Growing Ferns

  • Blade – main part of a frond; generally stipes plus blade make up the frond.
  • Caudex – stem or stalk of the fern plant
  • Fertile leaf – a leaf that bears spore cases or “fruit dots”
  • Frond – the leaf of a fern
  • Fruit band – on some ferns, a line of spore cases occurring on the leaf margin or underside of the leaf
  • Leaflets – one of the divisions of a compound leaf
  • Midvein – the central and most prominent vein of a pinnae
  • Pinnae – leaflets that are arranged along the blade
  • Rachis – a continuation of the stipe that extends from the base of the plant to its apex
  • Rhizome – stems, above or below ground (usually below ground), producing fronds above and roots below
  • Sori – spore cases on ferns
  • Sorus – spore case of ferns
  • Stipe – stem or stalk of a frond

Native Fern Species

B. Ferns of the Coastal Plain
Botanical Name Common Name Other Habitats Size EV/
Moisture Wet-Dry Light Sun-Shade
Dryopteris ludoviciana Southern or evergreen southern woodfern D 24-48″ E xx – – – – – -xx
Thelypteris hispidula var. vericolor
(T. Versicolor, T. quadrangularis)
Variable maiden fern D 16-32″ D xxx – – xxxx –
Thelypteris kunthi Southern shield or widespread maiden D 22-44″ D xxx – – xxxx –
Thelypteris palustris var. pubexcens Marsh fern A 18-36″ D xx – – – xxx – –
Woodwardia virginica Virginia, large or giant chain fern A, C 20-50″ D xx – – – xxx – –
-The above information is based primarily on habitat information for Georgia. Habitat conditions will vary in other locations.

-The letters under “other habitats” refer to the letters for habitats on this table (A = piedmont; B = coastal plain; C = mountains; D = calcareous). Those letters in parentheses indicate relative infrequency in that habitat.

-EV/DEC refers to evergreen or deciduous; E = evergreen; D = deciduous; SE = semi-evergreen.

-The moisture and light categories give the range of conditions in which the species generally occur, indicated by the “x”

Adapted from Connie P. Gray 1/92

Fern Varieties

Boston Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis

Boston ferns can become quite large, and their fronds may grow 4 feet long.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Found in Boston — probably a genetic variation of sword fern. Drooping habit brought about development of the fern stand. Tolerates potbound conditions. Nighttime temperature, 60°F; preferably 55°.

Many new selections of Boston ferns have been introduced. This is one of the so-called “fluffy” ferns. Because of its small, stiff fronds, the compact Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis compacta) makes a good companion plant for a table display of other house plants or is good in a smaller size hanging basket. One of the more unusual Boston cultivars is Naphrolepis cordifolia cv. ‘Duffi’. It looks a great deal like the button fern. Another member of the Boston fern family, the Roosevelt fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv. ‘Rooseveltii’), sprouts long, rather wide fronds.

Fluffy Ruffles / Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Fluffy Ruffles’

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Several types of ‘Fluffy Ruffle,’ such as ‘Double Fluffy Ruffle’ and ‘Super Double Fluffy Ruffle.’ The ‘Florida Fluffy’ is the most easily cultivated selection. Fronds may be 18″ to 24″ long, semi-upright to drooping. Not as demanding of high humidity. Do not mist directly on foliage.

Petticoat Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Petticoat’

The petticoat fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv. ‘Petticoat’) gets its name because of its similarity to the old crinoline petticoats.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Noted for the frilly and graceful foliage on the tips of leaflets, these tips spread and divide or fork to make a fluffy mass of foliage appearing as the crinoline at the bottom of old fashioned petticoats.

Many types and selections of Nephrolepis are available. ‘Verona,’ a dwarf three pinnae form of Boston, is an example of those best adapted to indoor culture.

Whitmanii / Nephrolepis exaltata

The Whitman fern (Naphroleis exaltata cv. ‘Whitmanii’) is a cultivar of the Boston fern family.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: Frond 18″ to 24″ in length and 4″ to 7″ wide.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Easiest of fluffy types to grow. Other types or variations are found with only slight variations. A sport or selection from the old-fashioned lace fern.

Sword Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata

Light Requirements: Can tolerate more sun than other members, such as Boston and other selections. Place in partial shade in summer and locate for two or more hours of sun during winter.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: Fronds up to 5′ in length and 2″ to 5″ in width. Fronds grow upright then arch with age. Make a beautiful and showy large pot plant.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Staghorn Fern / Platycerium bifurcatum

This young staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) is beginning to look like a stag’s horns or antlers. This fern is usually grown on a wooden slab or wire basket in chopped sphagnum moss, oak leaves or peat moss.

Light Requirements: Bright light but avoid direct sun. Water everyday in summer. Mist daily inside during winter.

Soil Mix: Use a mixture of peat moss, oak leaves, chopped sphagnum moss between flat frond and wood slab.

Size: Produces two different types of fronds, one round and one flat. May be 4″ to 6″ reaching 3′ to 4′ in many years. Usually mounted on a wood slab (redwood, pine or cork) by tying or wiring the flat frond against the slab.

Fertilization: Does not need much fertilization. However, once a year, add top dressing of the soil mixture between flat frond and slab.

Comments: Most unusual of fern family, strictly epiphytic growing in crevices or on trunks of trees. Most resemble a stag’s horns.

The crosier, or young frond, of a staghorn fern is beginning to develop from beneath the prothallium. This staghorn fern is more than 15 years old and has a spread of about 7 feet.

Rabbits Foot Fern / Davillia fejeensis

Rabbits foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) is a curiosity among ferns. The stiff hairy or wooly rhizomes give it its name. It is often grown in baskets or fern balls that show off its unusual appearance.

