The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.
When it comes to transforming your outdoor space into a tranquil oasis, few plants offer the versatility, elegance, and ease of care that ferns and hostas bring to the table. These two plant varieties are perfect for beginner gardeners who are looking to create a lush and inviting landscape without the added complexities. In this guide, we'll delve into the world of landscaping with ferns and hostas, exploring their benefits, care tips, and providing you with three stunning combinations to kick-start your garden transformation.
The Beauty of Ferns and Hostas: Why Choose Them?
Before we dive into the specifics of creating your fern and hosta landscape, let's take a moment to appreciate why these plants are such fantastic choices for beginners.
Ferns are renowned for their delicate, feathery fronds that lend an air of elegance to any garden setting. They thrive in shade and semi-shade conditions, making them ideal for those areas of your garden that receive minimal direct sunlight. Ferns are also relatively low-maintenance, requiring little more than regular watering and occasional fertilization. Their lush foliage adds a touch of luxury and serenity, making them a favorite for gardeners seeking a peaceful ambiance.
Hostas, on the other hand, are beloved for their vibrant foliage and adaptability. With a wide range of leaf colors, sizes, and textures, hostas can effortlessly elevate the visual appeal of your garden. Like ferns, they prefer shade to partial shade environments, making them perfect companions for creating a harmonious landscape. Hostas are relatively easy to grow and can withstand a variety of soil conditions, making them an excellent choice for beginners looking to explore the joys of gardening.
Creating Stunning Combinations: Three Fern and Hosta Pairings
Woodland Serenity: Japanese Painted Fern and Blue Hosta
For a serene woodland-themed garden bed, consider pairing the graceful Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace') with the striking blue foliage of Hosta 'Empress Wu'. The silvery fronds of the Japanese Painted Fern beautifully complement the bold blue-green leaves of 'Empress Wu', creating a visually appealing contrast.
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace') In 1999 during a West Coast trip, we were introduced to the captivating Japanese painted fern variety known for its deer resistance. The new leaves of Athyrium 'Burgundy Lace' mesmerize with their purple hue adorned by silver stripes along veins and tips. As these young leaves mature, they transition into a striking silvery green shade with purple midribs. In the woodland garden, Athyrium 'Burgundy Lace' creates a stunning clump that dazzles with its contrasting colors.This fern's delicate fronds add a touch of sophistication to any garden. It thrives in shade and prefers consistently moist soil.
Blue Hosta (Hosta 'Empress Wu') The remarkable Hosta 'Empress Wu' holds the distinction of being the largest-growing hosta available. It is suspected that the genetic heritage of this colossal hosta involves both Hosta sieboldiana and Hosta nigrescens. In the garden, our robust three-year-old plants have already reached impressive dimensions of 3 feet in height and 6 feet in width. These plants are on track to reach a mature size of 4 feet tall and a sprawling 9 feet wide. The expansive clumps of glossy green leaves emerge with a blue-green tint in spring, complemented by 5-foot-tall stalks bearing light lavender flowers that bloom mid-summer. Unsurprisingly, this gigantic hosta is aptly named after the late Chinese Empress Wu. With its large, heart-shaped leaves and distinctive blue hue, this hosta variety is a showstopper. It tolerates shade well and prefers well-draining soil.
Place these two plants together in a shaded area of your garden to evoke the tranquility of a woodland escape. The fine texture of the fern's fronds against the bold backdrop of the hosta's leaves creates a harmonious blend that captures the essence of nature.
Subtle Elegance: Ostrich Fern and Variegated Hosta
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris 'The King') Matteuccia 'The King' stands out as a rarity that thrives in the hot and humid southeastern United States, an environment where regular ostrich ferns struggle to flourish. These deciduous rosettes, reaching a height of 3 feet (or up to 6 feet under optimal conditions), spread vigorously through underground rhizomes. While naturally found in damp ditches and lowlands, these deer-resistant ostrich ferns also adapt well to drier garden settings, where they tend to grow a bit shorter. The distinctiveness of Matteuccia struthiopteris 'The King' is accentuated by its 18-inch brown fertile fronds, which emerge in the fall and endure throughout the winter months.
Variegated Hosta (Hosta 'Formal Tuxedo') With its white-edged leaves and deep green centers, this hosta variety adds a touch of lightness to shaded corners. It's relatively low-maintenance and can tolerate varying soil conditions.
