Ferns are leafy plants with delicate lacey fronds or broad, rippled, leaf-like foliage. They are lush and lovely and add immediate style and warmth to a space — they are also easy to maintain. Ferns are another plant with an undeserved reputation for being challenging to care for, but these leafy beauties simply know what they like (and what they don’t like). Fern care is easy, and it’s worth learning the basics to enjoy these spectacular plants in your home.
Types of Ferns
Most ferns are tropical or subtropical in origin and prefer shaded, damp growing conditions. Although, ferns can be found in the Arctic and Antarctic. Ferns can be epiphytes and grow on tree trunks; other cultivars grow in rock crevices. Ferns are a diverse species that has been around for millions of years, and their age is what causes so much diversity. Ferns have had plenty of time to evolve into different types of plants that are still part of the same classification. While ferns vary greatly in habitat and appearance, they also have nuanced care requirements. This article covers primary fern care that applies to most species, but some have slightly different or more specific care needs.
Some of the most popular fern houseplant varieties include:
- Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora)
- Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus)
- Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)
- Button Fern (Pellaea rotundifolia)
- Crissie (Asplenium antiquum)
- Crocodile Fern (Microsorum musifolium)
- Delta Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum raddianum)
- ‘Grey Ghost’ Lady Fern (Athyrium Niponicum)
- Hen And Chickens Fern (Asplenium Bulbiferun)
- Kangaroo Paw Fern (Microsorum diversifolium)
- Lemon Button Fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’)
- Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum raddianum)
- Rabbit’s Foot Fern (Davallia Fejeensis)
- Southern Maidehair Fern (Adiantum Calillus-Veneris)
- Staghorn Fern (Platycerium)
Beware of plants that go by the name fern but are not true ferns, like the Asparagus Fern. The Asparagus Fern is a lovely plant with frilly foliage, but it is not a real fern and has different care requirements.
Fern Light Requirements
Medium indirect light is ideal for most fern care. Some ferns can live in low light, and even fewer can live in bright sunlight. Their fronds are delicate and direct light will burn the foliage in most instances. North- and east-facing windows are usually good spots for ferns.
Brown, crispy fronds are indicators of too much light, while pale or yellow fronds are signs of too little light. If you’re having trouble finding a spot in your home with ideal light, you can make one using grow lights.
How Often to Water Ferns
Ferns have increased water needs but prefer to dry out somewhat between watering. Essentially, they like to be damp but never soggy. Water most ferns when the top inch of soil is barely dry. Feel the soil to ensure the time is right before watering. Ferns do not like standing water, and it is possible to overwater ferns, so only water when the top inch of soil is dry. Yellowing of the fronds is a sign of too much water.
Best Soil for Ferns
Moist, well-drained soil is ideal for fern care. These easy-care houseplants have increased water needs, so they like damp conditions, but the soil must still allow excess water to drain. Soil with high organic content is a plus. Most ferns also like slightly acidic to neutral soil.
Not all ferns need soil. Some ferns naturally grow epiphytically, so a growing medium like sphagnum moss can support healthy development.
Temperature for Ferns
Ferns are comfortable in average room temperatures, so anything between 65° and 75° F is suitable. Cold temperatures are a problem, so if you relocate your plant outdoors for the summer, get it back inside before the temperature drops to 50° F.
Warm temperatures are not a problem, but you may need to step your fern care up if the plant is exposed to hot weather. Increased air temperatures can cause dry conditions, so monitor the fern and be ready to water more often. Keep your fern clear of vents and drafty areas because sudden temperature fluctuations are bad news.
Humidity is where things get serious regarding fern care. Tropical and subtropical ferns need high humidity. Ferns are a good fit for naturally humid areas. Kitchens and bathrooms are excellent areas of a home for ferns since there is typically extra moisture in the air. Dryness along the edges of the foliage indicates the air is too dry, but you can assist by increasing the humidity in your home.
Feed ferns to keep them lush and growing. Ideally, frequently feed your fern using weakened fertilizer. Slow-release fertilizers work well for fern care, or use a water-soluble plant food that can be applied during a regular watering session. Most ferns like a balanced fertilizer or plant food with low phosphorus. Avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen which can damage the fronds and roots.
Apply a slow-release fertilizer in the spring and again by mid-summer. Use water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks during the spring and summer. Only fertilize ferns when actively growing, so take a break during the fall and winter.
Pruning is helpful but not a big part of fern care. Trim back dead or damaged growth as needed. Remove old fronds from large, overgrown plants to redirect energy into new development.
When to Repot Ferns
Repotting is a vital part of fern care. These plants are content being slightly rootbound, so don’t be in a rush to repot. Roots growing through the container’s drainage holes are a sign that it’s time to repot. Slowed growth is a sign that the fern needs a bigger pot. Try to time fern repotting to the spring, so the plant will have the entire growing season to settle into its new container.
Propagate ferns by division, which is easy to do during spring repotting. Remove the fern from the pot and gently work the plant apart into multiple smaller plants. You may need to trim the roots or rhizomes to untangle the plants. Each new plant can be potted into a container one to two inches larger than the root ball.
Are Ferns Pet Friendly?
Ferns are pet-friendly, making them safe to have around dogs and cats. True ferns are pet-safe, but be aware of plants that are not ferns, like the Asparagus Fern (which is not pet-safe, FYI).
While ferns are safe, it’s worth noting that eating too much of anything can cause an upset stomach, so be careful if you have inquisitive or nosey pets. The gently arching fronds of most ferns can be enticing, so take care to place plants out of digging, chewing, or swatting distance if you have pets.
Fern Styling Tips
Ferns are exotic and can be classic, whimsical, or anything in between. The fronds can be green or shimmery silver and have lace-like fronds or a crocodile scale-like pattern. Styling ferns are easy because the plants do all of the hard work. A neutral or natural fiber cover pot is a good choice for ferns because it will blend into the background and allow the plant to stand out.
Lush ferns like a Boston Fern are a natural fit for a hanging planter or a tall plant stand. A dainty Lemon Button Fern will look charming perched on a desk or a narrow shelf. Mount a Staghorn Fern to a wooden plaque for a stylish wall mount that offers a glimpse of how the plant would appear in nature.
Fern Care Tips
Ferns are stunning plants that introduce greenery and vitality to a space in a way that not all houseplants can manage. Ferns are so much more than lacey, symmetrical fronds, which are lovely, but just some of what the plants in this family have to offer. Whatever look or style you’re after, there is likely a fern that fits that vibe. Fern care varies from one type to another, so look up your specific plant to ensure you provide the proper care.