Light Requirements: Morning sun beneficial in winter. Keep in shade in summer.

Soil Mix: Use wood or wire basket. Use a mixture of one-fourth potting or garden soil, one-fourth peat moss, one-fourth finely chopped or small particle pine bark, and one-fourth sand and small gravel. Add charcoal — 1 pint to a gallon of soil mixture.

Size: 12″ to 18″ stiff stems or stipes with very fine lacy foliage on top half of stipe.

Fertilization: Fertilize March to September with regular plant food or organics such as fish emulsion. Follow instructions on package or bottle.

Comments: So called because rhizomes, gray-white and hairy-like growth resemble and feel like a rabbit’s foot. Rhizomes seem to crawl down the side of pots or baskets. Other forms called squirrel foot because of brown color. Native to tropics with high humidity and moist soil. Mist plants daily during heating season.

Maidenhair Fern / Adiantum cuneatum

The northern maidenhair fern grows in several areas of Georgia that have moist, rich woodland slopes. It is most beautiful in soil containing some lime.

Light Requirements: Avoid direct sun but strive for high light.

Soil Mix: One-half peat moss, one-fourth potting soil, and one-fourth of an equal parts mixture of sand, charcoal, manure. Add 1 tbs. of limestone per 1 gal. of mixture.

Size: Fronds 8″ to 15″ long, 4″ to 8″ wide. Fronds on tiny wiry stipes.

Comments: So-called “soilless” potting mixtures, commonly used by commercial greenhouse growers, are quite satisfactory for potting ferns. These mixtures contain combinations of peat moss, vermiculite, pine bark and perlite.

Many selections such as ‘Excelsum,’ ‘Goldelese,’ ‘Ideal,’ ‘Kensington Gem,’ ‘Matador’ and ‘Maximum.’

Pteris Fern / Pteris cretica, Pteris tremula, P. ensiformis

The Pteris fern, or common table fern, is perfect for small bowls or pots. To ensure proper humidity, place the pot on a saucer filled with gravel and water.

Light Requirements: Bright light September to March. Water only when dry and do not feed. Other months keep out of direct sun. Note: keep moist at all times during growing season — mist.

Soil Mix: Use one-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, and one-third of a mixture of equal parts sand, gravel or charcoal.

Size: Tremula is largest growing of group. Up to 3′ fronds in mature plants 12″ wide at base. Grows rapidly. Reaches maximum size in one year. P. cretica has 6″ to 12″ decorative fronds on wiry light brown stalks.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to August. Use regular fish emulsion. Follow label instructions.

Comments: Many, many selections. ‘Parkeri,’ ‘Wilsonii,’ ‘Evergemiensis,’ ‘Major,’ ‘Victoriae,’ etc. Beautiful effects of shadows and light because of texture on pinnae. Commonly referred to as brake fern. Good for beginners because of ease of culture. Pteris cretica ‘Albolineata’ is a most attractive variegated form with clean-cut leathery fronds. A broad band of creamy white runs down center of each leaflet. Some of 17 or more selections or named varieties are grown today.

Asparagus Fern / Asparagus plumosus

Light Requirements: Bright light at all times

Soil Mix: One-third garden or potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand. Add small amount of dried rotted manure.

Size: Size varies depending upon species.

Fertilization: Fertilize weekly from early spring through September. If using indoor plant food, use half strength. Keep moist at all times.

Comments: Not a true fern. Belongs to the lily family. Produces flowers and seed rather than spores. Newer selections such as plumosus and sprengeri may be easily grown from seed. Use in pots, hanging baskets.

Asparagus ferns (sprengeri in this case) are not true ferns. They are members of the lily family and are true asparagus. They require bright light at all times. Asparagus plumosus is another plant commonly called a fern but is actually a true asparagus.

Birds Nest Fern / Asplenium nidus

This birds nest fern gets its name from its open center. A large-growing fern, birds nests develop fronds up to 4 feet long.

Light Requirements: Bright light at all times

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts).

Size: Fronds up to 3′ on old specimen. For large plants, need to report and shift to larger pots twice per year.

Comments: Unusual because of undivided ruffled fronds. Keep moist at all times.

Button Fern / Pellaea rotundifolia

Light Requirements: Low or subdued light at all times except during winter when bright light is needed due to dark cloudy days.

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts). Add a teaspoon of lime to each quart of mixture.

Size: Fronds seldom over 12″.

Comments: Good for beginners. Sometimes called cliff brake. Water this fern only when soil becomes dry to the touch. Mist occasionally.

Holly Fern (Japanese Holly Fern) / Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochefordianum’

Light Requirements: Low to medium light. Avoid direct light (causes leaf burn).

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts). Add 1 cup manure per gallon of soil mix.

Size: Fronds 18″ to 30″

Comments: Major enemy is heat. Grow on cool sun porch area or where temperature does not go above 75°F. Keep moist April to September. Other times of year, water only when dry. Noted for dark shiny green leathery foliage.

Other Varieties

One of the most unusual ferns is the Hugenot fern, which grows freely in Georgia. This fern overwinters nicely in South Georgia. Both Hugenot and Japanese holly ferns can be observed growing outdoors on the old porous brick of walled gardens in Savannah and Charleston. The southern lady fern is a most attractive woodland fern. Because of its texture, color and size, it is often used in naturalized areas or gardens.
The foxtail or plume fern (Asparagus densiflorus cv. ‘Meyeri’) is actually an asparagus and requires more light than a true fern. The squirrels foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) get its common name from the fuzzy roots that grow along the surface of the soil.
The Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum) looks more like a vine than a fern. It climbs by trailing stems. A similar species (L. palmatum) can be observed growing wild in Georgia and South Carolina. The hares foot fern (Polypodium sp.) is a large, sprawling fern, excellent on a fern stand where it has plenty of room to grow.

