Hosta and astilbe garden

Best Ferns for Your Garden

If you have lots of shade but there are too many deer in your neighborhood to grow hostas and other perennial plants, rely on ferns to deliver welcome color and texture, especially when blended with other flowers. Many are natives, and they come in a startlingly wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.

Ferns are part of an ancient group of plants, including mosses and liverworts, that dates back about 300 million years — before the dinosaurs!

As you may guess from a plant that old, they’re easy to grow and there’s a fern suitable for almost any location. Hardiness varies by species.

How to Grow Fern Plants in Your Garden Plant ferns in part to full shade and rich, well-drained soil. In all climates, they need protection from afternoon sun to prevent drying and leaf scorch.

Ferns can reach 12 inches to 6 feet tall, depending on the type and growing conditions. The plant prefers rich, humus-filled soil. Mix compost into planting holes and cover them annually with 2 inches of composted oak leaves or other organic mulch to keep them fed and moistened.

Like other perennial plants, you can divide ferns in spring or fall. Keep the divisions well-watered until plants are established.

Some ferns spread by underground runners — helpful in places where you want to plant a groundcover, but unwelcome in an orderly, formal planting. Research the characteristics of each fern before you plant it.

Ferns are ideal companions in a woodland garden, where they offer a texture change when planted with other perennials. Other deer-resistant companions include astilbe, hellebore, barrenwort, and heart-leaf brunnera. Learn more about dividing perennials.

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Holly Fern Holly ferns (Polystichum spp.), native to the eastern United States, get their common name because their tough green leaves often persist through winter so they can be cut for Christmas decorations, making them valuable garden plants. Clip last year’s leaves off the plants in early spring before new growth appears. Learn more about holly fern.

Western Sword Fern Western sword ferns (P. munitum) thrive in coastal settings and grow glossy deep green fronds 3-4 feet tall and wide. Zones 5-10

Japajnese Tassel Fern Japanese tassel ferns (P. polyblepharum) are shorter, 18-24 inches tall and 10 inches wide. They do well in containers. Zones 6-10

Hay-Scented Fern Native to the eastern United States, arching yellow-green fronds of this fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) have the distinction of smelling like freshly mown hay when bruised or crushed. The plants, 3 feet tall and wide, quickly spread as a groundcover. Zones 3-8 Learn more about hay-scented fern.

Lady Fern Lady ferns (Athyrium spp.) live up to their name — they are both beautiful and dainty. These ferns vary greatly in size and structure. Some are strongly upright; others are spreading. Lady ferns are relatively tolerant of sun and dry soil and drop their leaves in fall.

Japanese painted ferns unfurl silver fronds brushed with red and blue tints on burgundy stems. They reach 12-18 inches tall and 24 inches wide. The silvery foliage achieves its best color when it gets a few hours of morning sunshine. Zones 4-9

The variety ‘Ghost’ is more upright than the Japanese painted fern but has the same silvery foliage. It reaches 1-3 feet tall and wide. Zones 3-8

‘Lady in Red’ lady fern is a cross between Japanese painted fern and Southern lady fern. It grows with a strongly vertical form, showcasing its brilliant red-violet stems and lacy, light green foliage. It reaches 20-24 inches tall and 3 feet wide. Zones 3-8

There are many other lady ferns that make fine garden plants, each with interesting qualities, including the crested lady fern (A. filix-femina ‘Cristatum’) with frilly double edges on each leaf. Learn more about Japanese painted ferns.

Maidenhair Fern The delicate, airy look of maidenhair ferns (Adiantum spp.) belies how tough these plants really are. Each wiry stem holds broad leaflets at the tip of the stem, creating an umbrellalike appearance. These noninvasive ferns look good planted together in a group.

Northern maidenhair fern (A. pedatum aleuticum) grows 24-inch black-purple stems topped with arching branchlets arranged like fingers on a hand. The straight species is beautiful as well as its variations, such as ‘Miss Sharples’ (light yellow-green new growth) and ‘Japonicum’ (pinkish-bronze new growth). Zones 5-8

Southern maidenhair fern (A. capillus-venerus) is a native southerner. It thrives in heat and humidity and requires consistently moist soil. Bright green fronds grow on blackish stems 18-24 inches tall. Zones 7-10 Learn more about maidenhair ferns.

