By Judy Weaver | Mobile Master Gardener |

Q: I have a shady yard at my new house and am interested in planting ferns. What works best in coastal Alabama?

A: Fortunately, one of our Mobile County Master Gardeners, Sue Stephan, became interested in ferns three to four years ago and now tends 114 varieties. I visited Sue’s garden to learn more, and could hardly bring myself to leave the beautiful garden rooms she has created.

Fern basics
Hardy ferns are ancient plants, older than dinosaurs. Most thrive in partial to full shade and a moist environment. Some ferns tolerate sun and dry conditions. Gerald Klingaman, an emeritus professor of horticulture at the University of Arkansas, says there are 20 fern families with more than 900 taxa recognized in the United States, and over 20,000 species known worldwide.

Ferns reproduce by their spores, which can be found in sori (appear to be small dots) on the underside of their fronds. They also spread by creeping rhizomes.

Unlike flowering annuals and perennials, ferns look their best after they have had a couple of years to establish themselves. Your patience will pay dividends. Ferns do best in soil with a pH range of 5.0 to 5.5. A north or east exposure is ideal, especially if rainwater can keep the growing medium moist. If you don’t have woodlands soil, you can amend your soil with sand and organic matter such as peat moss, leaf compost or pine bark to break up a heavy clay soil. Your ferns will be happier and showier.

Tough as nails evergreen ferns
A couple of woods ferns are sure things in our growing zone. The Southern woodfern (Dryopteris ludoviciana) is an evergreen in our climate that can eventually reach 48 inches. It performs best in moist areas, though the Southern woodfern can also grow in dry conditions. Its habit is upright with dark green fronds, and can be used for massing.

If you are looking for a ground cover, the evergreen autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) from Asia can grow in a clump up to two feet tall and wide. New fronds unfurl in a warm, maroon-red color before maturing to a deep green by summer.

Rita’s Gold fern (Nephrolepis exaltata “Rita’s Gold”) has chartreuse-green fronds (18-24 inches long) that make it an effective accent plant. It is only hardy to USDA zones 9 and 10; the city of Mobile is in zone 8b.

Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is big, bold and shiny, growing about two feet wide and 18 inches tall.

Easy-to-grow deciduous ferns
The Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var.pictum) is beautifully showy with its white-splashed fronds. Mass plantings can brighten an area in your shade garden.

The ghost fern (Athyrium “ghost”) has the symmetrical form of the lady fern and the grayish white fronds of the Japanese painted fern.

Tips from Sue
• The common maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) likes a slightly alkaline soil (pH of 6.6 to 7.5). Sue uses seashells mixed into the soil to achieve that alkalinity.

• Resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), an epiphyte or air plant, can be used to line your walking paths. Sue finds fallen live oak limbs with the ferns already on them and lays them along the garden pathways. Resurrection fern gets its nutrients from the air and from water. It can survive years-long drought and will rehydrate in a single day when water is present.

• Look for ferns to add to your collection at local nurseries, the Mobile Botanical Gardens and even at Fresh Market. There are so many treasured ferns to put on your list: maidenhair, foxtail, ghost, staghorn, birds nest, Boston, Australian fern tree, Japanese holly fern, ET fern, Rita’s Gold, mahogany, crocodile, elkhorn, lace, shiny bristle, wood fern, kangaroo paw, bear paw, leather fern and many more.

• Advice on feeding ferns varies from using ¼ strength liquid plant food to feeding them with fish emulsion to not feeding them at all. Experiment.

• Finally, take the time to sit in your garden among your ferns and breathe in the restful and serene atmosphere they create.


What: New, Better, Yours: Plant the Newest, Best Plants
When: Wednesday, July 26, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Where: Bellingrath Gardens, 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
Admission: Fees apply. Call 251-973-2217 for more information.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Aug. 3, 10:30-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road, N., Mobile
Topic: Favorite Plants for Mobile Gardens, Mobile Master Gardeners

What: Baldwin County Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Aug. 10, 9:30 a.m.
Where: Gulf Coast Regional Research & Extension Center, 8300 Highway 104, Fairhope
Topic: Native American Horticulture

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to