A "fernery" is a specialized garden for 
the cultivation and display of ferns.

Green Never Looked So Good

Most large botanical garden ferneries were in glass structures to provide a humid environment. Typical Garden Fernery designs can stand out in your yard as a part of a shade, foliage, rain or rainforest garden.

A  large fernery landscape, perfect for gardeners with big expanses of shade and some wet areas,  and it can include large tree-height ferns to provide a canopy for lower growing ferns. Mine would be a combination, using several different themes. I enjoy the wild and primeval feel of lots of different textured foliage in different heights and shapes, and the tropical garden environment.

Ferns are also the perfect companion plants, due to the airiness and weeping appearance of the fronds, for zen gardens

Ferns are stunning when planted with clumping dwarf bamboo, pots of jade plants, and ornamental grasses in an Asian style garden.

If you have shady areas or damp places, the garden's design can be a quiet and tropical seating area or an oasis in an un-used and un-loved nook. Ferns can be the main focus of a gardenscape that includes jungle, bog, or rainforest plants.

Victorians had an obsession with indoor and outdoor ferns, and  "ferneries". In 1855, parts of Victorian England participated in ‘pteridomania’ aka "the fern craze". 
It involved both British and exotic varieties being collected and displayed, and many associated structures were constructed. 

Fern Hunting Expeditions were organized to gather ferns for garden plots and indoor collecting, and ferneries became a common feature of large country gardens. 

Fernery Gardens Big and Small

Fern plants are a type of vascular plant that belongs to the Polypodiopsida class of plants. They are also some of the oldest plants in the world. According to some estimates, there are over 10,000 species of ferns.

Unlike many other types of plants, ferns don’t produce flowers. Most fern species have fronds composed of blade-like leaves  attached to a stem.  
In the wild, the tallest ferns can grow to around 82 ft.

Scientific classification distinguishes between "true ferns" and several closely-related types of plants known as "fern allies". 
The corresponding divisions in the plant kingdom are:

  • Pteridophyta - "true ferns"
  • Lycopodiophyta - clubmosses, spikemosses and quillworts
  • Equisetophyta - horsetails and scouring-rushes
  • Psilotophyta - whisk ferns
  • Ophioglossophyta - adders-tongues and moonworts

I learned something new! 
Several non-fern plants are called ferns, and even some "animals", like air ferns, are sometimes confused with them.
I did not know that air ferns were actually animals.

  • Asparagus fern—This may apply to one of several species of the monocot genus Asparagus, which are flowering plants.
  • Sweetfern—A flowering shrub of the genus Comptonia.
  • Air fern—A group of animals called hydrozoan that are distantly related to jellyfish and corals. They are harvested, dried, dyed green, and then sold as a plant that can live on air. While it may look like a fern, it is merely the skeleton of this animal.
  • Fern bush—Chamaebatiaria millefolium—a rose family shrub with fern-like leaves.
  • Fern tree—Jacaranda mimosifolia—an ornamental tree of the order Lamiales.
  • Fern leaf tree—Filicium decipiens—an ornamental tree of the order Sapindales.
Some flowering plants such as palms and members of the carrot family have leaves that resemble fern fronds. These are a great addition to a fern-based garden design, or for designing a foliage or rainforest garden.

In many countries, "ferneries" are indoors, or at least sheltered or kept in a shadehouse, to provide a humid environment, filtered light and protection from frost and other extremes. But some ferns are native to arid regions require protection from rain and humid conditions, and grow best in full sun. In mild climates, ferneries are often outside and have an array of different species that grow under similar conditions.

In 1859, the Fernery at Tatton Park Gardens, beside Tatton Hall, had been built to a design by George Stokes, to the west of the conservatory to house tree ferns from New Zealand and a collection of other ferns.

In 1874, the fernery in Benmore Botanic Garden (Edinburgh), was built by a plant collector named James Duncan. This was a large and expensive project, since the fernery was based in a heated conservatory. In 1992, it was listed Historic Scotland for its architectural and botanical value, and has been described by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland as “extremely rare and unique in its design”.

In 1903, Hever Castle in Kent was acquired and restored by an American millionnaire, William Waldorf Astor, who used it as a family residence. He added the Italian Garden, including a fernery, to display his collection of statuary and ornaments.

Ferny Folklore

Ferns are a subject of  legends featuring mythical flowers or seeds.

-In Slavic folklore, ferns are believed to bloom once a year, during the Ivan Kupala night. Although alleged to be exceedingly difficult to find, anyone who sees a fern flower is thought to be guaranteed to be happy and rich for the rest of their lives.