Osmunda Ferns Osmunda ferns are among the largest ferns home gardens can plant. Native everywhere east of the Mississippi and a few places to the west, they thrive in very moist soil.

Cinnamon fern (O. cinnamomea) takes its name from the erect, 36-inch-tall, reddish-brown spore-bearing fronds that grow in the center of light green fronds that can reach 5 feet tall in a 24-inch-wide clump. Grow these tough deciduous beauties at the edge of ponds or in informal woodlands. Zones 4-9

Interrupted fern (O. claytoniana) takes its common name from brown fertile leaflets that appear to interrupt green sterile leaflets on larger fronds. At 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide, this large garden presence is deciduous in the fall. Zones 3-6 Learn more about cinnamon fern.

Ostrich Fern If you want a plant to take over a wet woodland space, choose ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). These large, vase-shape ferns unfurl fronds that can reach 5 feet, although 3 feet tall and wide is typical. The green fronds resemble ostrich plumes. Do not plant this fern with well-behaved perennials or other tidy plants; it will quickly bully them. With space to roam and average to moist soil, they quickly make a junglelike groundcover. Ostrich ferns tolerate sun as long as the soil never dries. When soil dries in shady locations, however, fronds burn. Zones 3-8 Learn more about ostrich fern.

Wood Fern Tough, beautiful, and drought-tolerant once established, wood ferns (Dryopteris spp.) are great for planting in the garden. Some types of these medium-size ferns are evergreen plants while others drop their leaves in fall. Divide the clumps every three years or so to maintain their symmetrical forms. Undivided clumps become large and unattractive.

Autumn fern (D. erythrosora) opens in spring with coppery fronds, 18 inches tall and wide, that shift to green in summer, then provide rust-color in fall. Consider ‘Brilliance’ for brighter red new growth.

Marginal wood fern (D. marginalis) is a native of rocky woodland slopes typically forming a vase-shape clump 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide. Zones 3-8 Learn more about wood fern.

  • By Deb Wiley

Companion planting can help establish a healthy, lush garden, and the best argument for the technique is that of variety; instead of having blocks of a single plant in your garden, a variety of plants mixed together can help attract a year-round range of helpful pollinators and deter unhelpful pests.

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What is companion planting?

Planting two or more crops or other plants together in the hopes that they will help each other grow and thrive is known as companion planting.

Companion planting works because plants can have all manner of effects on their surrounding environment – they may beneficially change the soil’s chemistry, for example, and prevent other plants or animals from encroaching on their territory. Many provide benefits that encourage other plants to grow.

What are examples of companion planting in action?

Many gardeners take advantage of simple companion planting without even realising it. For instance, they may grow shade-tolerant plants like ferns under the branches of a large tree.

A good example of typical companion planting is the ‘Three Sister’ system used by Native American groups in North America and involving the planting of three primary food crops – maize, squash and climbing beans.

Each species would provide benefits for the group. The beans, climbing the maize stalks, removed the need for beanpoles. The beans in turn provided nitrogen to the soil ensuring its fertility, while the creeping ground squash kept out weeds, helped to retain moisture in the soil, and had a prickly stem that discouraged pests.

Why companion plant?

Companion planting can help establish a healthy, lush garden, and the best argument for the technique is that of variety; instead of having blocks of a single plant in your garden, a variety of plants mixed together can help attract a year-round range of helpful pollinators and deter unhelpful pests.

Your garden will also be more varied and attractive to the eye!

What evidence is there that it really works?

There hasn’t been much scientific study on companion planting. Most planting combinations have been taken from long-established traditions (the agricultural techniques of indigenous peoples such as the Native Americans, for example).

A lot of our information also comes from trial and error. Some combinations really do seem to work; others are a little less consistent.

But the beneficial strategies used by plants are no fable. Using toxins to keep away predators is a good and well-documented strategy – you don’t see very many birds or insects gobbling down the garlic patch! Many deep-rooted trees help transfer ground water closer to the surface, benefiting nearby smaller plants, and nitrogen-fixers like beans improve the soil both for themselves and for other plants.

I want to give this a go! What combinations can I use in my own garden?

It’s important to first investigate what and how much you should plant together, and some of your plantings may end up being be trial and error. Traditionally basil is supposed to help protect tomatoes from flies – but in practice you may need to plant an enormous amount of basil to have any real effect.

