Matt Biggs gets the experts’ pick of ferns for designers
Steven Fletcher and Kerry Robinson run the nursery Fernatix in Suffolk, where they grow selected species and cultivars that they believe warrant closer attention.
One of these is Asplenium trichomanes, a beautiful evergreen and good doer, about 4-5in across, that looks like a maidenhair fern and is shaped like a starfish. It looks great in nooks and crannies, such as dry stone walls, and is best in shady, damp areas, unless there is irrigation nearby. Plant them in autumn so they settle before the following summer, and they soon create natural colonies. “We have them growing on rocks on the north side of the house in moss-covered sandstone,” says Fletcher. “We only planted one or two, and now they’re everywhere.”
Another favourite is Adiantum aleuticum ‘Miss Sharples’, a flamboyant, elegant deciduous maidenhair, with hand-shaped leaves of apple green. “If you want an absolute beauty or something unusual, this is a must-have fern. It is delicate but tough and is an excellent feature plant in a container.” Add plenty of well-rotted organic matter in borders before planting; it deserves to be treated well.
Best for drama
Dryopteris wallichiana is a tough, striking shuttlecock-shaped deciduous fern standing at 3-3.5ft tall with an elegant form. It is deciduous, like most ferns, and needs part or full shade. The new croziers, with their dark chocolate, hairy midribs and lime leaflets are amazing in spring. It is quite a slow grower and takes a few years to reach full size, and needs a little bit more moisture than some. It would look spectacular planted in huge drifts of 40 or 50 if space and money allowed.
The tree fern Dicksonia antarctica is a wonderful fern for drama, with its ‘ostrich plume’ fronds and textured stem. It is a long-term investment. In time, when it gets to full height, the bottom gets weak and it falls, but the crown rights itself and sends up a new trunk. Other ferns can then colonise the old trunk, creating a feature of their own. You can’t colonise a tree fern’s trunk by planting in it, but spores will find a niche in a very short time.
Tree ferns compete with Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’ for drama – with thick purple stems these ferns get to 4ft tall in moist ground and turn bronze in autumn. “We sell a lot of Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Linearis Polydactyla’ because of its shape and form,” says Fletcher. “It’s open, ‘crested’, very bushy and about 2ft tall. It is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it – but it is very distinctive and really good for dry shade or on a windy site. Once it is established you can literally plant this in dry areas and forget it. We plant them with autumn- and spring-flowering cyclamen around the base and it looks amazing.”
Best for colour
Cyrtomium macrophyllum var. tukusicola is a spectacular evergreen fern with large mid-green holly-like leaflets, and is more elegant and a nicer colour than others in the genus. “Ten years of experimentation and customer feedback on it has revealed that it survives down to -14°C.” Plant in large groups for maximum impact.
Athyrium ‘Ghost’ is one of the finest ferns for colour. It reaches about 2ft tall in moist conditions. It is grey with a little pinkish red in the centre of the leaflets and looks wonderful in large pots in a sheltered, shady corner, or planted in a group with blue hydrangeas or white-stemmed birches nearby. “It is a stunning plant that should be more widely grown.”
Dryopteris erythrosora is great for all-year interest. This evergreen’s new growth is a lovely orange colour. It generally has one or two new growths right through the season, giving a little colour until quite late in the year. The colour changes to yellow, then to green. It reaches about 2ft 6in tall, is a good doer and needs a moderate amount of moisture.
Top fern growing tips
• Dig as much well-rotted organic matter as possible into the ground before planting.
• Ferns need part shade or shade. If the soil is very dry or among tree roots, water thoroughly until established.
• Plant containerised ferns in a 50:50 mix of John Innes No 3 and peat or peat-substitute compost.
• Feed with general purpose slow-release fertiliser in spring once established. Containerised plants need feeding more regularly. We use a water-soluble feed and give it little and often.
• Move or divide in September and October, with as much root ball as possible. Water well after transplanting.
• Protect tree ferns in autumn by dropping dry leaves into the crown and firming them. New fronds will push though the leaves in spring.