Dunbar, L., 1989. Ferns of the Coastal Plain. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.

Foster, F. G., 1971. Ferns to Know and Grow. Hawthorne Books, Inc., NY.

Hoshizaki, B. J., 1975. Fern Growers Manual. Alfred A. Knopf, NY.

Jones, S. B., Jr. and L. E. Foote, 1990. Gardening With Native Wild Flowers. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Lellinger, D. B., 1985. A Field Manual of the Ferns and Fern Allies of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Mickel, J. T., 1979. How to Know the Ferns and Fern Allies. Wm. C. Brown Co., Dubuque, IO.

Phillips, H. R., 1985. Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Sources for Native Ferns

Birmingham Fern Society: Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 2612 Lane Park Road, Birmingham, AL 35223, (205) 879-1227.

Native Gardens: Route 1, Box 464, Greenback, TN 37742, (615) 856-3350.

Piccadilly Farm: 1971 Whippoorwill Road, Bishop, GA 30621, (706) 769-6516.

Sunlight Gardens: 174 Golden Lane, Andersonville, TN 37705, (423) 494-8237.

Woodlanders, Inc.: 1128 Colleton Ave., Aiken, SC 29801, (803) 648-7522.

Grateful appreciation is expressed to Rodney Coleman for assistance in the preparation of this publication. Appreciation is also expressed to Callaway Gardens of Pine Mountain, Georgia, where many of the ferns were photographed.

Authors acknowledge assistance of Henry Clay and Jeff Lewis, horticulturists.

Status and Revision History
Published on Apr 01, 2000
Published on Feb 24, 2009
Published with Full Review on Jun 26, 2012
Published with Full Review on Feb 01, 2016

Many of us think of “Jurassic Park” when we think of ferns (Pteridophytes) — abundant, spiky greenery thrashing about as huge dinosaurs crash through the forest in pursuit of human intruders.

At 300,000 million years old, they were, indeed, among the dominant plant species when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And as many as 15,000 species now call our planet home.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how many species exist, because new ones are still being discovered in unexplored tropical areas, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But we know there are more than enough for you to choose from to include in both your landscape and inside your home, as these green beauties are versatile additions to either place.

While ferns are relatively easy to grow, you’ll want to understand some of their peculiarities before diving in. Let’s get started!

Plant Data

Ferns are vascular types of greenery, land plants with rigid, woody tissues that form “tubes” used to conduct water and minerals throughout. They reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers, and are distinguished from other spore-bearing plants, such as moss, by the fact that they have true roots, stems, and complex leaves.

A spore is a reproductive cell that can develop into a new individual without joining with another reproductive cell. And spore-based plants are evolutionarily much older than seed-based ones.

Instantly recognizable by their lace-like fronds (divided leaves) and hues of green ranging from olive to chartreuse, ferns are the Kevin Hart-Shaquille O’Neal of the plant world, varying in size from a quarter inch to as tall as 80 feet.

A Shady Character

Because ferns evolved in the shadows of the giant conifers that dominated the landscape in the time of the dinosaurs, they are generally fond of indirect light. This makes them a wonderful go-to for areas of your garden that are shady – and frustrating to fill since so many plants want sun, sun, and more sun.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Some species — which may be evergreen or deciduous — will do well in sunny areas.

They are also very geographically diverse. “There are ferns that do well in almost every area of the United States,” says Skip Richter, a county extension agent with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. “Check with a local source to find the best varieties for your area,” he recommends.

For example, ‘Lady in Red’ — characterized by lacy, light green fronds — does well in USDA plant hardiness zones 2-8. Happy a little further south in zones 3-9 is ‘Lady Fern,’ a longtime staple that’s very hardy. ‘Japanese Holly fern,’ successfully grown in zones 5-10, has “leaves” that are leathery and serrated, resembling holly.

If you want a true “Jurassic Park” experience, you might plant bracken (Pteridium) fern — it is one of the oldest and most evolutionarily persistent ferns. Scientists have identified bracken fossils that are more than 65 million years old. But beware — bracken can be be quite invasive with its extensive branched rhizome, which may grow to 1,300 feet in length.

All of these varieties (and more!) are available from Nature Hills Nursery.

Hungry, Thirsty All the Time

Whether grown in sun or shade, “they almost always want a high organic matter soil that’s moist,” says Richter. “A forest floor, for example, is ideal. The decaying leaves and understory lighting are just what they need,” he adds.

Adding these ancient treasures to a landscape that mimics those conditions will likely offer the best chance of success for most varieties, Richter says.

A top dressing of organic matter every now and then will ensure your plants are well fed. Keep in mind that they generally prefer soil that is more acidic than alkaline.

Again, there are exceptions, but most prefer a highly moist environment, such as in a humid forest or along a water source.

In the home garden, mimic these conditions by applying plenty of water if rain is infrequent. Keep the top 6 inches of soil moist but not soggy.

Transplanting and Propagating

Spring is the best time to transfer these plants from one place in the garden to another. If installing from a container, any time is fine. In either case, you may want do the work when it’s cloudy, to lessen the shock to the plant.

Simply dig a hole about the same depth as its container or root ball and twice as wide. Remove the plant from the container and place it in the hole; then fill in with organic soil. Water well, and add a layer of mulch to retain moisture.

You can also propagate these multifaceted plants by dividing them.

Start by watering the plant the day before you intend to divide it. Gently dig up the plant (or remove it from its container) and then cut or pull it into two or three clumps.

Each clump should have at least one growing tip — this is the structure from which the fronds grow. Replant the clumps as desired and keep the starts moist until you see new growth.

Creating new plants from spores is trickier, and takes a long time, but it can be done.

