Ferns require humid conditions

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 | 7:23 p.m. CST; updated 5:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do you admire the beauty of ferns? Would you like to grow them yourself?

Ferns are an attractive addition to any home or office. They are popular because of their graceful foliage and ability to grow in low light. Their foliage can range in appearance from delicate and airy to dense and dramatic. Ferns come in a variety of textures and leaf-shape patterns, and they are hardy and low-maintenance indoor plants.

Ferns grow best in a soil-less potting mix containing peat moss. Any container with good drainage is satisfactory, and the growing medium should be kept moist at all times. However, do not allow water to stand in pots since roots may be damaged. Most ferns do well in average room temperature; 68 to 72 degrees during the day and 62 to 65 degrees at night.

Ferns should receive as much light as possible indoors, without being placed in direct sunlight. Normal light may be supplemented with artificial light. Ferns need a north-facing window. South- or west-facing windows are to be avoided, unless they are curtained, as the foliage will burn if put into direct sunlight. Ferns will not survive a total lack of light as, like all green plants, they need sunlight for photosynthesis.

High humidity is a requirement for all types of ferns. In order to raise the humidity level around the plant, place the pots on a tray containing pebbles and a small amount of water. (Never let the bottom of the pot touch the water in the tray; a pot that is always sitting in water will develop fungus diseases and root rot.) Browning or dieback on the tips of the fronds is evidence of low humidity, so misting the fern on a regular basis will help increase the humidity.

The best method of propagating most ferns is by division or by offsets.

Early spring is the best time to repot or divide a plant. Remove the plant from the pot and carefully cut between the rhizomes. You want to keep as many leaves as possible on each division.

As far as feeding goes, ferns should be fertilized lightly once a month from April through September. Liquid houseplant fertilizers should be applied at about one-half the recommended rate. Fern leaves will scorch when given too much food. Be careful not to fertilize ferns during the winter months, and do not feed a newly repotted plant for at least 4 to 6 months.

Ferns can also be grown from spores. During the warm months of summer, ferns produce dot-like structures called spores on the underside of their leaves. These can be shaken from the undersides of the fronds and placed on sphagnum moss in a well-drained container. To maintain soil moisture, the container should be covered with glass or plastic. Water as necessary to keep the potting medium surface moist and place in sufficient light for normal growth.

The most common problems for ferns are scales, mealybugs and mites. A hard spray with warm water will dislodge most insects, but try to avoid pesticide use as it may damage the plant. Hand picking is also a good way to remove these pests.

There are a variety of ferns suitable for the home environment: maidenhair, tree, pulmosa, asparagus, bird’s nest, rabbit’s foot, Boston, sword, staghorn, leatherleaf and button.

When first growing ferns you may want to start with some less demanding varieties such as bird’s nest fern, Japanese holly fern, or rabbit’s foot fern. Boston ferns are a good choice if you can maintain the high humidity they need.

To learn more about these beautiful plants check out the Web site of the American Fern society at

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993, and she serve as the Master Gardener’s liaison to the Community Garden Coalition as well as serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at

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