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Hostas & Ferns growing together naturally


Published: 07/23/2012


Hostas and ferns are two of the most compatible plants in the shady border. They share similar needs and have complementary growth habits. Yet while there are few Toronto gardens without hostas, ferns seem to be quite rare these days.

Ferns come in many varieties and sizes, and most require little more than a cool, dark, damp corner in which to thrive. Many are extremely hardy, right the way down to zone 2, in fact. If they'd work quite nicely someplace like Timmins, think how well they'll do in your backyard! As well, very few pests seem to bother the healthy, vigorous fern.

There are literally hundreds of different ferns that will grow in Toronto, among them the very attractive Lady in Red, which is one of the Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina. It is a delicate-looking, lacy fern with arching fronds whose stems turn deep red when mature. As with many ferns, it opens like a fiddlehead and grows to 60 cm high, providing excellent ground cover in a woodland setting. Plus, Lady in Red isn't too worried about a little direct sunlight as long as it isn't allowed to dry out. Watch also for the Minutissimum cultivar, which forms smaller clumps to about 30 cm high.

Japanese painted fern (A. niponicum) is among the showiest of ferns with graceful, arching foliage that is grayish and fringed with green. The Pictum cultivar develops a red blush as the season progresses. Named 2004 perennial of the year by Ohio-based Perennial Plant Association, Pictum  will reach 50 cm in height and prefers part, not dense, shade, such as might be obtained with dappled sunlight. From the same family comes the Applecourt Crested fern, which has similar colouring but an added crest, giving it a fuller appearance.

Despite its odd name, the Brittle Bladder Fern (Cystopteris fragilis) is a firm favourite from Britain. It grows from 15 to 40 cm tall and will take a direct hit from the sun for a few hours each day. Also, it is useful for growing close up to the walls of the house since it welcomes any lime that may leach from the brick. This is quite unusual for ferns. Most prefer a slightly acidic soil, which may easily be provided by digging in some peat moss. In fact, a fern bed should be prepared with both peat moss and coarse sand, since most ferns don't like to do battle with a heavy soil. In new beds, an application of bone meal will help get ferns started.

The Christmas Fern (Polystichum arostichoides) has a similar profile to C. fragilis and is easy to grow, plus it has the benefit of fronds that last well into wintertime. In well-sheltered spots it may even be evergreen. Since ferns that are all similar in height can look somewhat boring, you can achieve a rewarding change of profile with Barnes's Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas Barnesii), whose attractively serrated fronds can rise a metre or more above the soil.

Never let ferns dry out during the growing season and avoid feeding them inorganic fertilizers, and you will be rewarded with luxuriant growth for many years. If you have a log-burning fireplace, scatter some of the ashes over their site during winter. In early spring, dig the ashes in gently with a little compost or rotted manure, and you will be well rewarded for your efforts. Incidentally, ferns look good when planted in a long, narrow corridor that's not too windy.

Big variety in hostas

Hostas have many uses in the landscape, as excellently shown in the book Hostas by Rosemary Barrett (Firefly Books, 2004). They come in such a wide variety of shapes, colours and textures that it is difficult to know where to begin. Among my favourites is the award-winning Big Daddy, which has large puckered leaves with a bluish tinge and can stand 70 cm or more. Big Daddy has white flowers, but as with most hostas, is more to be esteemed for foliage than blooms. It looks good in a large pot too, especially combined with a narrow-leaf hosta such as the well-named Stiletto. Snowden is another cultivar generally noted for its height, though I have seen examples that barely reach a half-metre tall.

An award-winning hosta that works well as an edging plant is Golden Tiara, with its light green gold-edged leaves that grow about 35 cm high. And while beauty is a highly subjective matter, Great Expectations is claimed to be the loveliest of all the hostas, thanks to the wide irregular margins of green and blue around its yellow-centred leaves.

Mixing hostas together can produce very attractive combinations, and since they are easy to plant, transplant and divide, you can experiment with them in spring and fall without too much risk of harming them. Nevertheless, do try to buy at least one or two new types each year, or your collection may become quite boring.

Adding border colour

Of course, the shady border without any colour in it can look boring anyway, so you might like to intersperse your ferns and hostas with flowering perennials and annuals. Among perennials, certain columbines (aquilegia) and astilbe will provide some colour for much of the year, and you might like to try the hellebores for early-season interest. Lungwort (Pulmonaria) and the primulas(Auricula will also add colour in the spring.

For late-season blooms, do try monkshood (Aconitum, which will still be flowering when just about everything else has faded away, a sort of delphinium of the semi-shade. For late spring and early summer colour, common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is tough to beat, with its profusion of blooms on tall, erect stems. While it is biennial, foxglove may self-seed in a favourable location.

For a low-growing contrast to ferns and hostas, try Beacon silver-spotted nettle (Lamium maculatum 'Beacon Silver'), which has an interesting silver tinge. Another good creeper is Silverfrost or Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon 'variegatum'). It has small yellow flowers in spring and should be plucked back regularly to encourage bushiness. If a drainpipe empties nearby and the shade isn't dense, don't forget the old favourite Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia). Keep in mind all these creepers should be located with care, since they can become invasive.


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