Friday, August 26, 2022

Ten ferns that are easy to grow in my Portland garden

The following is a lightly edited reprint of a story I wrote for the Summer issue of the Hardy Fern Foundation Quarterly. It follows a set formula for this regular fern feature, where members write about the ferns growing in their gardens. At nearly 2,000 words it is a lot longer than one of my usual blog posts, but I wanted to share it to give an idea of the in-depth articles you can enjoy as a member of the foundation—which is not just a PNW group! The HFF website is a wealth of information, and members have access to suburb online programing as well as fern sales and free admission to the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington. Become a member of the HFF! On to the story...

While I’m the gardener behind the blog “danger garden” and thus known as that crazy lady who grows agaves Oregon, I am also a lover of ferns—or rather I’ve become one. I came late to this particular group of plants; in part because of over-exposure to the common Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) at a young and impressionable age. 

I do have sword ferns in my garden now though...

I grew up on the dry side of Washington State, in Spokane, but we’d camp along the coast and up into the Olympic Peninsula and it felt like my mom stopped to admire every sword fern we passed. I thought it was the only fern there was! However, once I discovered there were many more ferns—and let’s face it, as my maturing garden became shadier and shadier—I was hooked. Now my trips to a plant sale, or one of our local specialty nurseries, usually result in a new fern or two, along with a choice agave or cactus. I shop both ends of the plant spectrum.

In writing this story for the HFF Quarterly I do feel like a bit of an imposter though, after all I’ve never grown ferns from spore. Another thing; I’m generally at ease with botanical Latin, but when it comes to fern names, forget it. Many of them are just too much for my brain to remember, let alone pronounce. A memorable moment of embarrassment occurred when Sue Olsen [coauthor of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns] visited my garden as part of a tour and complimented a Cheilanthes tomentosa growing in my front garden. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, looking at my blank face she understood and kindly elaborated. 

My garden and it’s growing conditions

I’ve gardened in NE Portland since 2005. My small urban garden measures roughly 45ft x 111ft, and is located about 2.25 miles from the Columbia River, which separates Western Oregon from Washington. The Columbia River Gorge sends cold winter winds through my part of town, and winter ice storms hit this area more frequently than the rest of Portland. 

My USDA Zone 8 garden sits at an elevation of 150 ft. Summers have been warming, both the daytime temperatures (lots of 80s and 90s) and the nighttime, as the city isn’t cooling off the way it used to. Winters are erratic. There have been years I haven’t experienced a killing frost until after Christmas and others when it happens in November. The temperature extremes I’ve recorded here are a lows 12F just once, and 14F a couple of times, with several stretches where it remained below freezing day and night for days. Thanks to the Heat Dome of summer 2021 a new high of 108 was set, then 112 and finally 116F. The soil I started with was clay, although I’ve added a lot of compost over the years. Winters are wet (with the occasional heavy wet, and thus damaging, snow that thankfully doesn’t stick around long) and summers are dry. I do not have any irrigation in place, any summer water that “falls” in my garden is delivered by hand and hose. Pests in my garden include slugs, root weevils, cutworms, raccoons, the occasional rabbit—and sometimes an errant ball from a neighboring yard. My only control efforts are sending the slugs, root weevil larva and cutworms on an all-expenses paid vacation in the yard waste bin (picked up weekly by the City) and aiming the hose at the rabbits. 

A complete list of the ferns I grow can be found on the “my plants” page of my blog. My plant listings are alphabetical; however, you’ll find the ferns all grouped together.

Ten ferns that do well in my garden 

Adiantum aleuticum, Western maidenhair fern. I inherited this fern from the previous owner of the garden. Once exposed (it was languishing behind a mass of overgrown sword ferns) it has thrived. Over the summer I have to be sure water reaches the back of the planting bed where it grows, as it wants water! Grown on the north side of our garage in full shade.

Adiantum aleuticum, Western maidenhair fern

Adiantum venustum, Himalayan maidenhair fern. This is an indispensable green carpet that helps me achieve the illusion that bromeliads “grow” in my garden year-round. It’s perfect for disguising their pots when I drop them in place once the weather warms. I’ve read that it can be cut back hard in the spring but I’ve never done so, instead just letting the underlayers naturally decompose. A friend once said “I see you’re suffering the scourge too”, pointing at this fern—as it does have a tendency to spread. One gardener’s trash is another gardener’s treasure! Grown on the north side of our garage and receives a little late afternoon sun.

Adiantum venustum, Himalayan maidenhair fern "carpet"

Arachniodes simplicior 'Variegata', variegated East Indian holly fern. Everyone who visits my garden remarks on this fern, I’m convinced it’s not more widely grown because it doesn’t look great in a nursery pot. I do trim off the older fronds periodically, as the variegated stripe can start to turn a brassy gold that I don’t care for. Grown as a foundation plant on the west side of our house—morning shade and afternoon sun, although shaded in the hottest part of the day.