Choose spores when they look plump and furry. Remove a healthy frond and place it in an envelope or between two pieces of paper to dry out, then shake to loosen the spores.

Dust the spores over wet, organic, and sterile soil in a flat tray with a lid. Before you add the spores, you can microwave your soil to kill any pathogens. Heat for about 90 seconds on full power for every two pounds of soil. Don’t microwave seeds or spores as that will likely kill their ability to germinate.

Place the tray indoors in indirect light, and keep the soil moist at all times. Eventually you’ll see a green coating on the surface of the soil; many months later you will see small fronds popping up.

Some varieties produce stolons, or runners. To create a new plant from one of these, simply “pin” the runner to the top of the soil using landscape staples or a small stone.

Keep moist and look for new growth. At this point, you can cut the stolon from the mother plant and transplant as desired.

The Great Indoors

Because of their low light requirements, ferns make terrific indoor container plants. To provide indirect light, place near a north-facing window. Avoid south or west facing windows, because too much sunlight can scald the fronds.

Maidenhair grows nicely indoors.

As many indoor environments tend to be quite dry, be sure to water indoor consistently and provide an adequately humid environment. Try situating them in a bathroom, for example.

Other ways of increasing humidity, according to the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, include placing the pots on a water-filled, pebble-lined tray, placing a room humidifier nearby, or misting them occasionally. Thirty to 50 percent humidity is the sweet spot for these prehistoric plants.

While a fern is actively growing, the University of Vermont recommends fertilizing by applying liquid houseplant fertilizer at about one-half the recommended rate.

Asparagus fern is a beautiful evergreen, commonly grown as a houseplant, and related to the asparagus vegetable. There are several varieties, none of which are actually types of fern at all.

Maintain your indoor plants’ healthy appearance by occasionally trimming away brown fronds.

Popular varieties for growing indoors include Boston (Nephrolepis exaltata), Button (Pellaea rotundifolia), Kangaroo Paw (Microsorum diversifolium), and Silver Brake (Pteris cretica ‘Mayi’).

And while asparagus fern is a popular houseplant, it is not a true fern. It is a member of the lily family.

Need More of this Lacy Beauty?

If you decide these shade-lovers are really your thing, you might want to first visit Fern Canyon. This is an actual place in Humboldt County, California, where 80-foot canyon walls are clothed in thousands of lush plants, and where parts of “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” were filmed. And then, consider joining the American Fern Society, where you can exchange information and spores with other fern fans.

Do you fiddle with ferns? Tell us about your passion for this plant in the comments section below.


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About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

Diversity is a term not often used to describe a fern planting, but it ought to be. The many shadings of green and brown, the multitude of frond forms and the distinctive habits of growth possessed by different species can be combined to create a subtle series of becoming contrasts. No fern garden need be bland for want of distinctive plant material.

The following ferns are easily grown in a woodland setting where the soil is slightly to moderately acidic. At the top of the list is the eastern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum). The delicate, fanlike fronds disguise its true character as one of the hardiest and most reliable native ferns. Growing from an expanding rhizome, it will slowing spread as the seasons pass. A more invasive woodland grower is the lady fern, (Athyrium filix-femina). The lacy, light green fronds are noted for their variability, which has on occasion led to confusion in efforts to correctly identify this species’s many different forms. It grows from a central crown that readily produces offshoots, enabling it to spread rapidly under favorable conditions. For a small fern planting, avoid this potential take-over artist, lovely as it is.

A number of woodland ferns are evergreen, adding a touch of color to the winter garden. The most familiar is the Christmas fern, (Polystichum acrostichoides). The dark green fronds will persist through winter. With the coming of spring, the old fronds wither and collapse, ushering in the fresh green foliage of the new season.

Two evergreen species of a single genus are common to wooded areas and perfect additions for the small or large fern garden. Evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris spinulosa var. intermedia) can be recognized by its delicately cut, dark green fronds roughly two feet in length. The marginal wood fern (D. marginalis) has a more coarsely cut frond of a similiar hue and size. Both grow from central crowns, slowly expanding in a well behaved manner.

For shallow, rocky spots there is the evergreen common polypody, (Polypodium virginianum). This small fern has leathery green fronds, six to 10 inches in length and abhors the deep, rich soils favored by most other woodland species. It prefers to creep over rock and stone, rooting in the shallow soil found among the crevises. The rusty woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis) is also at home in a rocky locale where the soil is lean. Pale green, 12-inch fronds emerge from a crown. During periods of drought these fronds shrivel and droop returning to life with the return of ample water.

An odd native species is the Hart’s tongue fern, (Phyllitis scolopendrium). This evergreen has tongue-shaped fronds, six or more inches in length. There are numerous interesting cultivars of this species, including an elegant crested form, all of easy culture which contasts sharply with the rarity of this fern’s occurence in the wild.

We all love ferns, they are a classic houseplant. Ferns come in all kinds of sizes, textures and colors. Yet as far as plants go, they can be fussy. Laura from Garden Answer has the scoop.

If your fern is happy and healthy, great job! You can probably skip some of the topics toward the end.

Now let’s take a look at your fern and double check it is living its best life.

Here are 10 things to keep in mind as you tend to your fern:

Light Exposure

Contrary to popular belief, ferns need quite a bit of light. Though, they don’t like to be in direct sunlight as their foliage will change to a lighter yellow color or burn. Keep them near a place that receives plenty of sunshine throughout the day.

Only few varieties can handle shade and moisture like most people think. Check your plant tag for the most accurate information for your fern.


Ferns like their surroundings to be similar to what we like between 65 and 75°F, matching the temperatures in our home. They don’t like it too drafty so keep them away from doors that lead outside and away from air vents.