-Finnish tradition is that anyone who finds the seed of a fern in bloom on Midsummer Night will, by possession of it, be guided and be able to travel invisibly to the locations where eternally blazing Will o' the wisps called Aarnivalkea mark the spot of hidden treasure. These spots are protected by a spell that prevents anyone but the fern seed-holder from ever knowing their locations.

-In the US, ferns are thought to have magical properties. A dried fern can be thrown into hot coals of a fire to exorcise evil spirits, and smoke from a burning fern is thought to drive away snakes and other such creepy creatures.

Planting Ferns in Your Gardens

Ferns are native to woodlands and forests, and re-creating their native environment is the best way to ensure your ferns will thrive. Most will not grow well in full sun, but ferns like the cinnamon fern and the lady fern tolerate more sun than most.

Ferns love dirt that is rich in nutrients and organic matter, which mimics the leaf-strewn soil of their forest homes. When planting, add generous amounts of leaf mulch or other composted material, and top dress the plants annually with a mulch of organic matter, such as pine needles or bark.

Select a location for planting that has rich soil and plenty of organic matter, or amend your soil to replicate that. The site should be in partial to full shade, or indirect morning sun.

Dig a hole  large enough for the root ball. Mix some compost/manure into the soil at the bottom of the hole and place the fern in the hole with the top of the root ball at grade. Backfill with soil, firming the top to keep the plant from toppling over. Water generously for the first few weeks until the plant is acclimated.

If you are planting multiple ferns, note that most ferns multiply by underground rhizomes, so leave space between them to allow for growth. If planting in a container garden, no need to worry about spreading and invasion. I like a "mobile garden" plan, so that i can move and redesign my gardens and not have to dig anything up. I also want to avoid weeding  and trying to get weeds out through the airy and feathery fronds of ferns. Been there and I don't like that chore.

Care and Feeding Your Garden Ferns

Ferns prefer moist but not soggy soil. Ferns that are growing in sunlight or in containers will dry out quicker than plants in the ground and in the shade. 

Fertilize your garden ferns monthly in spring and summer with organic fertilizers like epsom salts or fish emulsion. In the northern part of the U.S., your ferns will usually die back in winter, or you can cut them back in fall.


Ferns are unique in that they do not produce seeds or flowers. They reproduce by way of spores that form on the underside of the fronds. In nature, these spores are spread by the wind. You can try planting them yourself by shaking them from a mature leaf and placing in potting soil. It may take several months for them to sprout. Remember that in the garden,  wind-blown spores will create new plants, so show diligence, if necessary, in order to keep them from spreading in areas you want to keep them out of. If you are growing a naturalized or wild area, the wind is your friend!


Pruning ferns is unnecessary. They usually die to the ground in winter, and in the spring, new fronds will pop up from the central cluster to start the growing season. Dead leaves can be gathered up and cleared away. I cut dead fronds from mine for aesthetic reasons if the plant is showcased or somewhere highly visible.

Pests and diseases

Most ferns are hardy plants with very few pests. Common infestations include mealy bugs, nematodes, and mites. If you can catch them early enough, it’s possible to prune away the infested leaves and save the plant. Diseases common to ferns include bacteria blight, leaf tip burn, and blight. Always  clear away dead leaves and debris in the spring to avoid the possibility of fungal diseases on the plants.

Recommended Garden Ferns

My favorites are Japanese Painted and Cinnamon Ferns.
Some ferns grow pretty tall, and can be grown as tree-or shrub-like focal points in a shade garden, zen garden or fernery.

As always, check the USDA hardiness zones and choose the plants that will grow and thrive in your region.

Osmunda Ferns
Cinnamon Fern
Interrupted Fern
Maidenhair Ferns
Lady Ferns
Japanese Painted Fern 
Marginal Wood Fern
Crested Buckler Fern
Tatting Fern
Lady in Red Fern
Silver Falls Japanese Painted Fern 
Ostrich Fern
Wood Ferns
Leatherleaf Fern
Autumn Fern

You can download this awesome  and free 1894 Illustrated book about ferns and their care in .pdf format. 
Download is approximately 10 mb in size. Make sure you have room for it on your hard drive.

Click the book to begin your free download.


More ideas for using ferns in your garden designs are on our 
shade garden design page.
Use one of the free shady garden design plans that you like, 
substituting ferns for some, or all of the plants listed.

Click the pic on the left if you wish
to view collections of vintage fern illustrations

Large, curated collections of vintage botanical 
illustrations and nature graphics available for download



Info Sources for this article include:
Encyclopedia Britannica, wikimedia
wikipedia, trees.com

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