December plant of the month, the soft shield fern

As the garden falls into its winter slumber, consider the soft shield fern to provide much needed colour and texture to the border

Soft shield fernJazz up your borders

During the depths of winter our gardens are laid bare, so it’s vital to have good structural elements running through the borders. While many gardeners make use of evergreen shrubs, it is also worth considering other plant groups such as bamboos and ferns, which can add valuable interest to a planting scheme.

A plant that is worth highlighting now is the soft shield fern, Polystichium setiferum, and in particular the selection Divisilobum Group. This fern is evergreen and has soft lance-shaped fronds, which are dark green and divided into three pinnate sections, giving the foliage a very attractive and finely divided appearance.

Why the soft sheild fern is a border 'must have'

Along the centre of each frond small bulbils form which adds curiosity to this plant. Depending on the plant's growing conditions, each frond can be up to 100cm (3ft 3in) long and the plant as a whole can reach up 1.2m (4ft) tall and 90cm (3ft) wide.  Polystichium keeps its fronds through the winter months and they look fantastic with frost or snow on them - they don’t need cutting back until the spring, when the new fronds are starting to emerge from the base of the plant.

The soft shield fern is a tough plant and is easy to grow.  It prefers humus-rich, well-drained soil and will grow in partial or deep shade, also tolerating dry shade; under the canopy of a tree for instance where few others plants will grow. In cold or wet parts of the country the crowns may need protecting from winter wet with a mulch or straw.

Soft shield fernHow to use ferns to brighten the border

At RHS Garden Hyde Hall you can find this fern in several different locations. It grows well at the lower pond near the gazebo where it’s associated with other winter structural plants such as Mahonia x media and Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna. We have also added bulbs to this planting which emerge when the fronds are cut back in the spring and include Eranthis hyemalis (Tubergenii Group) ‘Guinea Gold’ AGM and Narcissus ‘Quail’ which has small buttery yellow flowers.

Polystichium setiferum Divisilobum Group have proved to be an ideal border addition in places such as the woodland garden where it grows happily under the canopy of taller shrubs such as rhododendrons which are also surface rooting which means the soil quickly dries out.

More information

Designing with plants
Plants for winter interest

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