Arachniodes simplicior 'Variegata', variegated East Indian holly fern

Asplenium trichomanes, maidenhair spleenwort. Simply the perfect little fern for tucking in everywhere. I’ve seen it growing happily in a rock crevice, in my fern bowl (similar to a fern table) and of course in the ground in my garden. I can’t say specifically where this one is growing, as it’s all around the garden.

Asplenium trichomanes

Athyrium otophorum, eared lady fern. I sometimes forget about this fern, as it appears a little later in the spring than others in my garden. Once it does finally show up, it positively glows. Grown part shade and soil that tends to be a little on the dry side.

Athyrium otophorum, eared lady fern

Blechnum chilense/ Parablechnum cordatum, Chilean hard fern. Such dramatic arching fronds! I started with this plant in a large planter, as I’d been warned of its tendency to spread when happy. Since it’s march has been slow, I’ve since planted it in the ground as well, with no problems—well, other than when a rabbit decided it was nice to much on. Grown in part shade/part sun with regular water.

Blechnum chilense/ Parablechnum cordatum, Chilean hard fern

Blechnum penna-marina/ Austroblechnum penna-marina, alpine water fern. Speaking of a tendency to spread! I appreciate the free plants though, and find the colorful new growth especially lovely. Plants I’d newly planted out just prior to the Heat Dome last June looked like they were dead come August, but they’re coming back this year. Grown in several places, the ones that receive the most sun are also the most colorful.

Blechnum penna-marina/ Austroblechnum penna-marina, alpine water fern

Coniogramme gracilis, narrow-leaf bamboo fern. This is the most robust of the Coniogramme I grow. I have two in containers and they’ve bulked up quickly and are the earliest coniogramme to emerge in the springtime. Grown in containers in mostly shade.

Coniogramme gracilis, narrow-leaf bamboo fern

Polystichum setiferum Divisilobum Group, soft shield fern. This one is super easy-going and adds such an interesting texture. Grown in dappled shade.

Polystichum setiferum Divisilobum Group, soft shield fern

Woodwardia unigemmata, while the fronds on my jeweled chain fern aren’t as large as others I’ve seen, I don’t care. That color and form is welcome at whatever size they achieve. I have a couple growing in almost full morning sun, several others in almost full shade—they’re all lovely. I think they’d been happier with more water, but I am fairly stingy with that resource. Grown all over my garden.

Woodwardia unigemmata

Five ferns that didn’t do well in my garden 

Asplenium scolopendrium, hart's-tongue fern. I’ve tried this little fern in several spots, it just sits there and does nothing, I’ve read that adding lime to the soil might help, but that sounds like more work than I’m willing to do when so many other ferns grow hassle-free. 

Dicksonia antarctica, I know, tree ferns aren’t necessarily supposed to grow here in the PNW, but when I see them at the Amazon Spheres, and now at Heronswood—well, I want them here too. Truth be told I do have one that’s been “surviving” in a container for years, but every attempt I make to plant one in the ground fails. Recently I heard Monty Don on Gardeners World say: “if it hasn’t rained for about 3 or 4 days, make sure that the air around them is damp, and the trunk has a good soak”. It can go 3 or 4 weeks (make that 7 weeks this year, and counting) without raining here in the summertime, perhaps winter temperatures aren’t my only issue.

Dryopteris sieboldii, Siebold’s wood fern. I’m trying a fourth spot in the garden for this fern that I am aching to have thrive here. So far, it’s the best performing, but I feel like I’ve cursed them now by writing about it. 
Dryopteris sieboldii, Siebold’s wood fern —still doing well! Look at all that sporangium

Matteuccia  struthiopteris, ostrich fern. Every time I read a warning about this fern’s tendency to spread I sigh. The ones I’ve tried in the ground die, it’s just too dry in the summer and I don’t lavish them with enough supplemental irrigation. A couple did well in containers for a few years, but they finally gave up too. I love this fern because it looks a little like a tree fern, at least when it’s really healthy and thriving. This year I’m trying a trio in a large stock tank, wish me luck.

Onoclea sensibilis, the sensitive fern wants more water than I am willing to give it (are you sensing a theme?). It starts out stunning in the spring—I love the brown outline on the early fronds—but by mid-summer is flagging and by late August it looks so bad I cut it back.
Onoclea sensibilis, newly emerged

Five ferns that are rare or prized possessions 

Bommeria hispida, copper fern. Whenever I share a photo of this small desert fern on Instagram people go a little crazy. It’s rare, and I’ve been told it’s hard to grow. Mine came to me (as so many of my plants have) as a gift from Sean Hogan and Cistus Nursery. I do nothing special to keep it alive, other than shower it with appreciative glances.
Bommeria hispida, copper fern

Cheilanthes argentea, silver cloak fern. I spotted this at a small family-owned nursery and couldn’t grab it fast enough. It has low water requirements, bright green new growth and white undersides to the fronds—now if I can just keep it happy over our wet winters as it’s a dryland fern that needs good drainage.
Cheilanthes argentea, silver cloak fern

