What ferns will grow in dry shade?

linnea56(z5 IL)January 10, 2010


I love ferns but have not had much success with them in the area where I would like to have them. Maybe I am just too impatient and they need more time to grow. Or maybe the conditions are just wrong.

I have an area of dry shade under 3 ash trees. This garden is on a slight slope so I have terraced it to help to retain water. I installed a watering system and do water when it gets too dry. Soil is amended. There is both leaf mulch and bark mulch. Pretty much everything I am growing in there has been slow: hosta (VERY slow: 5 years and some still only have 2 leaves; though dwarf kinds did well), astilbe, geraniums, and the ferns. Geraniums and Virginia bluebells are about the happiest: plus bulbs like daffodils.

I bought some ferns that were supposed to be maidenhair, but after they sprouted I could see that they were not. They look a lot like an indoor Boston fern. After 3 years they are still at the 2 or 3 leaf stage. I got some other kind in a local plant swap but donÂt know what they are either. Those are growing but not really taking off. Finely dissected leaves. None are tall, and thatÂs really what I wanted.

Are there any varieties that will grow better in these conditions? And what is a good source? I see some offered in Bluestone, but donÂt know if that is a good place to get them.

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Yes, there's a good number of ferns that will do well in dry shade. But as with any other so-called drought tolerant plant, regular watering is typically needed for them to become established.

These ferns are considered well-suited for these conditions:

Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides
Western sword fern, Polystichum munitum
Japanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum
Giant chain fern, Woodwardia fimbriata
Licorice fern, Polypodium glycyrrhiza
most wood or male ferns, Dryopteris species
New York fern, Thelypteris noveboracensis

Most nurseries and mail order sources that offer a wide selection of perennials will offer ferns as well.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2010 at 2:43PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

Dryopteris tolerate drier shade. I have many "Sweet Autumn" ferns and they are fantastic ferns. I managed to get them established under a maple tree, too (no small feat).

Of course, anything you plant, including those plants that tolerate drier conditions, are going to need careful attention to watering until they are firmly established (at least one full season, perhaps two). Even though the ferns under the maple are now fully established, I still do supplementally water (usually give them a drink with the hose when I'm watering annuals), I don't really know if they would be doing so well under the tree if I didn't give them an H2O boost occasionally - ?

I've tried the Japanese painted fern in drier conditions, they did not do well, nor did Lady ferns. I ended up moving them to moister conditions and they *really* took off.

Really, though, to be honest - ferns are moisture lovers. Some may *tolerate* drier conditions, but they don't necessarily thrive there.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2010 at 5:28PM
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coolplantsguy(z6 Ontario)

Don't forget that one of the variables with some dry-shade situations is root competition.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2010 at 5:36PM
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My favorite is Dryopteris à australis (dixie wood fern). It grows upright and is semi-evergreen (although I snip off the old fronds in early Spring because they look battered by winter's end). It takes at least 3 years to establish and get going. I think this fern is sterile, so it can only be propagated by division, but it's easy enough to slice off a chunk from a well-established clump to transplant elsewhere. Like most ferns, it definitely prefers moisture, but it can tolerate drier sites. I have mine planted beneath a large winged elm, underplanted by Lamium. I'm not sure where you can get your hands on one though. I obtained mine through a local arboretum sale.

My second favorite is Thelypteris kunthii, which spreads to form colonies.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 9:50AM
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Really, though, to be honest - ferns are moisture lovers.

That's a pretty broad generalization that isn't necessarily accurate. There are literally thousands of fern genera and they grow in a very wide range of conditions - some dry, some moist; some in heavy shade, some preferring a lot of sun. While many common hardy ferns do prefer the moist, shady locations that many of us are most familiar with as fern habitats, that is by no means the end of the discussion. There is an entire subclassification of ferns labeled as xerophytic ferns and they grow in very dry, sunny locations that are even desert-like - arid portions of the desert Southwest are home to a number of species and they are often recommended as rock gardens plants in areas where they are hardy.

The fern species that have been listed above are known to exist natively in or adapt to quite dry conditions. In fact, several are well-recognized to thrive in dry shade once established and are expressly recommended for that purpose, a difficult planting situation for many plants.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 12:39PM
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coolplantsguy(z6 Ontario)

Two points:

Let's not forget the difference between "tolerant of" vs. "prefers" when it comes to certain specific conditions.

Also, I would politely suggest that "dry shade" in the relatively moderate climes of the PNW is a little different than the same condition in the midwest or Great Lakes region.

The Japanese Painted Fern is a case in point. I'm fairly certain that it is a plant that does not prefer, in fact may only barely tolerate, relative periods of dryness in our hot, humid summers.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 12:49PM
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gonativegal(zone 5a)

The regional climate does make a difference as CPG as pointed out. We can get some pretty significant dry spells here in the Midwest in the summer.

I'm from the midwest too and unfortunately some ferns, even soil type and pH factors in greatly as well for added success. I know just going around the bend from the Chicago region to Michigan (especially along the shoreline) there can be a fairly big difference in soil type and pH with soil types going from heavier black clay with a higher pH to a lighter more acidic soil.

Some ferns will tolerate this and with some thought to ammending the soil and cultural changes such as extra watering even do well. Others just simply can't handle it. I'd say research each one for soil and pH requirements as well. Personally for me I've had good success with the Ostrich, Lady, Maidenhair and Japanese Painted and this is with decent soil periodically mulched with leaves or pine bark mulch and supplemental watering during the dry spells of summer.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2010 at 11:50AM
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I hate for this to degenerate into an argument but the listing of ferns for dry shade I presented is not limited to the PNW - it came from research into various species of ferns that were adaptable to quite dry conditions and from Ferns for American Gardens by John Mickel, which I consider the 'bible' for fern growing :-)

And I'd also like to point out that much of this country has a very incorrect impression of the dampness of the PNW. Most of this area experiences a much lower annual rainfall than most of the east coast and many parts of the midwest - the rainy season just tends to extend from midfall into early summer but at a very light rate (usually). And this is considered a recurring summer drought area, often experiencing NO measurable rainfall from midsummer until late fall. Add to that our dry shade here tends to be provided by the large native conifers that grow everywhere and dry shade under a 60' western red cedar is equal to or exceeds any other dry shade you could manufacture! Even in the middle of winter at the height of the rainy season, this is an area that can remain bone dry. All of the listed ferns will succeed under these conditions once properly established.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2010 at 12:28PM
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mxk3(Zone 6 SE MI)

GG48: I'm sorry if you misconstrued my original post as an attack on the information you listed - I certainly did not mean it that way, I was simply sharing *my experience* with ferns in dry locations. I stand behind that post and the advice given therein.

Certainly any advice from a professional is appreciated and can be very helpful. However, I venture to say that most folks also appreciate honest feedback on plants (or whatever issue is being discussed) from others who are in the same general region and/or zone. Isn't that we do "over the fence" with our friends/neighbors? If my neighbor asked me what ferns grow well here, I would offer suggestions based on my experience, so why should it be any different here? Often shared experiences/personal wisdom are more valuable than material published in a reference book.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2010 at 12:47PM
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