Make sure that if you are planting any toxin-releasing species, you aren’t doing it near something vulnerable to natural chemical warfare! Planting cabbages near tomatoes or potatoes near pumpkin may reduce growth in the latter crops, for example.

Strong-smelling herbs, such as mint, chives and dill can help to keep away insects from the garden, and caterpillars can be lured away from your lettuces by planting a ‘trap crop’ of nasturtiums close by (caterpillars love the colourful nasturtiums and will ditch lettuce for them in a heartbeat!).

Resources:

A comprehensive list of companion plants – what goes together, and what doesn’t – can be found at Sustainable Gardening Australia.

Astilbe Companion Planting: Companion Plants For Astilbe

Astilbe is a fantastic plant to have in your flower garden. A perennial that’s hardy from USDA zone 3 through 9, it will grow for years even in climates with very cold winters. Even better, it actually prefers shade and acidic soil, meaning it’ll bring life and color to a part of your garden that might be hard to fill. But what else can go in those spaces with it? Keep reading to learn about astilbe companion planting and plants that grow well with astilbe.

Plants That Grow Well With Astilbe

Astilbe likes dappled shade and acidic soil, so finding plants that grow well with astilbe means finding plants with similar soil and light requirements. Since it has such a broad hardiness range, choosing companion plants for astilbe also means choosing plants that will survive your winters. For instance, good astilbe companion plants in zone 9 may not be good astilbe companion plants in zone 3.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to put astilbe with plants that begin to flower around the time it fades. Arendsii astilbe tends to bloom in late spring and early summer, while most other varieties bloom in mid to late summer. After it’s done blooming, astilbe will wither and brown and won’t blossom again, even with deadheading. Since it’s a perennial, though, you can’t just pull it out! Plant companion plants for astilbe that will overshadow it with impressive new flowers when it starts to die back.

Ideas for Astilbe Companion Plants

There are quite a few plants that meet these astilbe companion planting qualifications. Rhododendrons, azaleas, and hostas all prefer shade and grow in a very wide range of hardiness zones.

Coral bells are a relative of astilbe and have more or less identical planting requirements. Some other plants whose blooming times and growing needs work well with astilbe include:

  • Ferns
  • Japanese and Siberian iris
  • Trilliums
  • Impatiens
  • Ligularia
  • Cimicifuga

Further proof of its worth: my first astilbe didn’t even succumb to the hordes of slugs that were waging war on the hostas.

Cheat Sheet

  • Astilbes need plenty of water to thrive and are good candidates for waterside plantings, shady woodland gardens and boggy areas.
  • Although mainly known as shade plants, astilbes will tolerate full sun if they are grown in rich acidic soil that is kept moist.
  • There are literally hundreds of varieties of astilbe and they come in a limitless array of heights, from very short to quite tall. But they almost never need staking.

Above: Deadheading does not result in repeat blooms, so it is better to leave the flowers to dry on the plant for winter interest. Cut them down to the ground in early spring. Photograph by Aaron M. via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Astilbes love cool climates but, with adequate watering and mulching, will grow in USDA zones 3 to 9.
  • If plants scorch in summer drought, cut them back to the ground. Fresh regrowth will appear when the weather turns cooler.
  • It may seem contradictory but moisture-loving astilbes cannot survive in soggy winter soil. Make sure your plants have adequate drainage.
  • Astilbes are clump-forming and will lose vigor if they are not divided every three to four years, preferably in early spring.

Above: Pink astilbe lights up a corner of the New York Botanical Garden. Photograph by Kristine Paulus via Flickr.

In an essay that appears in his 1992 collection, The Gardener’s Eye, garden writer Allen Lacy declared that he liked “astilbes very much indeed” and gave clear instructions on how to go about dividing them. “Using a sharp knife,” he directed, “cut their woody crowns into three or four pieces, each with three or more eyes.” He labeled this task a “chore” but pointed out that division produces more plants to enjoy in the garden as well as to share with friends.

Above: Feathery astilbe comes in many shades of pink, red, and white. Photograph by Rachel Kramer via Flickr.

Drawing on his experience of gardening in rural southern New Jersey, Lacey also suggested removing mulch in winter to avoid encouraging destructive voles and meadow mice to take up underground residence in astilbe rhizomes.