Lemmaphyllum microphyllum, Japanese bean fern. I came across this epiphytic fern at the Pat Calvert Greenhouse in the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle. I have a soft spot for epiphytes and fell in love. It’s done well for me growing on a piece of bark with a bit of moss.
Lemmaphyllum microphyllum, Japanese bean fern

Pyrrosia polydactyla. It was extremely difficult to narrow it down to just two from the sixteen+ pyrrosia that I grow. This unusual felt fern came to me from Secret Garden Growers here in Oregon. I have a pair, one of which features a black midrib, while the other is green. It’s the shape of the fronds that gets me, they look like little green paws.
Pyrrosia polydactyla

Pyrrosia sheareri, Shearer's felt fern. The granddaddy of pyrrosia if large fronds are what you’re after—plus the new fronds are fuzzy white as they begin to unfurl. Every one of the plants in my (surprisingly) growing collection of this species has been a gift or at least picked up for me by a friend. That too makes them special. Of course, I want to write about my variegated pyrrosia, the crested form, the thin ruffly one, all the fabulous pyrrosia! Maybe another time…
Pyrrosia sheareri, Shearer's felt fern

All material © 2009-2022 by Loree Bohl for danger garden. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited and just plain rude.


  1. Beautifuly one and all. Although I seldom refer to ferns because there are very, very few in my garden (only 4 I can think of, 2 of which are in my lath house), I do love them. I just haven't found many that can survive in my current garden. I had many more in my former cooler, shadier garden just 15 miles north.

    1. Have you dried any of the so-called desert ferns? Cheilanthes for example. They should do well, I saw a few at Terra Sol Garden Center.

  2. A post about my favorites: ferns! I grow many of the ferns you mentioned. The jeweled chain fern is at the top of my "love" list. Not only is it ginormous, but it seems that if the tip of a frond lays on the ground, it starts a new plant.
    If it was up to me, I'd plant more trees for shade so I could underplant them more with ferns. Alas, it's my partner's home so I must compromise :-)
    The maidenhair carpet with embedded bromeliads is amazing. And yes, the sixteen plus pyrrosia collection you have is deserving of its own post.

    1. I have not had that happen with my Woodwardia unigemmata but I've heard that it might. I guess I need to tuck a few fronds down to the ground.

  3. I've been impressed by how well soft shield fern grows in dry soil. Your post inspires me to try silver cloak fern next. My favorite fern is the Japanese tassel fern, but it demands water so I grow it in pots.

    1. I just can't decide if I like Japanese tassel fern or not. Perhaps I need to look a little closer at it's charms.

  4. This is a wonderful fern list! I already grow many of them, and will be looking for a few more now, like Athyrium otophorum! I would add to this list, Dryopteris lepidopoda (sunset fern) which has the most amazing red/copper/bronze foliage colors, and is very hardy and tough in part shade.
    Signe D.

    1. I do have one of those! It's only done so-so in my garden but I do love it's colors.

  5. Great article and information and a sprinkling of humour to make it fun. I’m pretty new to growing ferns and find that the botanical names elude me also.
    Love the clever use of ferns to cover the bromeliad pots.
    Have you ever grown Doodia media? The plant in my garden is currently throwing out flamingo pink new growth. Very cool.

    1. Oh... that's a new one for me, but I like it! I will have to keep an eye open for it.

  6. Oh to have enough shade to grow ferns. So far Athyrium 'Branford Beauty' is the only one who is happy. Grass is always greener scenario.

    1. Ya, as things grow I have more and more shade, might as well make the most of it!

  7. Surprised about the hart’s tongue fern as it’s one of my easiest, even in acidic soil under some pines. I even have a beautiful volunteer. Will have to definitely look out for the East Indian fern as it looks quite beautiful. Thank you for sharing this information.

    1. I see hart’s tongue fern thriving in other gardens and it looks so effortless. I wish it were the case for me...

  8. What a fantastic reference list of ferns for the PNW. I’ve been wanting to grow Adiantum species for quite some time now, but have been afraid to try because of the watering requirements. Our creek would potentially be the perfect place for them if the winter torrent wasn’t so strong that it didn’t rip them out. I grow most of the other ferns that you have listed, with my favorite being the little Austroblechnum penna-marina. Other ferns that I grow and enjoy include our native Blechnum spicant (deer fern), Cyrtomium falcatum (holly fern), and Osmunda regalis (royal fern). Weirdly, I have had no problems at all with Asplenium scolopendrium. I water it a few times each summer and I definitely don’t add lime to the soil. I wonder if it has something to do with our water being pH 9-10?

    1. Adiantum venustum is tough! I have a patch on the north side of our house that has only gotten water once this year, it looks fine. I also grow and love Blechnum spicant (deer fern), Cyrtomium falcatum (holly fern), and Osmunda regalis (royal fern), it was hard to leave them out but the rule was 10...


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