Diarmuid Gavin: How to set your garden floor alight with an array of ferns

A dozen years ago I moved from the hustle of London’s Portobello Road where I had a studio around the corner from Hugh Grant’s famous Notting Hill blue door to somewhere completely different, the countryside of Wicklow. The daily grind changed from dealing with hundreds of people bumping into each other in narrow streets, from the shouts of barrow boys selling their vegetables and cheap fashion to walks with the dogs in dingley dells, from noise to silence, from concrete to green. And much of that green was provided by the carpet of growth underneath deciduous woodlands – plantations of ferns thriving in these misty isles’ perfect conditions. I’ve always loved ferns and use them extensively in my garden – from mini forests of the outdoor monster Dicksonia antarctica to a number of different varieties under my birch trees in the front garden.

Nothing evokes the forest floor more than a group of ferns. They can be deciduous which gives you the added bonus of the fresh green fronds emerging in spring, or evergreen, which gives a companionable feel over the winter months. They like shade or dappled light and moist humus rich soil. Outside the traditional shady or woodland garden, ferns are perfect to mix in a small border and bring drama to a small courtyard. A good container will help show off the individual beauty of some of the species.

Looking after them isn’t too hard. Give them the right soil conditions with lots of organic matter and moisture. In deciduous forms you just let the foliage die back and cover the base of the plant – this helps protect them over winter. Some will need a bit more protection so use horticultural fleece or a little mound of organic matter. With evergreen ferns, just tidy up the foliage throughout the year. Be careful when cutting back foliage in spring as it’s very easy to snip off the fiddleheads of new fronds emerging. Ferns pair well with other woodland species such as spring bulbs – Anemone nemerosa and crocus spring to mind – and nestling amongst foxgloves and aquilegias.

Their love of humidity makes them perfect for bottle gardens or terrariums which are undergoing a big revival at the moment. So, if you don’t have the outdoor spaces, consider growing some tender specimens such as the beautiful Maidenhair fern in a bottle indoors.

Dicksonia antarctica

My favourite. The majestic tree fern has enormous presence with its glorious arching lacy green fronds that contrast so strongly with its stout fibrous brown trunk. It’s hardy in temperate climates, but may need some protection when young or newly planted, so choose a slightly sheltered site to be safe. Stuff straw into the crown to protect fronds from frost.

Matteuccia struthiopteris (Shuttlecock Fern)

Clothed in the brightest of bright green the emerging spring fronds are a delight to behold. Growth starts off closed tight and upright then gently opens up in the shape of a shuttlecock. It holds this form better than many other ferns and looks so good in groups.

Woodwardia unigemmata (Jewelled Chain Fern)

A particularly wonderful specimen from east Asia. Superb arching fronds that can reach up to 2 metres in length emerge at first reddish in colour, turning to green in maturity. It likes a damp soil in the shade and I would recommend covering the crown with some mulch in winter if you are in colder northern regions.

Athryium niponicum pictum

This delicate deciduous fern is known as the painted lady and brings a splash of jewel-like brightness to the shady garden. Growing only 8-12 inches high it will slowly spread out to create a pretty carpet. The leaves have metallic pale green and purple hues, darker towards the mid rib. ‘Silver falls’ is even more precious with its silver white leaves.

Polystichum setiferum

An evergreen for deep shade although it also likes partial shade and will tolerate dry, though not bone dry, soil. Tight lacy fronds extend from the centre and reach up to 4 feet at maturity.

Asplenium nidus

One of the easiest ferns for indoors. Bright green straps of evergreen foliage unfold from a central ‘nest’. Will do well in north-facing rooms. Spray with fine mist to maintain humidity in centrally heated rooms or locate in steamy bathrooms or kitchens.

Osmunda regalis

A regal fern deserving of the name ‘Royal Fern’. Beautiful with arching stems from the base, it’s a robust fern, happiest in dappled shade and liking acid soil. It can grow up to 5 feet and needs lots of moisture to keep it happy.

Dyopteris erythrosora

Known as the autumn fern thanks to the beautiful pink and red tints as it unfurls its foliage in spring. These then mature to green. It’s a semi-evergreen so will retain much of its foliage through winter. Likes moist shade.

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