A Fern Foundation
Somewhere it is written that foundation plantings must be evergreen shrubs (Yews, Boxwood, and the like). and that these shrubs must be clipped into geometric shapes. Judy and I, however, have defied this commandment and have come up with a different sort of foundation planting: Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and allied perennials. I would also consider grasses, but the front of our house faces north and is in quite a lot of shade.
Right now the Ostrich Ferns have reached what I like to think of as their annual young adulthood. Like many other plants, they are at least a couple of weeks behind schedule. They are no longer cute little fiddleheads, but not yet the towering fronds of summer. At their tips they are still unfurling (unfurling fronds always look optimistic and vibrant to my eyes), and they wear a fresh, light green.
Ostrich Ferns have one major defect as a foundation planting: in Chicago, at least, they only last a little more than half the year. The rest of the time the area where the front of the house meets the ground is exposed. For many people this is akin to walking around in public without your pants, but I don’t feel that way.
For one thing, starting in mid-summer the view is obscured by the tallest plants in the Front Island Bed, at least until they are cleared out in April. Plus, for much of that time it’s too cold for people to be staring at the ground along the front of our house. People are just trying to get where they are going as quickly as possible.
There are a number of native plants that make excellent companions for Ostrich Ferns: Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), and Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).
All of the above are Midwestern natives, but I couldn’t help including one exotic plant: the Old Fashioned Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).
I find Bleeding Hearts to be irresistible.
Here’s how the Ostrich Ferns look at their summer peak. This was taken a few years ago.
The other problem with Ostrich Ferns is that they spread, and you have to dig them out if you don’t want an Ostrich Fern plantation. However, I’m trying to figure out how tightly I have to enforce an Ostrich Fern cordon sanitaire. To what extent can they coexist with other perennials, or will they smother everything wherever they stake a claim?
Here’s another view of the Ostrich Fern foundation planting, taken a few years ago, with Wild Columbine and Golden Alexander in the foreground.
Have you ever tried using ferns or grasses as a foundation planting for your house?