How to Grow Ferns


However well planned a garden may be, some borders will face north. There can be few gardens, therefore, which do not possess a spot in which ferns would flourish, since while there are a few ferns that will tolerate a certain amount of sunshine, there are none which demand it as an essential.

Many of the loveliest fern varieties were originally found growing in the wild among their more prosaic relations. Others have originated as seedlings in the gardens or nurseries of growers. Some of these varieties are so fine and lacy in appearance that they rival the choicest exotic ferns that have to be nursed in heated greenhouses.

Even in the industrial areas of the north many excellent collections of ferns are grown in what can only be described as backyard conditions — places where direct sunlight never penetrates, and where the cultivation of flowering plants strains the patience and skill of the most ardent enthusiast.

Polypodium vulgare

Polypodium vulgare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In common with most garden plants, hardy ferns well repay careful cultivation. Study of their individual requirements is more important than expensive outlay. The greatest attribute of hardy ferns, however, is their undemanding nature. It is possible for some specimens to remain undisturbed in the garden for twenty years or more, during which time an annual cutting away of the previous year’s fronds, occasional weeding, and an autumn top dressing of leaf soil, sifted peat and wood ash at 1/2 lb. per sq. yd. are the main cultural requirements. Yet from early spring, when the young fronds begin to unfurl, until autumn frosts cut down the deciduous kinds, such as osmundas, athyriums and lastrcas, they reveal fresh charm almost daily. Polypodiums, phyllitises and polystichums, being evergreen, retain their beauty far into the winter months.


All ferns belong to one or other of two well-defined groups.

The first group bear their fronds in a circlet round a central crown or caudex, that is, in a shuttlecock or wastepaper-basket-like arrangement. The male fern and the lady fern of the English countryside are typical examples.

The second group embraces all those with a creeping root system, which can be either slightly above ground level or just below the ground. Such plants usually scramble in all directions and require somewhat different conditions to those in the first group. The common polypody (Polypodium vulgare) of the Devonshire lanes is a typical example of this second group.


Choose a site which is not only protected from strong sunshine, but is also sheltered from cold spring winds which may damage the tender young fronds. Drought, especially during the winter, is the greatest enemy of ferns and probably the major cause of disappointment to many growers.


Careful preparation of the soil before planting is essential. Remember that ferns are woodland plants and in nature grow in a spongy carpet of rotted leaf humus that has accumulated through the years. They cannot stand a heavy soil and neither do they like chalk. Dig the soil deeply, and incorporate with it a liberal supply of retentive organic material so that food and moisture are conserved. Rotted garden compost, peat or peat moss litter, spent hops or well-rotted leaves are ideal.


Plant all hardy ferns during the dormant period, normally between mid-October and March. Small specimens can be moved with care at other seasons, but do not disturb any fern whilst the new fronds are unfurling. At this critical period the young tender stems are very brittle and easily damaged.

Plant ferns with rhizomatous root-stocks so that the rhizomes are on the surface of the soil and any fibrous roots are covered. Keep the rhizomes in position with large stones until established. Plant the non-rhizomatous kind so that the crowns are just level with the soil surface. Never plant any fern with its old planting mark below the soil.


As the plants become established, frequent top dressing with any of the organic materials mentioned above will help to maintain moisture and at the same time supply natural plant food. Never apply artificial fertilizers in any form. These quickly react on the plants, which grow luxuriantly for a time but ultimately turn brown and die.

Give an occasional dressing of mature wood ash and an annual application of old soot to improve both the colour and the size of the fronds. The nearer the approach to the natural conditions under which the plants grow wild, the greater will be the success and the fewer the disappointments.


The little spores which grow on the backs of the fronds will produce small plants, which in turn produce ferns as we know them. But the propagation of ferns is complicated, and is really work for a specialist. For this reason it is not dealt with here.

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17. January 2013 by admin
Categories: Ferns, Plants, Top Tips | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on How to Grow Ferns


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