I Have Ceded the Backyard to the Ferns

One ostrich fern–one.  When my hosta garden still seemed a little bare, I decided ferns would be a good addition. My wife, who loves ferns, thought it was a wonderful idea. I really should have read a book.

Wandering through Grower’s Outlet, looking for Prairie Bella day lilies (they never have them when I go), I found myself in the fern section and decided to buy three. I chose the plants based on leaf shape–nothing else. Since I knew they liked the shade and needed water, I figured what more could there be to growing them—serious rookie mistake.

I still don’t know the names of the other two ferns. Just like teachers learn the names of the smart kids and class clowns before less notable students, gardeners know the names of the plants that give them trouble or make them beam with pride.

One of the three ferns does what I expected. It grows about a foot tall, stays green, and doesn’t complain. The other fern, I think, got killed off by the ostrich ferns. The bed is now so thick with ostrich ferns I can’t tell whether it’s still there. I would go looking, but I’m not even sure I remember how it looks.

Maxxum 5, Ektar 100, 50mm 2.8 macro


I became complacent because there were only two or three new ostrich ferns the first two years, and they helped fill in the gaps behind the hostas—exactly what I wanted them to do. They spread for the next two years, but not much—certainly not enough to cause alarm. But, looking back, those were hot, dry years, and I watered shade plants only once each week.

Last year brought the rainiest summer we’ve had since I started gardening. The ferns exploded. They got the better of me because I was not up to playing in the dirt last summer. My lack of response emboldened them. The ferns got so thick that my Halcyon and Fire Island hostas disappeared. At one point, the ferns had taken over nearly every shaded spot. I counted over 20 ostrich ferns in a space where I thought five tops would be good.

Maxxum 5, Ektar 100, 50mm 2.8 macro

Ferns are not unreasonable, nor are they ill-mannered, only unselfconsciously exuberant, which makes it hard to tell them they’re not welcome. Fortunately for all involved, the grass along the entire length of the backyard fence segment farthest from the house dies each summer. In past years, I’ve tried to keep it green to no avail because the area lies in deep shade from May until November. As a compromise, last summer, my brother removed all except a few ferns from the hosta garden and planted them along that 40-foot segment. There, I have no interest in trying to control them. I will let them be as unselfconsciously exuberant as they wish. I will let them grow freely, and once they have spread enough, I’ll put down pine straw. Should anyone ask, I will say everything is going according to plan.

Not every fern story can have a happy ending, so accept this tale as a neighborly warning if you are considering adding ferns to your yard—there is no such thing as one ostrich fern. A word to the wise…

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