Growing Lady Fern: Delicate Athyrium Filix-femina Fronds for the Pond Garden

Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is a fern to invite to a garden tea. It’s sweet and delicate and just right for those shady, wet places in the garden.

This fern won’t spread like bracken does. It is a polite fern, as befits its name. The large, beautiful fronds have been used as food covers by the aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest.

The fern is common throughout the northern parts of the world. In North America, it ranges from northern Ontario across the northern provinces of Canada to Alaska and British Columbia.

Identifying Lady Fern

Lady fern is easy to identify. It’s one of the more common northern ferns. Ferns have fronds, a part that looks like a large, arching leaf. On each frond are leaflets or pinnae, smaller leaf-like structures. To identify lady fern, take a look at the very bottom of each of the fern’s fronds. On the bottom leaflet, there will be one pinnule that is much larger than the other. Lady fern is three times pinnate, which means that the fronds have leaflets, the leaflets have pinnae, and the pinnae have pinnules, smaller cut sections. In gardeners’ terms, this means that lady fern is a delicate-looking and beautiful fern. Each frond of the lady fern is also rounded in the center and comes to a point at the end. The fronds of the lady fern begin small and can arch up to 2 meters in length, with an average of just under a meter.

Where to Plant Lady Fern

Lady fern loves to grow in damp places along the side of a stream or pond. Even a shady, wet rain garden will do. Make sure that the area will not be exposed to extreme heat or sunlight. Ferns are ideal for the wetland, riparian, or shade garden.

Consider adding old logs to the garden to create habitat for animals and homes for plants like ferns. Logs near a pond or stream are especially ideal since they will be an ideal damp habitat for ferns to grow. Many Pacific Northwest plants grow best on damp, decaying logs, since these logs provide a ready source of nutrients and water, even in the hot summers.

How to Plant Lady Fern

Although ferns reproduce through spores on the underside of their fronds, the easiest way to grow a fern is by purchasing a small, established plant. When all danger of frost has passed, choose a shady area with moist soil and plant the lady fern roots under the soil. It will establish best in acidic forest-type soil. Divide lady fern in the spring when its fronds have started to appear.

Plants That Complement Lady Fern

The lady fern’s frond is a long, tapered oval, rounded in the center and tapered to a point at each end. It’s a graceful shape that washes over other, smaller plants. Lady fern looks beautiful arcing over smaller plants like foamflower (Tiarella sp) or bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis). Add spring bulbs or columbines (Aquilegia) underneath as well. Plant it with small or large hostas for a combination of delicate oval leaves and the thicker leaves of the hosta plants. Lady fern also looks stunning under larger shrubs like salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). For those who are creating a fern garden, lady fern traditionally grows with spiny wood fern and sword fern, with a scattering of maidenhair fern.

The lady fern is a pretty, graceful plant that pairs well with large shrubs or arcs beautifully over smaller shade-loving plants. Lady fern is the ideal plant for a rain garden, water garden, or streamside garden. Northern gardeners will appreciate its hardy yet delicate character.