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Unfortunately as always in gardening this does depend however on making a few careful, but not very difficult choices, of both the ferns and the plants which will go with them. Therefore it seemed like a good idea to put before you, my own short, and probably quite erroneous, list of the best ferns for growing in a mixed border; in the hopes that this may be of some use to readers with an interest in fern growing.
First I would be sure to put Polystichums, especially Polystichum setiferum .*(Picture) and its forms at the top of any list. Mainly, because they are for the most part well formed evergreens, which are easy of cultivation and tolerant of a wide range of conditions including quite strong sun or wind; though few ferns will do well with too much of either of these two elements, Polyistichums will do better than most. Add to this the fact that they often have very finely cut foliage, whose smallest divisions often look very charmingly like small spiky hands or holly leaves. And additionally the fact that they have also a shapely outline and do not tend to out grow their allotted space. Then you can see that Polystichums can make a quality contribution to the border. Indeed one of the best uses for them in my opinion is as punctuation marks for the ends of boarders and the corners of paths, where they give neat, solid, all year round service. Polystichums come in a large range of species and cultivars, of which, some of the best are. P. setiferum especially the ‘Divisilobum’ types which have the most finely cut foliage of all; and the species P. aculeatum which is big and strong. Though also must not be forgotten, is the North American, P. polyblepharum, which, though a little more difficult, well rewards the grower by having bright glossy green fronds.
Second on the list, I think it would be best to put, the Polypodiums, which name means many footed, and as you might gather these are spreading or clump forming ferns, rather than belonging to those more typical types which form a tight upright crown. Not that Polypodiums are invasive indeed they spread quite slowly, painfully slowly for someone like me who is always waiting to divide his. Very soon however in normal garden terms the Polypodiums will form strong dense clumps of evergreen foliage more leathery and simply divided, (pinatafid for the pedants), than most ferns, and usually between 12 and 15 inches high. Not in fact anything spectacular but a good solid, lasting, citizen for the centre of the border. Of the many types of Polypodium the only one that is not to be recommended very highly, is P. vulgar which as you might guess, is generally smaller, weedier and less evergreen than the other species. The species P. australe has good broad fronds and tolerates lime well, while P. interjectum has strong narrow fronds and also a charming cut leaved form called Cornubieses. For me however the best plant by far is P. x mantoniae, a wonderful strong robust plant with hybrid vigour and “well” just plain class. Unfortunately it is sterile and can only be propagated slowly by division so you are unlikely to find it for sale, even from me, but grab it if you do.
Lastly Athyrium filix-femina; which is probably the species that has given the world more good varieties than any other fern, but most of them are little suited to life in the general border, since usually they are thought to have a requirement for moist shady places. With one of the best forms though this is not really the case; A. f.-f. ‘Frizelliae’ or the Tatting Fern (Picture) is a form much more tolerant than the common type of all types of hardship. This is most likely because it is a dwarf form, at most 15 inches high, with all the pinna reduced to little curled bobbles down each side of the frond stem, so that each frond resembles a string of small green beads. With its modest stature and spreading, clump making, form of growth therefore, ‘Frizelliae’ is much less inclined to suffer from sun or wind, and forms a charming foliage effect like no other plant. Its only drawback in the border being that it should perhaps not be placed near really rough competitors.
Finally I can not resist putting in one last small hint, about on good way to use ferns with other plants. If you should have a patch of ground given over to spring bulbs, especially the smaller ones Galanthus, Crocus or Anemone for example. Instead of lifting them and /or putting in bedding for the summer why not interplant them with ferns, particularly the taller crown forming (rather than spreading) herbaceous types. These will spread their fronds above the dead bulb foliage covering it for the summer, but not until the bulb foliage has done its job and fed the bulbs. After all this is only what nature does with these plants in the wild wood, with the bulbs flowering and growing in the spring before the trees put on leaf, and the ferns, masters of economy and thrift that they are, taking over for the summer when they have to face the shade of fully leaved trees, with which flowering plants with their greater demands of flower and seeds can not compete.