This is the most important thing to be aware of for keeping your fern healthy, especially if you live in a dry climate. Placing your fern in a bathroom or kitchen near the water source can help, since they typically get more moisture in there naturally.

For a more decorative option, place pebbles in tray with some water and place your fern on top. The moisture will carry up to the foliage as it evaporates. Add water to the tray as needed.

Soil Type

Use Espoma’s Organic Potting Mix for your ferns. Organic potting mixes have the right kind of drainage, and will hold just enough water that is needed without drowning your fern.


Typically, ferns need to be repotted every two years. Check its roots once a year. If the roots are starting to circle around the container, it is time to repot. If there is still soil around the edge of it, it should be fine for another year.

When it is time to repot your fern, only go up one size for your container. Be sure there is a drainage hole at the bottom of your container. Place a small layer of Espoma’s Organic Potting Mix in the bottom and fill around the sides as needed.


Ferns like to be consistently damp, but not wet and soggy like many people think. Each fern and home is a bit different, especially this time of year. Water your fern and keep an eye on it. If the soil at the top feels dry, water it again.


Ferns like to be fed about once a month during their growing season. Each zone and climate will have a different growing season, which you can ask your local garden center about. Feed your fern with Espoma’s Organic’s Indoor! liquid plant food. Check the label for instructions on how to use.


All houseplants should be groomed about once a month. Remove any foliage that looks damaged, unhealthy or is turning brown or yellow. Discard any leaves or debris that is on top of the soil to keep insects and disease at bay.


The most common insects to watch out for are mealybugs, aphids, fungus mites, white fly and spider mites for just about any houseplant. If you are unsure of the insect you are dealing with, take a picture and take it to your local garden center. They will be able to offer suggestions on how to get rid of it.


Ferns are non-toxic, but it is still a smart idea to keep your pets and kids away from eating or playing with a fern. That might just cause a tummy ache or a mess in your home!

Drop any other questions below in the comments and we will help you out the best we can!

Eye-catching, large ferns play an important role in any shaded garden planting scheme. Shaded areas are often difficult to plant due to soil conditions created by trees or buildings. Being woodland plants they are ideally to these planting locations and can provide year round interest, wonder and delight.

Being the oldest of all plant species, ferns add a tropical, exotic look to garden borders. Planted as a single specimen plant or grouped together in drifts the foliage on large ferns add a stunning leaf contrast with most garden plants.

One of the most versatile species of plants, ferns will grow in a variety of different conditions. From dry shade to wet, waterside planting there is a fern just waiting for your garden. Garden ferns are tough, extremely low maintenance requiring only minimal maintenance per year. Perfect for the time restricted gardener whatever your level of expertise. Go on, plant a large fern today!

All ferns are winter hardy and details of where you can buy these large fern species can be found here.

My Top 10 Large Garden Ferns

Dicksonia antartica

Ok, lets start my top 10 list of large ferns with the daddy of them all. The Australian Tree Fern!

If your pockets are deep enough this fern is an absolute show stopper in any garden. A big gnarly trunk and a crown of fronds 6 to 8ft across.

Some care needs to be taken in winter to protect the crown and its budding fronds but absolutely worth the time. Consider planting in a central, shaded location and under-planting with other species fern for that dramatic, tropical rain forest look.

Dryopteris Ferns

The genus Dryopteris includes some 250 named ferns originating mostly from the northern hemisphere with the highest species found naturally in Eastern Asia. Most available Dryopteris species for sale in the UK tend to like the same growing conditions. Plant in a partial shade position with plenty of well rotted organic matter, leaf mould etc.

Dryopteris wallichiana

One of my personal favourites. will grow to a height of 1m and a spread of 70cm. Beautiful fronds emerge in spring to form a shuttlecock of foliage spreading slowly to form a stunning rosette of foliage.

Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata The King’

A real show stopper of a fern. Deep green fronds that can reach to a height of 90cm appear in Spring and keep looking tidy throughout the summer months. A very good looking shuttlecock fern that keeps it vase shaped form through out the year. This fern is more tolerable of a bit of sun once established (providing they get some water)

Dryopteris erythrosora

Sending up new, copper coloured fronds this fern creates its own contrast in leaf colour. The copper contrasts with the older green foliage beautifully. Nature is just such a wonderful thing!

Will growth to a height of 60cm, well suited to the front of border planting or to soften a path edge. Erythrosora does like some sun and not that suited to very shaded spots.

Common names : copper fern, autumn fern

Dryopteris filix mas

Another semi evergreen fern in the Dryopteris genus growing to an eventual height of 1.2 m with a plant spread of 50cm to 1m. If your like your ferns to look stout with the classic shuttlecock form then this fern should be high on you list.

Common names: male fern; basket fern

Matteucia struthopteris

A truly wonderful fern! My absolute favourite for planting in reliably moist soil. It will thrive in a semi shaded to full shaded position in all soil types, clay, loam and sand. It will reach a height of 1.5 metres in a couple of growing seasons but what makes this fern a truly amazing species is that it will form well contained colonies of ferns from the parent plant via underground roots.

If your looking for a tropical look no further than this beauty.

Common name: ostrich fern

Osmunda Ferns

A very small group of ferns in this genus with only 5 – 10 named species. Worth noting that this genus goes all the way back to the triassic period, that’s about 250 million years ago to you and me!

Osmunda cinnamomea

Found naturally in the swamps, bogs and wet woodlands of the Americas and Eastern Asia. O .cinnamomea is a gorgeous fern that is ideally suited in bog garden in the UK.

Growing to a height of 1 to 1.5m the new fronds shoot up, tightly folded and copper in colour until they unfurl. A real spectacle whilst it lasts, you can almost watch the new fronds growing in height daily.

