduce the
danger of fungal problems.”
The only other threat to your ferns may be wild-
life. “Rabbits and deer tend to browse them,” says J.E.
Armstrong, head curator of Vasey Herbarium and professor
The young fronds of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) are a blend
of pale green with touches of bronze and red.
Fern Advice from the Trail
One of the ways Loevy has learned to accommodate the
needs of his many different ferns is through his experience as
a backpacker. Through careful observation and consideration
for each fern’s natural growing environment, Loevy has found
interesting ways to make most of his ferns feel right at home.
While kayaking off of Vancouver Island, he made an inter-
esting observation about Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum).
“I realized that whenever you see Sword ferns, they’re on
slopes, often at the base of trees and base of rocks,” says Loevy.
“They either like the constant draining of minerals or they
don’t like their feet wet. So I lifted mine and sort of crammed it
up against a rock, and you can see it’s doing beautifully.”
To accommodate the needs of his moisture-loving royal
fern, a species he observed in the wilds of northern Michigan,
Loevy placed a deep plastic flower pot tray about a foot deep,
directly under the rootball. This helps the soil hold moisture
and it keeps its roots wet. “That gives it a swampy environ-
ment, just like home,” says Loevy. “These ferns are used to
the northern pine forest swamps.”
Caring for ferns may be no mystery but for a long time
their reproductive cycle was. People who understood plant
Plants that Grow Well with Ferns
“Ferns blend well with each other and many other
shade-loving plants—shrubs, perennials, groundcovers,
and annuals,” says Joe Sable. Here are some of the plants
that complement ferns:
~ottlebrush Buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) Rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.)
• Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
Summersweet Clethra (Clethra alnifolia)
Viburnums (Viburnum spp.)
Astilbe (Astilbe spp.)
• Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.)
• Begonias (Begonia spp.)
• Hostas (Hosta spp.)
• Impatiens (Impatiens spp.) One of Loevy’s prize possessions is his moosewood or striped maple
(Acer pensyl van icum) An understory tree of eastern forests, it is valued
both for its shade tolerance and its striped bark. A clump of holly fern
tom~uo~tun~\ ~(O’N~ ~tts~ ~c~tu~ ~~t\w~
reproduction in terms of flowers and seeds were baffled by
this flowerless, seedless plant. How was it reproducing? Was it
magic? Hardly, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
“As non-seed plants, ferns must be propagated by division or
by growing spores into a small sexual stage,” says Armstrong.
Essentially ferns reproduce by releasing spores which, if
they land in a good spot (moist and shady), will eventually
turn into gametophytes, or plant sex cells, The gametophytes
then develop both the ferns’ male (antheridia) and female
(archegonia) sexual reproductive organs. Each female organ
(for every gametophyte has numerous female and male
organs), holds one egg which is ready and waiting to be fertil-
ized. After the gametophyte has reached full sexual maturity,
the male organs will come into contact with water and open,
releasing sperm. If everything goes according to plan, the
sperm will swim into the female organ and fertilize the egg.
Even though the mystery of fern reproduction has been
solved, there is still an air of magic behind ferns. To our
knowledge, they are among the oldest kinds of plants on
the earth, even older than the dinosaurs, When used in
a garden, they create an effect that is both beautiful and
~t~m~t~ve, tu~tic an~3. eXegant. They give arw garden a natu-
ta~o~ lus~c~ kook, anX theN offer an~ gardener the wonder and
excitement of gardening with such primordial plants.
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