A Beginner's Guide to Growing Ferns Outdoors

A Beginner's Guide to Growing Ferns Outdoors

Tips for Creating a Lush and Lively Woodland Garden

By Published August 11, 2016 Updated July 26, 2023

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The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.

Fern Basics

Ferns are enchanting, ancient plants that add a touch of elegance and serenity to any outdoor space. With their delicate fronds and vibrant green hues, they can transform a garden into a lush and tranquil oasis. Before delving into the specifics of growing ferns, it's essential to understand these unique plants. Ferns are non-flowering plants that reproduce through spores rather than seeds. They have a long evolutionary history and can adapt to various environments, making them suitable for a range of garden settings.

Selecting the Best Ferns for Your Garden Conditions

When it comes to selecting ferns for your garden, it's best to start with genera that are known to be hardy and easy to grow in outdoor conditions. Here are some common genera that fit this criteria:

Polystichum (Christmas Ferns)

Christmas Ferns, belonging to the Polystichum genus, are a popular choice for many gardeners. These ferns are robust and can withstand various conditions, including light shade to partial sun. They are called "Christmas Ferns" because their evergreen fronds remain lush and green throughout the winter, providing a touch of color to your garden even in the colder months. Their fronds are leathery and arch gracefully, adding a sense of elegance to any landscape.

Athyrium (Lady Ferns)

The Athyrium genus includes the delightful Lady Ferns, known for their lacy fronds and vibrant green color. These ferns prefer consistently moist soil and partial shade, making them an excellent choice for gardens with slightly damper areas. Lady Ferns are graceful and can reach a moderate height, making them suitable for both borders and woodland settings. Their feathery appearance adds a touch of softness and charm to any garden.

Dryopteris (Wood Ferns)

Wood Ferns are part of the Dryopteris genus and are highly adaptable plants that can grow in both sun and shade, making them a versatile choice for various garden settings. They are characterized by their finely divided fronds and often have an attractive coppery or reddish-brown hue when they first unfurl in the spring. As they mature, the fronds turn into a rich, deep green, providing an interesting color contrast in the garden. Wood Ferns are ideal for woodland gardens or shady borders, and their ability to tolerate different light conditions makes them a popular choice among gardeners.

Choosing the Right Location for Your New Fern

Ferns generally prefer shady and moist environments, mimicking their natural habitat in forests and woodlands. When selecting a location for your ferns, choose an area in your garden that receives dappled sunlight or partial shade, avoiding direct afternoon sunlight, which can scorch their delicate fronds. Under the canopy of larger trees or along the north side of a building are often excellent locations for ferns to thrive.

Soil Preparation

Well-draining soil with high organic matter content is essential for healthy fern growth. Ferns thrive in soil that retains moisture without becoming waterlogged. To prepare the soil, incorporate compost or leaf mold into the planting area to improve its structure and water-holding capacity. This will provide your ferns with the right foundation for healthy root development.

Planting Ferns

Plant your ferns in spring or early autumn, as these seasons provide the ideal conditions for their establishment. Dig a hole slightly larger than the fern's root ball and place the plant at the same level it was in its original container. Backfill the hole with soil, pat it gently, and water thoroughly to help the fern settle into its new home.

Watering Routine

Maintaining adequate moisture is crucial for ferns, but avoid overwatering, as this can lead to root rot. Ensure the soil remains consistently moist, especially during dry spells. A layer of mulch around the base of the fern will help retain moisture and keep the roots cool. However, make sure the mulch doesn't touch the crown of the plant, as this can cause rot.

Feeding Ferns

Ferns generally don't require heavy feeding. However, applying a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer at half strength every four to six weeks during the growing season can promote healthy growth. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper application.

Pruning and Maintenance

Ferns are relatively low-maintenance plants, but some fronds may turn brown or yellow over time. Gently remove any dead or damaged fronds to keep your fern looking fresh and tidy. Be careful not to damage the healthy fronds while pruning.

Winter Care

Most ferns are hardy and can survive winters, especially if provided with a thick layer of mulch to protect their roots. However, if you live in a region with harsh winters, consider covering your ferns with burlap or moving potted ferns indoors during extreme cold spells.

Pests and Diseases

Ferns are generally resilient against pests and diseases. However, watch out for slugs and snails, which may occasionally feed on their delicate foliage. In case of severe infestations, use organic pest control methods to protect your ferns.

Growing ferns outdoors can be a rewarding experience for beginner gardeners. Their unique appearance and adaptability make them a great addition to any garden setting. Remember to choose suitable genera, provide the right growing conditions, and maintain adequate moisture to ensure your ferns flourish and add a touch of natural beauty to your outdoor space. Happy gardening!

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