Common names: cinnamon fern ;buckhorn; fiddleheads

O. regalis

A truly splendid giant large fern. Its common name ‘the royal fern’ should tell you everything needed. Grow in boggy ground, perhaps marginal planting next to a pond or stream and this large fern will grow to 2 m in heightr an a whopping spread of 4 m, give it plenty of space!

Common names : royal fern; blooming fern; bog onion; buckhorn; brake; common flowering fern; ditch fern; herb Christopher ;hog onion; kidney fern ;king fern ;osmund royal ;osmund the waterman ;royal osmund fern ;rusty fern;
water fern

Polystichum polyblepharum My list would not be complete if I did not include my favourite species of Polystichum. Polyblepharum has everything most would expect from a large garden fern. Foliage which forms into a sturdy, shuttlecock appearance. An eventual height of 80cm and spread of a 1m. It’s evergreen, low maintenance , hardy and will grace the garden will year round interest. Common name: Japanese tassel fern

Learn about the 21 Best Ferns for Containers, these beautiful foliage plants available in various shapes, textures, and colors provide interest in shady space!

Growing ferns in containers is easy. They require moist soil, regular watering, and dappled shade. These shade-loving plants can be grown alone or mixed with other plants in various container combinations.

1. Lady Fern

USDA Zones– 3 – 10

A finely textured ornamental foliage plant that you can grow in containers easily. Place the plant in a partially to fully shaded spot in cooler zones. Keep the soil moist and choose a small to medium sized pot; you can also grow lady fern in hanging baskets. Pair it up with plants that have flowers in warmer colors (yellow, red and orange) and you will have an attractive container arrangement for the shade.

2. Shaggy Shield Fern

USDA Zones– 5 – 10

Also called the Black Wood Fern, this evergreen fern sports medium-sized clumps of mild green, lacy fronds borne on black stems. With an arching habit and a stiff appearance, the Shield Fern does a good job of offsetting the bright colors of the interiors. It is often used in conjunction with other shade-loving plants such as Hostas. Grow this plant in a partially shaded spot, in an average sized container, using moist, well-drained potting soil.

3. Scaly Male Fern

USDA Zones– 4 – 10

This versatile fern is noticeable at a distance, with its yellowish-green fronds and dark pinnae. It grows best in cool temperatures and adopts a compact, petite form (up to 2 feet tall) that makes it an excellent choice for containers. While it can tolerate some sun and the wind, for growing Scaly Male Fern in hot climates, choose a cool and shady spot.

4. Sunset Fern

USDA Zones– 6 – 9, can be grown in USDA Zones 10, 11 with some care

Native to Himalayas, India, and Western China; the Sunset Fern is a beautiful foliage plant. This gorgeous evergreen fern forms a shuttlecock of delicate, arching fronds that appear coppery-red at first and dark green when mature. This lovely transition of colors is the reason behind its name. Perfect for containers, in a semi-shade spots with moist soil, this robust plant maintains a striking look all through summer and fall. Plant with Epimediums and Jack Frost for an eye-catchy burst of colors. This is a lovely fern for growing in small groups or as a solo prime specimen.

5. Hay Scented Fern

USDA Zone– 4 – 9

Hayscented fern is so named because it has the typical fragrance of hay, especially at the end of the growing season when the fronds are developing a rusty-brown color. In fall, the fronds adopt an orange hue, providing a stunning background to ordinary green plants. It grows up to 1 – 3 feet tall, a 10 – 12 inches deep pot is sufficient for its growth. Keep the plant in partial sun, water regularly to maintain the consistent moisture

6. Dallas Fern

USDA Zones– 8 – 11

The Dallas Fern is heat loving; more compact in nature than Boston Fern and flaunts short fronds with a frilly appearance. One of the most attractive features of the plant is that it is less likely to shed leaves than other closely related ferns. It prefers indirect light and uniform watering. However, it can manage to thrive in less light and moisture too. Overall, the Dallas Fern is a nice choice for busy apartment dwellers who lack time to tend to their thirsty houseplants.

7. Kimberley Queen Fern

USDA Zones– 9 – 11

Originated from Australia, this elegant fern flaunts upright, deep-green fronds that retain their form in wind and hail. While it does have a preference for shade, it does well if exposed to full sun for some time, as long as it gets regular water. Fertilizing is not really needed but is recommended for adding a boost of color to dull foliage. A vigorous and highly adaptable grower, this versatile fern is a great choice for growing in containers as a houseplant or outside.

8. Macho Fern

USDA Zones– 9 – 11

Growing Macho Fern outside on the ground is easiest in warm subtropical or tropical regions. You can grow it in containers and urns either outdoors on patios, porches, front doors or indoors. This large fern can reach up to 4 feet high and about 6 feet wide, so choose a large container. Trim off old fronds to trigger new growth and keep the nascent ones protected from the direct sun. Place the pot in a spot that receives a few hours of morning sun, away from drying winds, keep the soil moist and fertilize a couple of times during the growing season. Visit eHow to learn how to grow it!

9. Tiger Fern

USDA Zones– 9 – 11

Brilliant green leaflets with metallic stripes make the Tiger Fern a nice conversation starter. This plant is a quick grower and works well either solo or as a companion houseplant in baskets and containers, keep it in a part sun in a cool climate and in the shade in hot regions. Display your Tiger fern in a cool spot like a porch or a balcony. Proper drainage is crucial too, or this plant will end up wilting.

10. Autumn Fern

USDA Zones– 5 – 11

Autumn fern is root hardy in cooler regions, down to Zone 5 and evergreen in warmer Zones. Valued for its coppery-red leaves that offer beauty all throughout the growing season. The fronds are long, slender and add a lacy finish to a woodland setting. This plant prefers warm and humid settings and performs well if given proper shade and moisture. Its short height (up to 2 feet), preference for deep shade makes it one of the best ferns to grow in containers on a shady spot. Team it up with hostas for a blond touch.

