Ferns are one of a few wild plants that are welcome arrivals in gardens and are of sufficient decorative value to retain. Ferns do not produce seeds, they produce spores. Seed production is a much more recent development in the evolution of plants. Although the production of seeds is a more efficient way of transferring life to new generations and flowering plants have come to dominate the world as a result, the spores produced by ferns have some advantages in certain conditions.

Ferns retain a toe-hold in some kinds of habitat as a result. They can grow in cracks in walls and other spots where dampness can linger. The tissue of the leaves is very thin and light, and the shape of the foliage is distinctive. The leaf colour with sunlight passing through is a vibrant green. Often the ground close to ferns is bathed with soft green light as the sun shines. When choosing ferns for the garden, provide the right conditions — light shade, moist soil that is very well drained, plenty of humus and good shelter are all important. Not only will ferns thrive under these conditions but, because these are the places that we would expect to see them, they will look most appropriate.

Garden use

The greatest advantage that ferns have is that the spores are tiny and very light. They travel easily on the wind, often for huge distances across oceans, a trick which few seeds manage. This means that ferns have a very wide distribution, often across an entire hemisphere. There are some which are hardy and others that are tropical and limited by the temperature range they can tolerate.

The hart’s tongue fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium, is well named because of its long, narrow shape — it is a small evergreen, hardy fern. The polypody fern, Polypodium vulgare, is very widespread, also small and evergreen, about the same size as the hart’s tongue but with divided leaves — it is often seen on shady banks and on the limbs of big old trees in damper parts of the country. The hard fern, Blechnum spicant, is similar, a smallish evergreen with divided, almost coarse comb-like fronds, tough and common in rocky places and ditches.

Growing ferns

There is a wide range of ferns to choose from and, despite having no flowers, they are highly decorative. They vary in size, leaf size, leaf pattern and colour, and many kinds are native. Wild ferns that pop up in the garden can be moved to more suitable spots in the springtime — they may struggle but usually survive the move. The lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina, is native. A medium sized, deciduous fern, it is very hardy and quite dainty in appearance. The male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, is very common under trees and in ditches and hedgerows. A large semi-evergreen, it is very hardy, quite wind resistant too, which most ferns are not. The soft shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, is very similar to the male fern, and common but generally smaller, with softer fronds, and semi-evergreen.

While most ferns do not like very wet ground, the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, thrives in wet places, marshy ground and peaty bogs. It is a large and beautiful fern with deciduous fronds that change to rusty colour in autumn and winter. The shuttlecock fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is another large, deciduous fern for wet ground, a non-native, it has lovely spring fronds and needs space to show its qualities. The holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum, is a beautiful small evergreen, slightly tender, non-native, with shiny holly-like fronds. The tree fern, Dicksonia antartica, is very large and forms a ‘trunk’, but it is tender and only for mild areas. The most colourful of the ferns is the lovely Japanese painted fern, Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’, with purple and silver grey markings. It is well worth seeking out.

Elephant ears

Elephant ears. \Gerry Daly

The flowers of bergenia, or elephant ears as they are known sometimes, last for a very long time in spring, from when they first show until they are finished. This depends on the locality but they are among the first flowers to react to warming weather conditions. The plants themselves are very long-lasting too. They resist weeds extremely well and spread outwards slowly by means of thick stems.

If you have areas at the front of borders or odd corners, you could do worse than try this plant, and you can set these now by taking rosettes and sticking the stem end into the ground behind a spade. It will produce roots and grow from there. Of course, if you don’t have the plant you will have to acquire it in pots but later you can expand its numbers in this easy way. It is a naturally woodland plant, and tolerates light shade very well.

This week’s reminders

Trees, shrubs and roses

Spring shrubs and trees, including magnolia, cherry and rhododendron have been truly remarkable this spring with all sorts carrying a large show of blossom. The wild gorse of the hedgerows is a very good annual indicator of the extent of blossom and this year has been flowering to its tips.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

This has been the wettest spring in memory. Sowing of outdoor-raised vegetables has been impossible. Some vegetables are all sown in a greenhouse. Some others are grown under protection in some circumstances, and others rarely, if ever. But any kind can be sown under protection and planted out later.


Because of the plentiful rainfall, lawns have been growing well. Although the temperature levels were low, there were very few frosty nights to cause damage to the surface. Try to mow as soon as possible but otherwise stay off the surface to prevent compaction, especially if air is released.


This is the time to start keeping an eye out for snail damage as new foliage comes through the soil and especially on small new plants. Tubers of begonias and dahlias can be potted up, or planted out towards the end of the month. Try to give much light to bedding plants raised from seed.

Greenhouse and house plant

Sowing of tender vegetables like pumpkins, courgettes and tomatoes can be done this week, or the weeks preceding and after this week. If possible, make some room for sowing outdoor vegetables. Try to start the growing season with the greenhouse free of pests that enjoy the extra warmth.

Read more

TUS named Ireland's first ADHD friendly University

Health special: coping with the unexpected side of farming