See more growing tips at Astilbes: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Perennials 101 and Bulbs & Tubers 101. See more ideas for designing shade gardens:

  • How to Garden Like a Frenchman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Parisian Courtyard
  • Steal This Look: Shady Secrets of an Expert Gardener
  • Coral Bells: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design
  • Ask the Expert: Design Tips for a Shady Courtyard Garden
  • Hostas: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design

Astilbe is a gorgeous perennial that is right at home in a shady moist garden. You can grow it alone, but a well designed garden looks better with more than just one type of plant. These astilbe companion plants like the same moisture and light conditions and will make a beautifully coordinated garden bed.

Selecting companion plants for astilbe means considering cold hardiness, soil type and sunlight requirements.

Not only does astilbe love the shade, it also likes an acidic soil. Think of the floor of a woodland forest. The soil is well draining and rich in organic matter. This is what astilbe likes. Since the perennial can also take the cold well, her companions must do the same. So, what else can grow in these types of conditions?

These 15 Astilbe Companion Plants are your answer!

Astilbe is hardy in zones 3 through 9. My mother had hers in a garden in Maine and I took some divisions and have mine growing in North Carolina. The perennial LOVES the shade and will be the star of any shady garden bed. Have you wondered what you can grow along side of astilbe? I’ve put together a list of plants that love the same spots that astilbe does.

Hosta

Hostas are shade loving perennials that are grown mainly for their colorful leaves. The sizes of hostas can vary from fairly small plants to mammoths that can grow up to four feet tall and take over a whole garden bed.

This miniature version might look large in the photo but the mature size of the plant is only 3 inches tall and 8-12 inches wide. See Hosta ‘cat and mouse’ here.

All hostas will flower, generally on a long stem with a small lily like flower that sits atop the plant.

Most hostas love the shade but this is not always the case. Some can take a bit more sun. When choosing which hostas to plant with astilbes, think color.

The lighter the foliage, the more sun the hosta can take. A deep and dark hosta will retain color best in moderate shade. For a couple of variegated varieties, see my growing tips for Hosta Minuteman and Autumn Frost Hosta.

Ferns

I love the look of the feathery fronds of ferns. Most ferns do best in semi shaded gardens. Their native growing spots were wooded areas at the base of trees. I have grown many types of ferns along with my astilbes, including holly ferns, ostrich ferns, asparagus ferns and others. Boston Ferns on Shepherd’s hooks do well and can add height to the look of the garden bed. (see my tips for care of Boston Ferns here.)

Azalea

Azaleas come in a huge array of colors. Even though their bloom time is short – they are an early spring bloomer – they add color like just about no other perennial shrub can do. Azaleas also prefer an acidic soil, so planting them near astilbe under the shade of a pine tree is beneficial. Prune azaleas when the bloom time is over for good growth next season.

Rhododendron

My husband and daughter call my rhododendron the “ice cream plant” because of the clusters of blooms that look like a big scoop of ice cream. This shade loving perennial shrub is easy to grow once you get it started. Just give it moisture, shade and mulch to inhibit root fungus.

Impatiens

Although not a perennial, impatiens is an annual with prolific flowers all season long. I have grown single, double and New Guinea impatiens successfully along side of astilbe. One of the best characteristics of impatiens is that there is no need to dead head since the flowers drop off themselves when the bloom time is done and new ones will develop. Great for busy gardeners!

Other Astilbe varieties!

What is better than one astilbe? Lots of them! Astilbe comes in a wide array of colors and sizes. Group them together for interest. See my article on the colors of astilbe for some ideas.

Primrose

This pretty early spring bloomer is a tender perennial in most zones, but it comes back just fine for me here in NC. It does best planted in dappled shade and loves to be mulched to keep the moisture in the soil and help to keep the leaves thick. If planted in direct sun, it will scorch easily, so it is very happy as an early blooming companion to astilbe in a shady spot.

Coral Bells

Heuchera, or coral bells, is a great astilbe companion plant. Coral bells are a relative of the astilbe and likes pretty much the same growing conditions, so it is an ideal partner. The plants grow in a similar way with flowers that emerge on long stalks that sit above the plant. There is more color and pattern to the leaves of coral bells than astilbe, which is grown more for its flowers.

