Ferns are great for planting individually in the garden or as a group, as they create the perfect combination of form, colour and texture with their foliage. They look superb near water features and ponds, as a special centre piece group, or used in patio planters.
- Easy to grow
- Plant in autumn or spring for the best establishment
- Love the dappled shade
- Thrive in soil with organic matter
- Many ferns are evergreens
- Cut back deciduous types in winter
All you need to know
What are ferns?
As stated by the RHS: “Ferns are an ancient type of plant, dating back more than 360 million years. They don’t produce flowers or seeds, but spores instead. They are prized for their attractive leaves or fronds…
“Ferns are perennials, meaning they live for several years, some dying down in winter (deciduous), while others keep their foliage all year (evergreen)…most ferns available to gardeners tend to like shade…
“Hardy ferns can be kept outdoors all year round in the UK and need no additional frost protection. There are also some half-hardy ferns that can be grown outdoors in mild areas in the south and west of the UK, or in other sheltered spots if given protection over winter.”
Getting the right look
Choosing the right fern solely relies on what you would like from your ferns. Each variety is different in size, shape, colour, style, and type (deciduous vs evergreen).
Spring or autumn are the best times to plant a fern, giving them enough time to settle and get established before extreme weather conditions begin. A fern can tolerate some sun but they thrive in light or dappled shade, where they can find more moisture. If you are not sure about the level of shade in your garden, check out our plants for shaded gardens guide to learn more. Most ferns prefer neutral to alkaline soil with garden compost or leaf mould as it supplies rich organic matter.
Always check your plant labels when buying a fern as most are hardy ferns, but you can get half-hardy and tender ferns. The half-hardy and tender ferns need to be kept frost-free over winter, so it is best to keep them in a container that can be moved indoors. This also counts with tree ferns as they are not fully hardy, so keep them protected in a warm, sheltered spot.
How to plant
First, prepare your soil. It is important to mix plenty of organic matter (compost or leaf mould) to improve the soil structure and ability to hold moisture. This is very important if you wish to plant your ferns under a tree where the soil is poor and dry.
Once your soil is prepared, you can plant your fern. Create a hole just deep enough to place the root ball inside – be sure to only bury the roots, leaving the bases of the stems and shoots above ground. Gently fill the remainder of the hole with the soil you just dug out and firm around the top. Water well to allow the soil to settle.
For newly planted ferns, water regularly for the first year; after the first year you should only need to water your fern when there are periods of limited rainfall. When watering your ferns, make sure to water close to the roots and not from the top of the plant. Ferns in containers should be watered more regularly to keep the soil moist.
In spring, mulching around the base with garden compost will reduce the number of weeds appearing.
Can you see little bumps underneath your fern leaves? Don’t worry, this is completely normal. These are fern spores, little genetic bases for new plants. These spores may look like little dots and can be harvested for fern spore propagation.
How do you keep ferns alive indoors?
If keeping a fern indoors, give them filtered shade as they cannot withstand direct sunlight. Mist your fern regularly if your house is often dry.
How often should you water ferns?
Plan on watering your fern every few days, but be cautious of over watering.
Do I cut the brown leaves off my ferns?
It is common to see green leaves at the top of the plant and brown at the bottom. This is caused by new shoots coming from the center of the fern and the older leaves at the bottom will brown and die. To remove them, simply snip off any brown ones at the base.