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"Plant a Fern and you will have a 'Frond' for Life," by the Whistling Gardener

A sea of shamrocks. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
A sea of shamrocks. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Ferns are an amazing group of plants. They are among some of the oldest plants to still inhabit the earth. Ever since I was a young child I have been drawn to their delicate and soothing foliage.

I remember my first trip to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (I was probably 13 or 14) and seeing eight foot tall Australian tree ferns and thinking: “wow, these are really cool.” Imagine my excitement when two years ago I got the opportunity to go to New Zealand and walk among 30 feet tall New Zealand tree ferns.

Ferns grow all over the planet from the cold of the arctic to the hot and steamy zones of the equator. In our state alone we are blessed with at least a dozen or so varieties, of which several are grown commercially. While some ferns, once established, can be quite drought and sun tolerant, most prefer a shady and moist environment. Rich soil with lots of compost is a must.

Ferns make great companions with other shade lovers like hostas and astilbes. Some of them are deciduous and lose all their fronds at the first frost while others retain their foliage all winter. There are so many ferns that I truly love that I would need to own a botanical garden to fit them all in, but when space is limited, here are some of my favorites.

Royal Fern: This six footer is a real stunner in my garden with its upright growth habit and large fronds. It is actually a North American native and thrives in moist conditions. Give it some space as it can get three to four feet across in time. Because it is deciduous, you can cut it back and clean it up any time after the first killing frost.

Ostrich Fern: This one is another monster topping out at five to six feet tall. Like the Royal fern, it prefers moist conditions but has very frilly fronds - much like an Ostrich’s feathers. I have yet to find a spot in my garden, so it might have to go in a pot temporarily!

Alaska Fern (also known as Soft-Shield fern): I just love the delicate texture of this small fern. It forms a mound about 12 to 14 inches tall and can reach two feet across. It is evergreen, so looks nice all winter. In March, I cut off all the fronds and let it put on all new foliage, then it looks fabulous for the whole season.

Tassel Fern: This is another evergreen fern native to Japan and South Korea that has very glossy fronds. It forms an attractive mound about two feet tall by two feet wide. The fiddleheads (the newly unfurled fronds) flip backwards forming tassels, hence the name. The frond midribs and crown of the plant have a hairy appearance, which adds some visual interest. Like all evergreen ferns, shear it back to the crown in March.

Autumn Fern: New foliage on this fern has a nice coppery red color that matures to a shiny dark green. It grows well in deep to dappled shade and will tolerate drier soils.

Ghost Fern: This deciduous selection has sturdy, stiff silver fronds that make a nice accent in a shady bed. Pair it with some black Mondo grass for some shady drama.

There are so many more ferns I could pontificate on if only there was time and space. Head down to your favorite garden center and discover for yourself the amazing world of ferns and “frondle” a few just for fun.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at

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