It seems like there is no gardening challenge that Mother Nature hasn't already encountered and conquered. Full sun? Lots of moisture? She's got a plant for that. But what about that most difficult of garden settings - the light and soil combination that even the most experienced gardeners dread: Dry shade? She's got a plant for that and, believe it or not, it's a fern.
When we hear the word "fern" most of us conjure up an image of the dense shade of a brook, its moist banks lined with delicate, swaying fern fronds. But the ferns are incredibly adaptable group of plants. Not only do they inhabit moist, shady spots, there are ferns that live among rocks, ones that are adapted to sunny areas, and if you look closely, you will even find ferns growing in cracks in the mortar of brick buildings and old stone walls.
Among the more drought-tolerant ferns to look for are a couple: Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas), shown above, and Lady fern (Anthyrium filix-femina). Male fern is an easy-to-grow, robust fern that provides color throughout the gardening seasons. In spring, its young fronds emerge in shades of bronze and copper turn a soft green during the growing season, and, in autumn, turn orange before going dormant. Male ferns grow to a height of three to four feet, are drought-tolerant once they are established, and can grow in deep shade or a site with morning sun. Lady fern has bright green, lacy fronds that are wide in the center and taper at both ends. This adaptable and easy-to-grow fern is found in every state in the continental US. Give it supplemental watering during periods of drought.
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is an evergreen native of that works well in mass plantings or nestled among the roots of large trees. It has dark green, leathery leaves that have been used for centuries to decorate the house in winter. A quick grower with a delicious fragrance is the hay-scented fern (Dennstaedia punctilobula). This is a plant that grows well in dry shade, and is so adaptable that it can tolerate a sunny location, provided it receives adequate moisture.
A great native fern for dry or wet situations is the Dixie wood fern (Dryopteris x australis). Hardy to zone 9, the erect fronds of this fern are semi-evergreen and grow to four feet. This is a striking fern makes a great vertical accent in the landscape. Now that your problems with dry shade are solved, how about planting that brick wall with a few lip ferns?
Not all ferns are tough enough to withstand the rigors of life without much water, and even the most drought-tolerant ferns still need a setting closer to a shaded thicket than a scorching desert. Also, most ferns do well in soil that's rich in organic material.