It’s tough, easy-to-grow, and gives color year-round.
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Autumn fern
Credit: Steve Bender

Ferns are great problem solvers for shade. They offer strikingly handsome foliage, a wide variety of sizes and textures, and critters mostly leave them alone. Out of all the different kinds I see at garden centers, though, there's one I would recommend first to someone just starting out. Autumn fern.

Native to Asia, autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) gets its name from the way its foliage transforms spring into fall. Newly unfurled fronds shimmer orange, copper, bronze, and pink before turning deep green in summer. This makes them excellent foils for hostas, heucheras, hellebores, carex, wild ginger, and other plants in the shady border. Upright and arching, they stand about 2 feet tall, although I have seen them taller when given constant moisture.

Another big plus for autumn fern is that it stays evergreen in all but the two northernmost zones of its range (USDA Zones 5 to 9). That's important to me, because it keeps my woodland garden from looking completely barren and dead in winter. I've tried evergreen holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) back there, but winter temps below 25 degrees burn the foliage. Autumn fern stays looking nice.

Last but certainly not least, autumn fern is sturdy for a fern. Likes most ferns, it likes moisture, but established plants will tolerate drought. Sure, they'll droop some when it's hot and dry, but they won't croak, and they'll perk back up as good as new with a generous drink of water. For best results, plant in shade to part shade in loose, fertile soil that contains a good amount or organic matter. Each fall, I top-dress mine with fallen oak leaves I've chopped to bits with my mulching mower. They really like it.

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Don't worry about critter damage from rabbits and deer. Autumn fern is not high on their list. However, this gaudy fern is high on the list of shade plants in garden centers now, so take advantage. You'll also find it for sale online.