By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener
Ferns are fascinating plants! They evolved more than 350 million years ago. Ferns and their allies were the most common plants during prehistoric times. Today, there are over 12,000 fern species growing everywhere except at the poles.
Ferns are special in the gardening world. They are exotic and beautiful but not as flamboyant as many plants. We have developed a fern “dictionary” to describe them. For example, an entire fern leaf is actually called a frond and the stem is called a stipe. Ferns reproduce via spores which are not the same as seeds and ferns do not produce flowers. If you study ferns, you may be a pteridologist….oh my!
Fern propagation means collecting spores or bulblets. Fern propagation, using spores or bulblets, is explained here . There is only one native Ontario fern that produces bulblets. It is the bulblet fern or Cystopteris bulbifera. The easiest way to obtain a new fern is, of course, to buy one. A list of local vendors is below. Some ferns spread via rhizomes or underground runners, just split the root with a sharp shovel and separate out the fronds of the new plant. You may also split ferns with fibrous roots as you would many perennials, once they reach an adequate size, again using a sharp shovel. You may split then plant ferns in the spring or fall. Check out your friend’s gardens…you may find a fern, or two, growing that your friend may be willing to share. Please do not harvest from the wild. Some fern species no longer grow in the wild because of over harvesting.
Ferns may be used in your garden as an exclamation point or a secret quiet spot, mixed in with your other shade loving perennials or in a woodland garden. I have some ferns mixed in my gardens now but 2021 is the year that I plan to tackle the creation of a woodland garden. I have already put in an order for some ferns including the bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera), ghost fern (Athyrium X Ghost) and the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). This grouping should work well together because they all prefer shade or part sun and moist soil with lots of organic matter. I plan to amend their location with compost and to mulch after planting to maintain moisture and reduce weeds. These plants are perennials so I will expect to see them again next year.
Ferns are beautiful plants whose graceful, arching fronds would make a great addition to your garden!
Peterson Guide to Ferns, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Second Edition (Sept. 26 2005), ISBN-10: 0618394060
Where to Buy Ferns
Gardens Plus, Peterborough
Ground Covers Unlimited, Bethany
Please support your local nurseries. Many of them, including those listed above, carry the more unusual plants that you will not likely find at the big box stores.