Fern Basics

Home & Family
on January 18, 2012

An estimated 12,000 fern species exist, mostly in tropical and subtropical areas. The Los Angeles International Fern Society reports that fewer than 400 native fern species can be found in the United States. A pteridophyte, the fern is an ancient plant that has been on the planet for more than 300 million years. It is an easy-care houseplant as well, adding natural greenery to a porch, kitchen, living room and even bathroom.

Varieties. Varieties like the Boston fern are hardy, easy houseplants to care for, even if your thumb is not so green. The Boston fern is one of the most recognizable ferns; you may have seen it in your doctor’s office or as part of the foliage in a mall food court. It’s hardy, grows to about 2 to 5 feet in height with a 3- to 5-foot spread. The Boston fern likes filtered shade, shade and partial sun. Other varieties new fern growers may enjoy are the crocodile fern, the maidenhair fern and the staghorn fern. The staghorn is an interesting looking fern — its leaves or fronds are shaped similar to antlers.

Potting. Clay pots are not recommended for ferns because they do not retain moisture. Opt for a plastic pot. Different fern varieties will require different amounts of watering; however, most ferns can be potted in a soil-less potting mix containing peat moss, according to the University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program. This type of potting mix has a high organic content and offers the fern excellent drainage.

Water. Ferns need to be kept moist, but take care not to overwater because the plant’s fronds will turn yellow. Excessive watering can cause root rot. You will need to find the balance for your particular fern for watering, as too little water will cause the fronds to droop and wilt. Remember that not all varieties need the same amount of water. Most ferns enjoy humidity, often thriving in environments like bathrooms. You also can mist the ferns fronds daily.

Fertilizer. According to Dr. Leonard Perry, an Extension professor at the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, ferns only need fertilizer once a month from April through September, unless you detect active winter month growth. Only feed the fern about one-half the recommended amount of liquid houseplant fertilizer, as too much will scorch the foliage, Perry says. He does not recommend fertilizing newly potted ferns for four to six months unless you can see they are actively growing.

Light. Most plants need light, and ferns are no exception. In general, many varieties of ferns do well with filtered shade and shade as well as partial sun. Filtered shade is indirect lighting. Avoid direct sunlight from south and west windows, as the fern's fronds will become brown and brittle around the edges.

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