Bleeding Heart

Alas, my heart bleeds for the bleeding heart plant. My first one started out in the shade of a birdbath in a partly shaded garden bed that got afternoon sun. “That should be good,” I thought. It died. My next one got planted the only spot of a my shaded garden bed that got very late day sun. it died. (had I planted it a few feet to the left it would have been fine!)

Finally, I got wise and realized that shade loving really does mean shade loving, and planted it in my north facing bed near my astilbe. It gets NO direct sunlight and when I mulched the bed yesterday, there is was with a row of hearts all saying “thank you, Carol!” With this much heartache, bleeding heart tops my list of astilbe companion plants.

Caladium

One annual that I plant every year in all of my shady garden beds is caladium. I have some in pots and others right in the ground. If I can remember to dig them up before the frost hits in the fall, I save the tubers, but let me tell you from experience, once the frost hits there won’t be a hint of where they were growing. Caladiums are grown for their magnificent heart shaped leaves in colors from white to deep red. They are an ideal astilbe companion plant.

Hellebore

The star of a winter shade garden is Hellebore or Lenten Rose. Mine started flowering in the middle of January with snow all around and is still flowering, months later. Talk about a long flowering time! Not only do the flowers last well in the garden, but they make great cut flowers and will last for WEEKS indoors. It is one of my favorite astilbe companion plants. Astilbe will start flowering when hellebore is done.

Sun Loving plants that do fine as Astilbe Companion plants in hotter climates.

Hydrangea

Hydrangeas are not typically considered a shade plant but here in North Carolina, I do best with it by keeping it out of the direct sun. I have both astilbe and hydrangea plants growing in my North facing front garden bed and both bloom well here. In fact, the ones that I had in direct sunlight only did well until the hottest months. I eventually moved them all to a shadier spot and they are much happier. So, if your climate is hot consider growing hydrangeas as one of your astilbe companion plants.

Baptisia Australis

Although it is happy in more sun, Baptisia Australis will tolerate some shade too. I have it growing on the edge of my front shade border that gets direct sun in the later afternoon. It is perfectly happy there and flowers beautifully just like the ones in my sunnier garden beds.

Black Eyed Susan

Another plant that generally likes plenty of sun but does just fine in a shady bed is black eyed Susan. I have some growing in full afternoon sun, part afternoon sun and mostly shade. The thing that I like best about it in the shade is that the size is more manageable. In full sun it takes off but grows into a pretty large shrub and can take over a garden bed. It flowers just fine in my shade garden and is much easier to keep the size that I want.

Columbine

Normally a plant that likes plenty of sun, here in the southern party of the United States, columbine prefers a more shady spot. It is a prolific self seeder and before you know it, you’ll have a bed full of smaller plants.

Notes of growing the plants above.

I have 5 shady garden beds around my home. The list of astilbe companion plants above are planted here and there in all of the beds. The shade conditions vary from north facing beds right in front of my house in almost full shade, to a large bed under a pine tree that gets some early morning and late afternoon sunlight. Both astilbe and its companions love all of the beds and look beautiful.

Best of all, the plants flower at different times and this gives me all season long color for a wonderful effect.

What is your favorite plant to add to a garden bed with astilbe?

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12 Companion Plants for Astilbes

Astilbe flowers are a great addition to any garden that had some shade. Astilbes produce beautiful feathery plumes in many different colors and can brighten up areas that other perennials may not thrive in. However, like any other perennial, they do lose their flowers during the winter, so you will need to choose some compatible companion flowers to compliment your Astilbes or to keep your garden looking good all year long. So, here are a few popular choices for companion planting with your Astilbes.

Other Astilbes Varieties

Of course one of your first choices for astilbe companion plants should be other astilbe varieties. The varied colors and heights that the astilbe comes in makes them an excellent choice for mixing and matching.

Contrast Companion Plants for Your Astilbes

If you’re looking for other companion plants for your astilbe that will add contrasting color, foliage and height, you might want to consider some of these popular astilbe companion plants:

  • Japanese Iris
  • Siberian Iris
  • Trilliums
  • Ferns
  • Hostas
  • Cimicifuga
  • Ligularia
  • Annual impatiens
  • Flowering Shrub Companion Plants

If you’re looking for beautiful flowering shrubs that will complement your astilbes, and add a beautiful, contrasting background, you might want to consider the following colorful flower shrubs:

  • Azaleas
  • Rhododendrons
  • Mock Orange

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