You cannot have too many ferns in a shady garden – or any sort of garden. I don't mean the good old ostrich ferns that rampage around mercilessly. I mean all those gorgeous collectible ferns and the brilliant, dishy cultivars – especially athyriums. Athyrium felix-femina, the lady fern, is a basic plant that will naturalize at a slow pace. But it is a species that has been creatively messed with for a long time, and the results have given us the spectacular Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Picta') a burgundy/ silver/green concoction that takes some sun, lives in pretty much any kind of soil and was incredibly popular 10 years ago. It was not my favourite, but when I discovered A. 'Ghost,' I met the plant of my dreams: It did not travel all over the place, did not seed, it took maybe a year or two to get to 0.9 metres by 0.9 metres, and was a cross between A. felix femina (which I found too conservative) and A. niponicum 'Picta' (which I found too jazzy). Here was perfection: silvery fronds that glowed without being cloying, standing virtuously upright and thriving in a lot of shade. For shade-ridden gardens, this was the best of all possible worlds. And this year, we have A. 'Godzilla,' which will get to more than one metre tall by two metres wide. It has deep purple stems and arching silver fronds with green highlights, and will fill whatever site you give it. It will be an outstanding container plant in shade, and works well with other monster plants such as Aralia 'Sun King.' On a north-facing balcony or terrace, you would need little else. Beyond a hit of compost every year, ferns should not be fertilized. Those delicate fronds will get too heavy and it is a waste of effort. They grow without much help at all. A bare minimum is to keep it moderately moist, although some athyriums can cope with dry shade. Do not cut back the fronds in winter. They protect the heart of the plant – the rhizomes by which it spreads very slowly. If you need an evergreen fern, go for Polystichum acrostichoides, which looks attractive all year. It is hard to imagine a good garden without some ferns in dappled light next to hostas, beside arums and among pulmonarias. They are just about the best value for your dollar and your time and with the slightest effort look gorgeous.
Find Athyrium 'Godzilla' at garden centres such as John's Garden Centre in Uxbridge, Ont. (www.johnsgarden.ca), where it retails for $13.50.