Ferns are one of the more interesting but underutilized garden plants. They tolerate temperature extremes, require minimal maintenance, have few pest problems, and many are native to Georgia.
The plants range in height from a few inches to several feet, and their fine textured leaves provide an attractive contrast to the broad leaves of other plants such as hostas. Ferns make great additions to the home landscapes, particularly in shaded areas that are not conducive to turfgrasses and many popular ornamental power stations.
Ferns are ancient plants that have been in existence since the time of the dinosaurs. They have a complex life cycle and reproduce by spores, which are analogous to seeds. The spores are found in small brown cases, which are sometimes mistaken for insects, on the back side of the fern fronds.
These plants prefer sites that have shade and moist, well-drained soil with ample organic matter. Some species can withstand more sunlight if given appropriate amounts of water. Ferns should be fertilized in the spring just after the new growth has appeared. Use a slow release fertilizer, such as Osmocote, or organic fertilizer, such as bone meal. Apply a one to three-inch layer of pine straw mulch or pine bark mulch to help reduce moisture loss and control weeds.
There are many species of ferns with a variety of attractive features. Christmas ferns derive their name from being evergreen and available for decorations during the holidays. They are native and can grow two to three feet tall. The upright leathery fronds have a fine texture and a dense crown.
The cinnamon fern, which is deciduous, is one of the first plants to emerge in the spring. The three to five feet tall fronds are erect and grow in a vase shape pattern. Its name comes from the cinnamon colored hairs on the fronds bearing spores that give it the appearance of a cinnamon stick. They are a good choice for areas that stay wet for prolonged periods.
The lady fern has triangular-shaped fronds and is deciduous. It can grow two to four feet in height. The fronds have a feathery appearance with a yellow to green color early in the season eventually turning darker green as they mature. Although it prefers moist sites, it does well under drier growing conditions.
The tassel fern has evergreen glossy green foliage that spreads out-ward in a vase-shaped clump and grows to a height of two feet. There are many hair-like scales on the midribs of the fronds that have an appearance similar to eyelashes. In spring, the newly emerging fronds are stiff, but they droop backward forming a tassel.
The deciduous foliage of the autumn fern has a coppery red color in spring and turns green in the summer. In the fall, the fronds develop a rusty brown color. It has a height of up to two feet with a spreading growth habit similar to groundcovers. Like the lady fern, it thrives where there is constant moisture but can withstand dry periods. It fills in bare areas well and is attractive when used in mass plantings.
Although frequently overlooked by homeowners, ferns are a valuable asset. Once established, they require minimal care and add interest to the garden. Consider adding some ferns to your home landscape and enjoy their beauty.
Timothy Daly is a County Extension Agent with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, Gwinnett County. He can be reached at 678-377-4011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.