Knowing the basics of fern care is essential to keeping these houseplants looking their best. Prized for their lush, feathery foliage, ferns are a firm favorite among plant parents, both indoors and in the garden. So don’t let them disappoint you with limp fronds.
Ferns are relatively hardy plants, making them a good houseplant for beginners, but they do require some attention, especially when watering. “Ferns are perfect for naturalizing indoors and outdoors,” says Richard Cheshire, plant doctor at Patch Plants. “However, whether indoors or outdoors, ferns need regular watering as they are quite thirsty plants.”
“Some ferns do well in shade only, or a mix of sun and shade and partial shade, so they’re very useful as a structure plant for the garden,” says Alex Hollingsworth, garden designer, Dig Club. “Either combine with other similar naturally occurring plants or those suited to similar conditions such as Hosta, Hellebore, Bergonia, Asarum europaeum and Liriope.”
The Secret to Fern Care, courtesy of houseplant experts
There’s no denying that adding some lush greenery really brings a space to life. So find out how to make your ferns look fabulous indoors and out.
1. Start with a simple variety
There are hundreds of species of ferns, but the ones you’re most likely to see in homes are Boston, Asparagus, Maidenhair, and Blue Star.
“Ferns have a reputation for being a little fussy (er, maidenhair), but you can’t go too far wrong with a Boston fern in your home,” says Jo Lambell, founder of Beards & Daisies (opens in new tab). “They are quite hardy and have a much higher survival rate than some of their feathered siblings.”
“A maidenhair fern attracts a lot of people because of its delicate foliage, but can be difficult to please, especially for more careless plant owners,” adds Jemma Charman, co-founder of Green Rooms Market.
“A good indoor strain to start with would be a Blue Star fern or a Boston fern. Like all ferns these don’t like to dry between waterings and like high humidity so a bathroom would be best but they tend to be more forgiving than other varieties.’
“There are many varieties to choose from for the garden,” says Alex Hollingsworth, garden designer and co-founder of Dig Club (opens in new tab). “However, the following ferns offer different texture qualities, different levels of year-round interest, and are easy to care for. Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata’, Polystichum setiferum, Polypodium vulgare and Asplenium scolopendrium.’
2. Place them in a damp place
It is no coincidence that you often see ferns gracing beautiful bathrooms and shower rooms. These plants thrive in humid places.
“A damp bathroom out of direct sunlight would be ideal,” says Jemma Charman, Green Rooms Market (opens in new tab). “Direct sunlight and too little humidity will cause the ends to turn brown and crispy.”
Beards & Daisies’ Jo Lambell agrees, adding, “They also love to be attached or placed in traffic lights.”
3. Give them some shade
Not only do these forest floor dwellers love moisture, but they are also used to the shade of larger plants and trees in their natural habitat, making them the perfect shady garden idea.
“My indoor Boston fern does best in the shade of a taller palm tree so it still gets some light but never full sun,” says Morag Hill, co-founder of The Little Botanical (opens in new tab).
“Even outdoor ferns like to be in a shady place, as they burn in the direct summer sun. So find a corner of your garden that needs some greenery but doesn’t get full sun, they will thrive in dappled light.’
“Ferns prefer moist soil and their flexibility makes them perfect for shady gardens or those creating a woodland or jungle theme,” says garden designer Alex Hollingsworth of the Dig Club. “Outside they are usually happy when planted under trees.”
4. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged
This is where watering can get tricky, and these plants can earn their reputation as divas. However, once you understand the basics of how often to water your houseplant, it’s easy to give your fern what it needs to thrive.
“The soil should be moist but not soggy,” says Jemma Charman. “It’s also best to water ferns from below and stand their pot in a bowl of water for a few minutes until the soil looks moist and can absorb what it needs. Remember not to leave it in the water for hours. It’s also best to use rainwater whenever possible instead of our chemically treated tap water.”
“The key with Boston ferns is not to let them dry out too much or the leaves can turn brown and crusty,” adds Morag Hill. “Ideally, they like to replicate their natural environment of a moist forest floor – so keeping their soil moist is crucial.
“At the same time, those beautiful lush leaves, or fronds as they are known, can also turn yellow if left in water for too long. If your fern is looking a bit sad, cut off some of the bad leaves, give it a good drink and some plant fertilizer to keep it growing well.’
“Outdoor ferns are generally self-sufficient, but it’s worth watering them regularly if there’s been a long period without rain to keep the soil from drying out,” says Alex Hollingsworth. “A mulch on the soil (like composted bark) will help keep the fern’s roots cool and moist.”
5. Mist between weekly waterings
Watering these plants weekly and checking their soil to make sure it isn’t drying out should keep them happy and healthy. However, if moisture is not enough for them, you can create them in other ways.
“Ferns do best in a steamy bathroom, so if they’re elsewhere indoors, remember to mist them every few days,” says Richard Cheshire, Patch Plants (opens in new tab).
6. Cut off dead fronds
“Ferns are generally very easy to care for. However, you may want to snip off any dead or dry fronds before the new leaf buds (crushers) begin to unfurl in spring,” says Alex Hollingsworth. “Cut them off at the base with secateurs and clear away the debris to encourage air circulation around the base.”
“When you’re caring for your fern, be careful not to touch it too much or its fronds will turn brown,” adds Jo Lambell. ‘Think minimal excitement and generally don’t look for this beautiful plant.’
Do ferns need sun or shade?
Ferns need shade to thrive, their natural habitat is the damp forest floor under the dappled light of larger plants. So it’s best if you can replicate this as much as possible, whether you’re indoors or outdoors.
Do ferns grow well in pots?
“Ferns work really well when planted in pots and containers as their leaves fall over the edges to create a relaxed and leafy aesthetic,” says garden designer Alex Hollingsworth.
“They like soil that contains organic matter, and most prefer neutral to alkaline soil. They are best planted in spring or fall to set up before the cold weather.’
How often should you water a fern?
Water house ferns at least once a week, possibly more often depending on where you keep them. Check that the soil is moist but not soggy, and don’t let it dry out between waterings.
Depending on where you live, outdoor ferns are generally self-sufficient, but will need watering during a dry spell without rain to ensure the soil is moist.