Plant these two varieties in a shaded border or along a pathway to create a calming atmosphere. The dynamic contrast between the fine, feathery fern fronds and the variegated hosta leaves will add depth and interest to your landscape.
Whimsical Harmony: Cinnamon Fern and Gold Hosta
For a whimsical and enchanting garden bed, combine the striking Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) with the radiant Gold Hosta (Hosta 'Sum and Substance'). This pairing juxtaposes the warm, earthy tones of the cinnamon fern with the vibrant, golden leaves of the hosta, resulting in a captivating interplay of colors.
Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea aka Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) The deciduous native plant of the US, Osmunda cinnamomea, can be found in all states east of the Mississippi River, except for Texas and Oklahoma. These stately, upright clumps of osmunda stand at 3 feet tall, thriving in moist soils while also adapting well to standard garden conditions, making them an excellent addition to woodland landscapes. The fertile fronds of Osmunda cinnamomea emerge in the spring, rising just above the sterile foliage like cinnamon-colored spikes at the center of the clump. In moisture-rich soils, a content cinnamon fern clump can achieve dimensions of 3 feet in height and width, and under ideal conditions, very old clumps have even been recorded reaching 6 feet—a testament to its stature as one of our most remarkable US native plants. Recent DNA research indicates that Osmunda cinnamomea has distant relationships with other osmunda ferns, such as Osmunda regalis. Consequently, some taxonomists have reclassified it into a separate genus called Osmundastrum. Named for its cinnamon-colored fertile fronds, this fern adds a touch of drama to shaded areas. It thrives in moist soil and can add a wild, untamed element to your garden.
Gold Hosta (Hosta 'Sum and Substance') Regarded as one of the most exceptional hostas ever brought to the gardening world, Hosta 'Sum and Substance' boasts an impressive stature. The enormous chartreuse clump it forms is striking, and its allure is further enhanced by the presence of 30-inch-long, gracefully arching scapes adorned with pale lavender flowers that hummingbirds are particularly fond of. With each rounded leaf capable of spanning 2 feet in width, the clumps, under the care of adept gardeners, can average around 6 feet in width and potentially exceed 9 feet—making it a prime contender for neighborhood boasting rights. An interesting distinction is that Hosta 'Sum and Substance' is one of the few tetraploid hostas, a characteristic that sets it apart from many others in its genus. With its large, heart-shaped leaves in shades of gold and chartreuse, this hosta variety becomes a focal point wherever it's planted. It's adaptable to different soil types and offers a bold pop of color.
Plant these two varieties near a water feature or in a moist garden area to create a whimsical and inviting atmosphere. The warm hues of the cinnamon fern's fronds will beautifully complement the golden hosta leaves, infusing your garden with a touch of magic.
Caring for Your Ferns and Hostas: Tips for Success
As a beginner gardener, nurturing your fern and hosta landscape doesn't have to be intimidating. Here are some care tips to ensure your plants thrive:
- Choose the Right Location: Both ferns and hostas prefer shade to partial shade environments. Avoid direct sunlight, as it can scorch their delicate leaves. Aim for areas with well-draining soil to prevent waterlogging and root rot during the winter months.
- Provide Adequate Watering: While ferns and hostas have differing moisture requirements, both appreciate consistent watering. Keep the soil evenly moist for ferns, and water hostas whenever the top inch of soil feels dry.
- Mulching Matters: Apply a layer of organic mulch around your plants to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and maintain a consistent soil temperature.
- Fertilize Sparingly: Ferns and hostas don't require heavy fertilization. Apply a balanced, slow-release organic fertilizer in spring to provide essential nutrients for the growing season.
- Divide and Conquer: Over time, both ferns and hostas can become overcrowded. Dividing them every few years not only rejuvenates the plants but also allows you to spread their beauty throughout your garden.
Embarking on your gardening journey with ferns and hostas is a delightful way to create a captivating landscape that brings nature's serenity to your doorstep. With their graceful fronds, vibrant foliage, and compatibility with shade conditions, these plants offer a wealth of possibilities for beginners to explore. Whether you're drawn to woodland charm, subtle elegance, or whimsical magic, the combinations we've explored provide a starting point for your own unique woodland garden haven.