11. Hart’s Tongue Fern

USDA Zones– 4 – 10

One of the best evergreen ferns for containers, it bears unique tongue-shaped leaves with pointed ends. Grows well in shaded areas, it’s often seen covering large areas underneath trees and rocks or alongside streams where its upright fronds form a striking contrast with the rounded shapes of damp-loving flowers. It is a popular choice for a shade garden. Use it as a focal point as or as a filler in your container combinations.

12. Western Sword Fern

USDA Zones– 4 – 9

This maintenance-free native fern is known for its green, sword-shaped fronds that form a lush evergreen groundcover in the forests of North-Western U.S. Western Sword Fern benefits from partial shade, well-drained soil and occasional trimming. This hardy native fern can also be grown in warm and arid regions.

13. Boston Fern

USDA Zones– 8 – 11

A close relative of the sword fern, this elegant, old-fashioned plant is valued for its leathery, kelly-green foliage. With its ruffled leaves and gracefully arching fronds, it’s easy to see why it’s so admired worldwide. Best suited for warm climates (USDA zones 10-12), Boston fern makes a nice outdoor container choice for spring and autumn in cooler regions. Growing Boston Fern indoors is also easy. It grows up to 2-and-half feet tall and prefers well-drained soil.

14. New Zealand Tree Fern (Wheki Fern)

USDA Zones– 8 – 11

The New Zealand tree fern is similar to its cousin Dicksonia Antartica, a slow growing plant with lush fronds that spread above a thick trunk like other ferns it prefers a shady environment for optimal growth. Its almost black trunk complements the fine bright green foliage. It can grow up to 20 feet tall in the wild but around 5 feet in a container. So choose a large pot and keep it in a spot that receives partial sun and minimal the wind. It’s not very cold-hardy and requires moderate temperatures to thrive.

Also Read: Growing Soft Tree Fern

15. Japanese Painted Fern

USDA Zones– 5 – 9

This fern stands out from the regular green shades of common ferns with its gorgeous, silvery foliage. The fronds have an exotic airbrushed appearance with metallic markings and brilliant garnet-colored veins that really steal the show. It prefers morning sun and light shade throughout the day. Try teaming this plant with bold burgundy begonias, coral bells, and bleeding heart to add interest to your shade garden.

16. Soft shield fern

Polystichum setiferum

USDA Zones– 5 – 9

Native to southwestern Europe, this tufted evergreen fern goes up to 2 – 3 feet tall and develops rosettes of feathery, spear-shaped fronds that look wonderful in a woodland setup. This plant likes the cool atmosphere and rich and moist soil. Plant it in a pot and place it on your patio to create a seamless transition from a more formal portion of your home to the wilderness.

17. Holly Fern

USDA Zones– 6 – 11

Popular for its heat tolerance and shiny green foliage, Holly fern can be an elegant addition to your plant collection. It has been named for its holly-like leaves and is usually grown to provide a lush green contrast to more colorful annuals and perennials. And while it doesn’t tolerate very low temperatures, holly fern does thrive in moderately harsh winters and prefers warm climates.

18. Maidenhair Fern

USDA Zones– 3 – 11

One of the best ferns for containers, native to North America, it’s known for its unique light green foliage. Grows best in moist, lightly shaded areas with good air circulation. Maidenhair Fern can be grown both outdoors and indoors with some care. There are several varieties available suitable for most of the climatic conditions.

19. Korean Rock Fern

USDA Zones– 7 – 10

A versatile and trouble-free evergreen plant, the Korean Rock Fern forms low clumps of leathery green fronds with dark veins that form a striking show. New leaves have a purplish cast and form a dramatic contrast with the green background. Excellent for growing in borders or in a shade garden, the Korean Rock Fern is best grown as a container plant in cold regions. It also tolerates heat and humidity well, and stays fresh as long you provide it with well-drained soil and regular watering.

20. Royal Fern

USDA Zones– 3 – 10

Prized for its lovely form and texture, Royal fern is a hardy, deciduous fern that forms large rosettes of glossy green fronds. They develop a pinkish hue in spring and are crowned with copper-brown flower spikes that have given them the name of “Flowering Fern.” The gorgeous foliage turns into the rusty-brown shade in fall. Low-maintenance and disease-resistance, Royal Fern is a nice asset for shady beds, cottage gardens, and hanging baskets.

21. Asparagus Fern (Foxtail Fern)

Foxtail Fern

USDA Zones– 9 – 11

Asparagus Fern is not a true fern actually. This fern-like plant has arching plumes of tightly packed, needle-like leaves that look soft and delicate. It can be grown indoors as a houseplant or in containers outside in cooler zones. Whereas, in hot climates, it is perennial.

Boston Fern Repotting: How And When To Repot Boston Ferns

A healthy, mature Boston fern is an impressive plant that displays a deep green color and lush fronds that can reach lengths of up to 5 feet. Although this classic houseplant requires minimal maintenance, it periodically outgrows its container – usually every two to three years. Repotting Boston fern into a larger container isn’t a difficult job, but timing is important.

When to Repot Boston Ferns

If your Boston fern isn’t growing as rapidly as it usually does, it may need a larger pot. Another clue is roots peeking through the drainage hole. Don’t wait until the pot is badly root bound.

If the potting mix is so root-compacted that water runs straight through the pot, or if the roots are growing in a tangled mass

on top of the soil, it’s definitely time to repot the plant.

Boston fern repotting is best done when the plant is actively growing in spring.

How to Repot a Boston Fern

Water the Boston fern a couple of days before repotting because moist soil clings to the roots and makes repotting easier. The new pot should be only 1 or 2 inches larger in diameter than the current pot. Don’t plant the fern in a large pot because the excess potting soil in the pot retains moisture that may cause root rot.

