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Outdoor Fern Care 101: Expert Tips for Lush Ferns in Your Landscape

by | Oct 6, 2023 | Gardening | 0 comments

Ferns offer unsurpassed variety for use in the home and garden. They can be grown in pots, hanging baskets, beds, and rock gardens. As specimen plants, or they can be massed as ground covers.

Fern Growth Habit

Before planting, consider the look that you want to achieve. While some ferns form clumps, others spread and make colonies. Some ferns are dainty and airy, while others are stiff and leathery. Many ferns have a reddish color when fronds are young, with a few varieties offering color in their mature fronds.

Exposure & Habitat

Ferns are a natural in shady areas where other plants fail for lack of light. Brooks, ponds, and low, slow-draining areas almost beg for ferns.

Take advantage of boulders and fallen logs for fern planting sites, or plant a fern or two next to a rustic bench to spruce up a favorite rest spot. Since most ferns occur naturally in cool, moist, wooded areas, try to approximate these conditions in your landscape.

Ferns seldom look their best in full sun during the height of Southern California summers. When growing ferns in full sun, be prepared to give them extra water to prevent leaf margins from burning. A cool, filtered sun or shady spot helps them retain moisture.

Soil & Planting

Soil should contain plenty of humus, peat moss, and rotted bark mulch or leaf mold. Most ferns prefer a slightly acidic soil. Adding large amounts of pine straw or pine bark will help increase soil acidity and improve porosity. For the few ferns that prefer alkaline soil, try adding dolomite lime.

Keep your fern beds well mulched to conserve moisture and cut down on weeds. Natural mulches, like shredded leaves, pine straw, and ground bark, tend to look best, as they most closely approximate the appearance of native fern habitats.

A garden full of pink flowers and ferns.

Fertilizing Ferns

Organic fertilizers, such as manure, fish emulsion, and blood meal, are preferable because they lack the salts found in chemical fertilizers. These salts build up over time, causing leaf edges or tips to burn.

If you must use chemical fertilizers, those applied in liquid form are best, but they should be diluted to at least half the recommended strength. Similarl+y, slow-release fertilizer granules should be used sparingly.

NOTE: Never fertilize dry soil. Be sure to water ferns well before and after fertilizing.

Container Planting Your Ferns

Clump-forming ferns work best for container gardening, as they don’t try to run out of the pot but will form nice bushy plants. Cotton burr compost will provide extra peat moss and ensure adequate drainage. Containers must have a drain hole to allow excess moisture to escape.

Remember that containerized ferns will dry out more quickly than those planted in the ground. Check them frequently, especially during hot, dry summers.

Many plant lovers shy away from ferns because they’re considered hard to grow. But they’re quite easy to care for if you follow a few simple practices.

Ferns must have humidity, which is lacking in most modern homes. You can humidify your ferns by filling a saucer or tray half full with gravel and letting the plant pot sit on top of the gravel.

  • Keep a little water in the gravel at all times.
  • Don’t let the water level reach high enough to touch the bottom of the pot.
  • If you place your potted fern in a decorative planter, you can stuff moist sphagnum moss between the pots to moisten when necessary.

Ferns do best in areas not heated to more than 72 degrees. Temperatures from 60 to 65 are ideal. Keep ferns away from drafts.

Ferns framing a wooden bench in a garden.

Watering Ferns

  • Use distilled or rainwater, if possible.
  • Tap water should be drawn and allowed to stand for several hours before applying.
  • Don’t pour water over the foliage.
  • If you water your hanging fern by immersing it in water, don’t let the water wet the foliage.

Outdoor hanging fern baskets should be in complete shade and protected from the wind. Soil should be moist at all times. Good drainage is essential.

Insects & Ferns

If you need to use insect spray on your ferns, try insecticidal soaps, a non-chemical insect control. Be sure to follow the label directions for mixing.

Fertilizing Ferns

  • Potted ferns should be fed monthly from March to October.
  • Ferns growing in hanging baskets should be fed every two weeks.

Use only organic fertilizers; fish emulsion is one of the best.