For the longest time, I believed that ferns where the hardest plants around. They have a pretty bad reputation for being thirsty, humidity-loving babies. If you get the care wrong they seem to just crisp up and turn into a big dead mess. Through some experimentation I found that most of what I knew was totally wrong and once I made a few corrections my ferns started to thrive!
The first thing to consider is where your fern naturally grows. This is going to tell you heaps about this plant actually requires to survive. Many ferns that we sell at Greener House are actually found in the wilderness around Melbourne!
Australian Native Ferns:
Many of the ferns you can find in Australian plant nurseries are able to be found in nearby bush-land. If you are in Melbourne, head out to the Dandenong or Otway ranges to see a high concentration of these plants. Once we understand that these natives plants live naturally in our own backyards we can quickly draw the conclusion that they are perfectly adapted to our low humidity, hot and cold temperatures, and low levels of rainfall.
These plants are fine to grow inside or outside, and require no extra misting or humidifiers. Water once the top half of the soil has dried out, or even let all of the soil dry out in Winter. These ferns do not want to be moist all the time and many of them can go through long periods of dry without any negative side effects.
Some common examples:
Hare’s Foot Fern - Davallia fejeensis
Blue Star Fern - Phlebodium aureum
Brake Fern (Ribbon Fern) - Pteris cretica
Leatherleaf Fern - Rumohra adiantiformis
Sword Fern - Nephrolepis obliterata
Button Fern - Pellaea rotundifolia
Bird’s Nest Fern - Asplenium nidus
I killed so many Boston ferns, until one day I decided to just do the complete opposite of what everyone had been telling me. I moved my fern into the brightest spot I had, stopped misting it, and just watered it enough to keep it moist. I quickly found that my fern suddenly burst to life without me having to fuss over it at all.
Keep these types of ferns slightly moist all the time. Generally watering them about once every one or two weeks with a litre of water is enough to maintain a constant amount of moisture but more water may be required in dryer conditions. I find these plants are not fussy about drying out for a few days during cooler weather or even sitting in a little water for a few days. I don’t recommend relying on this, but I say it to demonstrate how these ferns really don’t require particular precise care.
I have grown these particular ferns outdoors and indoors in Melbourne and found misting the leaves to have no effect on their health. If water is left on the leaves for too long it may actually lead to bacterial growth causing damage.
Some common examples:
Boston Fern - Nephrolepis exaltata
Macho Fern - Nephrolepis biserrata
Lady Fern - Athyrium sp.
Many common maidenhair ferns can be found near waterways around Melbourne. They live right on the edge of the water but will usually be in the shade of a larger plant. These plants are incredibly easy and have a whole article to themselves. Read it here..
A real unifying factor between all these ferns is that they prefer to be in a bright position. If you consider their natural habitat again, you will find that ferns often must coexist with larger plants. These structures provide shelter from more intense direct sun but still allow for a large amount of ambient light to pass to the ferns.
A comparable position in the home would be a room where the natural night is strong enough for most of the day that you don’t have to turn on the electric lighting. A little morning/dappled direct sun is totally fine but in the peak of summer you must avoid direct afternoon sun because it will burn most indoor plants.
The brighter the spot the more rapidly ferns will usually be able to grow, and the more water they will need. Many ferns can tolerate a mid- to low-light spot but will have slower growth. If the position is too dark the plant may start to defoliate (drop leaves). If this happens, simply move your fern into a brighter position. They are very fast-growing and will quickly send out new growth so don’t be afraid to test out a few spots.
Many indoor plants can grow epiphytically and ferns are no exception. You see them growing in the cracks of old brick buildings, around the roots of trees, or suspended in a tree’s canopy. In many of these situations they only have the smallest amount of soil, if any, to grow in. This means they are actually very happy to be nice and root bound in a small pot.
You don’t need to give your ferns much space at all for them to become quite huge although once your fern is large it will require more water. A larger amount of soil that is able to hold more water may become helpful eventually but not necessary.
I haven’t found ferns to have sensitive roots at all, so you can simply slip them out of their current pot and into the next. Fill in the gaps with extra soil or even remove some soil if you are moving into a smaller sized pot. No need to tease roots. I would recommend watering the plant before re-potting to make soil easier to work with and to reduce stress on the plant.
Rip that plant in half, hot-dog style, not hamburger! To elaborate on that further… Many pots will actually contain multiple individual plants that can be divided. Over time, more individual ferns will arise from the mother plants to fill the pot. These will often sprout from rhizomes growing over the top of the soil. Simply remove the fern with its root ball from the pot and break it into smaller clusters of individual plants. This may require you to cut or rip them apart but they will be fine.
You can also allow ferns to propagate the old fashioned way, a.k.a. sexually. Ferns do not produce flowers or seeds like many plants but will instead produce spores. Once a fern matures you will often find rows of sorus on the underside of the leaf. These will often look like brown dots or lines. From the sori (plural for sorus), spores will fall and often be transported away by water to a new location where they will develop into new ferns. This topic requires a whole article of its own and so I recommend you seek out more information online if you are interested in the life cycle of ferns or want propagating them in this manner. This article is a great place to start.
There are many other ferns that do require high temperatures, high humidity, and careful monitoring of water quality and pH. You just won’t find them in most nurseries. I have tried to buy more difficult ferns but often my growers won’t even let me because they know the growing conditions in Melbourne aren’t right. In general if you find a fern that is not mentioned in this article it will still fall into one of these styles of care. Don’t just read the tag that comes with the plant as they are often vague and generalised. Look online to see the natural habitat of your plant and find a well-written article or video to give you some trustworthy guidance.
Greener House is an indoor plant nursery based in Melbourne, Australia. Find us at 95 Sydney Road, Brunswick. We focus on houseplants but also stock a great range of pots, and accessories!