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How to Prune: Evergreen Ferns & Evergreen Groundcovers

by Robin Haglund

Some of the most abundant, diverse and lowest maintenance plants are ferns and evergreen groundcovers.

Although ferns don't bloom, their unique forms and textures provide exceptional visual interest in the garden. Combined with evergreen groundcovers, which do bloom, they fashion a beautiful, mixed interest garden bed that should require very little work during the gardening year.

Ferns are among some of the oldest plants on the planet, and they come in sizes that range from tight, groundcover forms such as Blechnum penna-marina (Alpine Water Fern) to towering tropical tree forms. While these are gorgeous and offered in many nurseries, seeking out ferns native to your locale will increase your gardening success rate. North American native ferns like Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) and Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant) are fantastic evergreen options for mixed height, texture and beautiful year-round interest. The trick: prune them at just the right time, and it takes no time at all!

Many gardeners claim to dislike ferns because they "look messy" or are "hard to prune". The reality is many evergreen ferns have fronds (they're not called leaves on ferns) that last only a year or so. Then those older fronds die back and turn brown, but they remain woven among the newer growth. And, that's what causes the messiness, which is difficult to clean out from among so many other living fronds.

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To avoid this mish-mash mess, instead cut all of the fronds from your fern to the ground late each winter or early each spring. Once all of the fronds are cut down, each plant should look like a tiny curled fist on the ground. Each of those fists will unfurl delicate fronds as the days of spring lengthen, forming a fresh new plant for the rest of the year. By making the cuts at the end of winter and just before the growth surge begins for spring, you will avoid the problem of snapping off tender, new growth as you cut. Plus, you will have enjoyed the prior year's fronds from the moment they surge forth in spring all the way through winter -- without ever looking at brown, dried out fronds. And, you'll only look at cut-down plants for a couple of weeks before they rise into beautiful new growth for the year ahead.

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And while you're out cutting back those evergreen ferns, go ahead and cut back your evergreen groundcovers nearby. The same ploy applies: remove the prior year's growth at the end of winter just before new growth appears and before old growth browns out. The added bonus here: cutting back groundcovers like Epimediums and Vinca minor in late winter will expose all of their tiny, sweet spring flowers, which are often otherwise hidden below layers of older foliage. On Vinca, the flowers bloom on the growth closest to the ground, so mowing is an option in some gardens. On Epimediums, the flowers unfurl from the soil, so you need not worry that you'll raze the flowers by cutting back just before they bloom. Just watch carefully and be certain to do your trimming before the flower heads begin to expand. And, after you enjoy their lovely carpet of flowers, these plants will reward you with a fresh garden painting of weed-suppressing groundcover to enjoy for the whole year ahead.