Fill the new pot with 2 or 3 inches of fresh potting soil. Hold the fern in one hand, then tilt the pot and guide the plant carefully from the container. Place the fern in the new container and fill in around the root ball with potting soil up to about 1 inch from the top.

Adjust the soil in the bottom of the container, if necessary. The fern should be planted at the same depth it was planted in the previous container. Planting too deeply can harm the plant and may cause root rot.

Pat the soil around the roots to remove air pockets, then water the fern thoroughly. Place the plant in partial shade or indirect light for a couple of days, then move it to its normal location and resume regular care.

Don’t over look using ferns in container gardens. One of the most versatile foliage plants, there are over 12,000 varieties of ferns. They have been around for millions of years and come in all kinds of colors, textures and sizes. Ferns can be delicate plants with lacy leaves or a broad-leafed type which grows several feet tall.

Use ferns in single planting containers on their own, or mix them with other flowers or foliage plants.

I generally like ferns in a single planting – part of their beauty is in the reach or curve of their fronds (leaves). I like to give them plenty of room in their own pot to do this. Then, I raise them up a level or two behind flowering containers to provide a backdrop for them, or I use them alone as a single container accent.

The importance of soil for ferns in container gardens

Probably one of the reasons that ferns in container gardens do well in single plantings is that they have a somewhat different soil requirement than many other plants.

In nature, ferns grow in woodland areas where the soil is rocky and sandy, but also contains a lot of organic matter from dead leaves and moss. If you live in an area near woodlands, take a walk and scoop up some dead leaves with mold and moss and add that to a soilless potting mixture. Most of us probably can’t do this, so use a soilless potting mix and make sure if has a peat component. If not, add some. Experiment a little to see what works best for you.

There is also a potting mixture that recommends one part garden soil, one part coarse, washed sand and two parts of organic matter like peat moss. I have not personally tried this one, but I did find it recommended in more than one place when researching.

So – make sure your potting mix will hold moisture, drain well and contains a substantial organic component – peat, leaf mold, and sphagnum moss are good.

The container

Ferns generally grow in rocky soils, and their roots don’t need deep soil in which to grow well. Shallow containers are best for ferns in container gardens. Containers no deeper than six inches are bes. The fern should fit in the pot with an inch or two to spare around the edges for growth. If the pot is too small or too big, it will be hard to maintain the moisture level that your ferns need.

As always, make sure your container is clean before you plant and has adequate drainage.


When you plant, fill the pot with part of the soil mix. Set the root ball on top of the soil and spread the roots out freely. Then, fill the pot with the rest of the soil, making sure you don’t cover up the crown of the root ball (the point where the leaves start to grow out from the main plant). Fill to within an inch of the top of the pot

When ferns in container gardens grow enough that they need to be repotted, divide the fern and start new ones. You will be able to recognize new crowns in the roots of the plant and these can be started in their own pots. Just don’t cover the crowns when potting.

Snails and slugs like many types of ferns. To keep them from becoming a problem, plant ferns in hanging baskets. You can also put Vaseline or petroleum jelly around the top of the pot, just under the rim. Make the band of Vaseline about an inch wide and make sure it encircles the entire pot.


One of the main reasons that ferns in container gardens may not do well is improper watering. Too much or too little water either one is bad for ferns. We tend to think of ferns growing in wet, humid areas and so we think they need lots of water. Ferns do not like to be kept wet. Some actually prefer that their soil dries out before they need water again. Check the growing directions on your ferns to see what their moisture needs are.

Water the soil and not the foliage of a fern. Don’t water from above – water at the soil level and around the edges of the containers. Try not to water the crown of the plant directly. If you think you are watering too much and the plant is “shedding”, check the roots – too much water will be indicated by dark roots. Healthy roots are an off white color.

Should you mist ferns? There is no proof that misting ferns is necessary. They take water in through their roots, not their fronds. It can’t hurt though, so if you like to mist your ferns, that’s fine – just be sure you don’t mist instead of watering.


Use a water soluble fertilizer at about half the strength you use for other plants when you water. Also, maybe once a month, add 2 tbsp of Epsom salts to a gallon of water and use that to water your ferns. The minerals in the salts will help the plant stay green. I have tried this and it does keep your ferns greener. Just make sure you don’t do this more often – salts can build up in the soil.

Container placement

When placing ferns in container gardens, most will prefer a shady location. If you have had ferns indoors for the winter, they will need a hardening period before moving them outdoors for the summer. For a couple of weeks after any threat of frost is over, leave them outside in a shady, sheltered area for a while each day to see how they do. If they droop or change color, they may need a little sun for a while but eventually they can stay outdoors all the time until you bring them back inside in late fall.


Ferns are hardy in certain hardiness zones but will die if they are exposed to temps in colder ones. They become dormant in winter and start growing again in spring. Ferns in containers can be kept from year to year by bringing them indoors over the winter.

Try these ferns in container gardens

Autumn fern (dryopteris erythrosora) – – – – shown above

East Indian Holly fern (arachniodes simplicior variegata)

Hart’s Tongue fern (asplenium scolopendrium)

Holly fern (cyrtomium spp)

Korean Rock fern (polystichum tsus simense)

Maidenhair Spleenwort fern (asplenium trichomanes)

Royal fern (osmunda regalis)

Scaly Male fern (dryopteris affinis)

Soft Shield fern (polystichum setiferum)

Sunset fern (dryopteris lepidopoda)

Western Maidenhair fern (adiantum aleuticum)

Types especially good in hanging baskets

Common staghorn fern

Hayscented fern


Shield fern

Southern maidenhair fern

Squirrel foot fern

Western sword fern

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