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Ferns could be the answer to your gardening question
Special to The Seattle Times
Are you looking for plants that are low-maintenance, thrive in the Northwest and, best of all, add a texture that no other plant can? Then look no further than ferns.
Ferns are the ultimate garden plants, and all gardeners should know how to use them in their plans.
To the unaccustomed eye, one fern can look pretty much like another — lacy and green. Once you become familiar with them, however, the subtle differences are intriguing, and you notice a world of variation.
When you choose where to place them, consider that most ferns thrive in dappled light, and protection from sun during the hottest part of the day.
Many kinds will take more sun if you are willing to give them more water. Once established for two or three years, they will need little additional summer water if grown out of hot sun.
Designing with ferns
When designing with ferns, it's all about foliage; they have no flowers. Ferns work well in planting combinations because their leaf texture is unique, serving as a foil for the texture of other plants.
In a shady border, use the bold leaves of hostas or the pointed leaves of epimedium for contrast.
The linear foliage of grasses accents ferns, too. The yellow hue of Bowles' golden grass will do well in the conditions favored by most ferns.
Think, too, of the overall shape of the fern you are using. Many look like large shuttlecocks — narrow at the base, spreading at the top as if the plant were exuberantly throwing its arms into the air. Maidenhair fern resembles a group of lacy umbrellas.
Fern size and maintenance
Consider size when selecting ferns, which can range from a ground cover of just a few inches tall, to more than 5 feet tall and wide.
If they do outgrow their space, divide them in early spring and replant a small piece in the same place and spread the rest in another part of the garden.
Or read the tags, or consult books or nursery professionals to determine ultimate size, and select to fit your space and stay within bounds.
Depending on type, ferns can be evergreen or deciduous and how you maintain them depends on which type they are.
Evergreen ferns look best when they are cleaned up in early spring by cutting off the old leaves just before the new fronds emerge.
Clean up deciduous types in the fall when the fronds die down, or leave them to decompose and nourish the soil.
Ferns provide color
Ferns can bring a lot of color to the garden. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) has a silver stripe down the middle of each frond on a darker background and burgundy stems. It will brighten a shady area and grow to 15 inches high and 18 inches wide.
Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) is colorful, too; the new fronds emerge bronze and change to bright green as they mature. Autumn fern is evergreen and grows to 2 feet.
Ferns offer so much variety that if you become smitten, you can spend the rest of your gardening life getting to know them better, and you'll almost certainly join the legion of fern fanciers who stretch back through garden history.
Where to find ferns
Most retail nurseries have a selection of ferns. Two local specialty nurseries carry the hard-to-find ones. They are open by appointment and sell by mail order, too:
• Fancy Fronds is in Gold Bar, east of Monroe on Highway 2. Their Web site is www.fancyfronds.com, and phone is 360-793-1472.
• Foliage Gardens is in Bellevue. Their Web site is www.foliagegardens.com, and phone number is 425-747-2998.
Where to see ferns
To see examples of ferns used well in a garden setting, visit the Signature Bed at the Washington Park Arboretum, just outside Graham Visitors Center.
It is maintained by the Hardy Fern Foundation and shows off a wide variety of ferns and companion plants, complemented by skillful placement of stone.
The Hardy Fern Foundation's annual Fern Festival and plant sale is Friday, June 2, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, June 3, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Friday at 7 p.m., Robbin Moran will give a lecture titled "Helpful and Harmful Ferns" at the Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle, 206-543-8616.
Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 206-464-8533.
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