Tips for Growing Fern Plants
Ferns include nearly 12,000 species within a unique category of plants that do not reproduce by seeds produced by flowers that pollinate (sexual reproduction), as do virtually all other plant species. Instead, ferns propagate via spores, which are reproductive units that look like small dots on the undersides of the fronds. Fern plants can drop millions of spores onto the ground, but only a few will find ideal conditions to grow. Ferns have been in existence for more than 300 million years, and are easily recognizable because of their lace-like leaves, known as fronds.
There are so many different species of fern that each must be approached individually to fully understand its characteristics and cultural needs. Some are giant tree-like plants, while others rarely grow above one inch in height. Most like shady conditions, but a few grow best in nearly full sun. Some like dry soil, while most need to be kept constantly moist. However, there are some common things to know if you want to grow ferns in your garden or home.
How to Grow Ferns
Most of the popular varieties of ferns for the garden should be planted in a part-shade location, in soil that is rich and which is both moist and well-drained. Spacing should depend on the type of fern—some are mat-forming, and will quickly spread to blanket an area, while others are self-contained and can be used as specimen plants among mixed plantings.
The only rule of thumb for growing ferns is to keep them moist—most varieties, that is. Many ferns are so easy to grow that they can become a nuisance, spreading where you don't want them unless you supervise them. Watch for slug damage through the season. Fronds can be left in place to protect the crowns over winter but should be cleaned away in the spring.
Most ferns prefer a shady location, but they don't do well in deep shade. The dabbled shade provided by tree branches provide the best conditions. Think about how they grow in the forest and try and find similar conditions in your yard.
Ferns can handle some direct sunlight, however, the more sun they get, the more moisture they will need. Only a few fern species, such as ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) will tolerate dry, hot, sunny locations.
Nearly all ferns prefer a soil that is moist and well-draining. Most do best in slightly acidic to neutral soil, from 4.0 to 7.0 in pH, but some, such as the maidenhair fern (Adiantum), requires a more alkaline soil.
Water ferns regularly during periods without rain, and do not let the soil get totally dry. A two-inch-thick layer of mulch will help keep the roots cool and damp. When grown indoors, water the plant slightly every day.
Temperature and Humidity
Most (not all) ferns like a humid environment, but their temperature tolerance is quite broad. There is a fern for almost every climate, provided soil and humidity needs are met.
Although not essential, you can use a slow-release fertilizer mixed into the soil in early spring. Ferns are sensitive to fertilizer, so don't overfeed.