Monday, March 19, 2018

Collectable Houseplant: Ferns

Fluffy Ruffle Fern or Sword Fern, Nephrolepis exalata likes bright, diffused light 
and soil that is evenly moist.

I have a soft spot for ferns. I like seeing their bright, kelly-green foliage on my window ledge in the winter months when the garden is blanketed by snow. 

Ferns do well for me. They seem to like the morning sunshine that my biggest windowsill affords.

I often move my ferns outdoors in the summer and back inside in the fall. 

All of the ferns in this hanging basket (above) performed well in a shady outdoor spot. The only thing they demanded was regular watering. In the fall, I divided the container planting and potted up the ferns individually for the winter months.  

Birdbath container planting in a private garden in Toronto.

As well as ferns, this post touches briefly on plants that look like ferns, and are commonly referred to as ferns, but aren't actually ferns at all. 

These fern-like plants make nice outdoor container plants too. This birdbath is my favourite example of using one of these non-hardy fern look-a-likes in a outdoor container planting.

Plumosa Fern, Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri' also know as Asparagus Fern is often used by 
florists as a filler in arrangements. It's not a true fern but is actually a member of the lily family.

There are quite an array of indoor ferns you can collect and most of them like similar growing conditions. 

Here are a few basic tips for growing ferns:

Light: Avoid direct sunlight. Ferns like bright, diffused light. They prefer a north-facing windowsill that has indirect light. An east facing window is also good throughout most of the year, but may become too bright in the spring and summer months. With a east-facing situation, it a good idea to move your ferns back a few feet from the window in the summer or install a sheer curtain to help block the hot afternoon rays. 

Water: Ferns like evenly moist soil and regular waterings. Water deeply! I always take my ferns to the sink and give them a really good soak. Most indoor ferns are tropical, so lukewarm water is best.

Soil: Ferns like a good quality, well-drained potting soil.

Temperature: A fern's native habitat will tell you all you need to know about the temperatures it prefers. Ferns from the tropics like temperatures in the 60-70 degree F range (15-21 degrees C) Those from more temperate areas of the world are much more adaptable to a cool spot next to a window.

Humidity: Providing a fern with the humidity it likes can be a challenge. If your house is really dry, you can mist them with lukewarm distilled water. You can also place the fern in a closed terrarium, put it under a cloche or stand it in a water-filled tray of pebbles.
A few ferns that don't mind low humidity include: Boston Fern, Nephrolepis, Button Fern, Pellaea, Rabbit's Foot Fern, Davallia and Staghorn Fern, Platycerium

Ongoing Care: Keep your ferns looking their best by trimming away any brown or damaged fronds. Repot a potbound fern in the spring.

Fertilizer: In the wild, most ferns live on the forest floor where there is shade and plenty of decaying organic matter.  In the spring and summer use a liquid fertilizer (following the label's directions) every couple of weeks. 
Using a fertilizer in the winter months, when the plant is not actively growing, is unnecessary. Excessive fertilization in the winter can actually cause brown, wilted fronds.

Propagation: A large fern can be repotted or you can use the opportunity to divide it. Remove the pot and carefully break the plant into smaller pieces. Replant the divisions and water well.

Pests and Diseases: Possible insect pests include mealy bugs (soft, downy looking insects), spider mites (look for delicate webbing) and scale insects that can form lumpy colonies. 

A few of the Many Types of Indoor Ferns:

Jester's Crown Fern, Nephrolepis obliterata 

Sword Fern or Jester's Crown Fern, Nephrolepis obliterata makes quite a bushy plant and has sword-shaped fronds. In the wild, it can be found growing in the rainforests of Australia and New Guinea.

Tricolor Fern

Tricolor Fern, Pteris aspericaulis 'Tricolor' is another tropical fern that has pretty red stems and new growth that is bronze in color.

Silver Lace Fern, Pteris ensiformis

Silver Lace Fern, Pteris ensiformis (sometimes called Sword or Slender Brake Fern) has delicate, dark green leaves with silvery accents.

Glowstar Fern, Pellaea 'Glowstar'

Glowstar Fern, Pellaea 'Glowstar' has shiny, dark green fronds. It originates in eastern Australia.

Korean Rock Fern, Polystichum tsus-simense

Korean Rock Fern, Polystichum tsus-simense (family dryopteridaceae) has lance-shaped fronds. It is a South Asian fern that grows in shade near water or on rocky faces.  This fern can take a fair bit of shade. 

Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum raddianum likes bright diffused light and evenly moist soil.

Maidenhair Ferns, Adiantum Raddianum have to be one of the prettiest indoor ferns, but they have a reputation for being difficult, so I thought I would add a few extra pointers.

Like most ferns, they like bright, but indirect light. Too much sun and their foliage will scorch. Too little light and they turn yellow. The soil in their pots needs to be kept evenly moist, but not soggy. Neglect to water them and they shrivel in a heart beat. If this happens, cut the fronds off at ground level, water well, and fingers crossed, your Maidenhair Fern will recover.

This is a plant from the Brazilian tropics, so it prefers a consistently warm spot. It's also a fern that craves humidity (see care tips above).

Asparagus densiflorus in a private Toronto garden.

A Few Fern Look-a-Likes:

 The Asparagus "Fern", Asparagus retrofractus with its fine, feathery foliage that makes it look like a fern, but it is actually a member of the Liliaceae family. This houseplant has some definite drawbacks. The fine, needle-like foliage is feathery soft, but the base of the plant's woody stems have fine thorns. Ouch! Asparagus retrofractus also has a way of dropping their fine leaves the moment they get a bit dry. The good news is this plant is very easy to grow provided you water it regularly and give it a spot in a north-facing window.

The Foxtail "Fern", Asparagus densiflorus is very similar to Asparagus retrofractus, but it has foxtail-shaped plumes. The care for both plants is basically the same. 

It you want to take either plant outside for the summer, place them in a lightly shaded place with protection from the afternoon sun. Water them thoroughly and regularly.

Moss Fern, Selaginella

Moss Fern, Selaginella kraussiana 'Aurea' looks like a cross between a moss and a fern, but it is neither. It makes a great understory for taller houseplants or can be potted up all on its own. It likes humidity and moist conditions, so don't let the soil dry out completely. Like ferns, Selaginella is easily scorched by the sun, so give it indirect light. 

A Container Planting using Ferns

I thought that it might be fun to gather a few ferns along with some other houseplants into a container planting. 

Any ceramic container can be turned into a plant pot with a drainage hole. All you need is a drill and a set of tile and glass drill bits (these drill bits can be found at just about any hardware store).

Drilling a drainage hole is fairly easy. There is just one tip: use a small puddle of water on the surface your ceramic dish to keep the container and the drill bit cool.

I used three small ferns along with a Moss Fern, Selaginella and a variegated ivy. The mushrooms are from the Dollar Store (I think the large mushrooms were $2.50 and the little one was just $1).

If you're an indoor gardener who sometimes forgets to water, ferns may not be for you. But if your willing to keep a watchful eye of your plants and have a room with indirect light, ferns might make a nice addition to your collection of houseplants.

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  1. I love the look of ferns but haven't had much luck growing them in my home. I think it probably has something to do with our lack of humidity.

    1. That could be. I find watering them really well helps a little. My ferns are noticeably heavier when I put them back on the windowsill.

  2. I never realized there were so many different kinds of ferns, Jennifer.
    I really love the tri-color one. It's so pretty.

    1. I didn't either until I started to research the topic. Ferns have been a popular collectable plant since Victorian times and there is quite an amazing array of ferns that have become houseplants.


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