Small, shade garden ideas with surprising Maidenhair fern

A clump of maidenhair fern.

I found this magnificent clump of (Northern) Maidenhair fern in the gardens at Lost Horizons in Acton, ON, in July, 2016.

Ferns are having a moment not just because they’re sharing airtime with Zach Galifianakis during his hilarious/shockingly irreverent celebrity interviews on Between Two Ferns. Their general gorgeousness, lush but not overpowering, make them a popular choice for small gardens and many have an impressive hardiness that’s earning them starring roles in high profile places like New York City’s High Line. But, putting aside style and substance, ferns can add enchantment to the garden. Who can deny that those tightly wound fiddleheads sproinging up in spring are positively otherworldly. And then they uncurl into an ethereal greeness that lasts all summer long. Of all the hardy ferns now available, one that offers the whole package–impact, reliability and maximum airy-fairy-ness–is Maidenhair fern.

In my part of the woods (southern Ontario), Maidenhair fern really means Northern Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum). Our Maidenhair fern inherited its common name from a fern that actually grows in much warmer climates called, not surprisingly, Southern MaidenHair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris). “Maidenhair” comes from the capillus-veneris part which means ‘hair of Venus’. This may make you think the plant is beautiful but high maintenance. The opposite is true. In 2006, the Washington Post reported that [Southern] Maidenhair ferns were found happily greening up the edges of a Metrorail station platform in Washington, D.C. 150 feet below street level. The funny thing about Northern and Southern Maidenhair is that their foliage and habit are quite different, though they share the same distinctive wiry black stems. But someone long ago took one look at an Adiantum pedatum and mistakenly exclaimed “Oh, look, Maidenhair fern!” and it stuck.

Maidenhair fern showing the plant's stems.

The slender, black, wiry stems of this Northern Maidenhair fern is one of its distinguishing features. Shot in my garden in September, 2016.

Despite depth defying feats of flourishment, ferns still have a rep for being hard to grow. One way to hedge your bet is to choose ferns native to your region. There are gorgeous native fern choices for practically every garden in North America from Labrador to New Mexico. Northern Maidenhair fern is native to most of the eastern half of Canada, including Ontario, as well as almost all of the eastern half of the United States. For a map showing all the provinces and states, check out the USDA plants database. Other Ontario native ferns readily available at most larger garden centres are Hart’s Tongue and Christmas fern, both of which I have in my garden.


SMALL GARDENS: Ferns should be on a list of must-haves when gardening for small spaces. Northern Maidenhair fern, in particular, can do so much besides fill in the gaps of a shaded area. For a zen feel in a small area, consider planting these ferns exclusively to create a finely patterned carpet of green. These ferns tend to grow slowly, making a mass planting easy to manage. And, FYI, Maidenhair fern is reportedly very tolerant of urban pollution. Hey, if they can thrive in a subway station, they should be able to do OK in a city or suburban garden.

A small clump of Maidenhair fern.

This small clump of Adiantum pedatum is making itself at home in one of my flower beds.

ROCK GARDENS: Maidenhair fern adds wonderful softness to a rock garden because its feathery elegance contrasts so nicely with the rough stones. BONUS: Fern roots don’t go deep; a shallow pocket of earth is fine. If you’re planting up a very steep or vertical rock wall, choose a niche higher than head height for some Maidenhair ferns. Looking up into them is magical.

AWKWARD SPACES: Got a strip of earth along the side of your home shaded by your neighbour’s house? Or does one side of your house have an indent offering a patch of earth that never sees sunlight? Consider either your opportunity to establish your very own fernery with a collection of specimen ferns. Maidenhair ferns can be overpowered by classic shade choices such as hostas but will stand-out with their exceptionally fine texture and thrive when planted next to other slow-growing ferns.

For a good, all-round guide to choosing and caring for ferns in southern Ontario, hop over to the comprehensive and truly useful Toronto Master Gardeners Hardy Garden Ferns guide and start plotting to add some magic to a small or shade garden using surprisingly strong and versatile Maidenhair ferns.


2 thoughts on “Small, shade garden ideas with surprising Maidenhair fern

  1. Pingback: A fern with attitude | Ministry of the fence

  2. Pingback: Ministry of the fence Celebrate Canada Part 2 Fab Ferns

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