Planting Bare Root and Potted Ferns

Plant fern plants in lightly shaded to fully shaded areas. They prefer moist, rich humus soil with a slightly acid pH (5.3 to 5.5 pH range). Sphagnum peat moss is good to add to the soil for holding moisture and will add some acid to the soil as it decomposes. Aged compost mix and aged manure mix are also good soil building additions.

The smaller ferns, such as Maidenhair fern, can be spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart. The larger growing Ostrich, Christmas and Royal Ferns grow much larger and should be planted no closer than 24 inches apart.

Planting Container Grown Ferns - 

Dig holes 8 to 14 inches wide and approximately 12 to 14 inches deep or at least several inches deeper and wider than the container the plants are being grown in. Pour water into the hole until it is about 2 inches deep in the hole. Allow the water to be soaked into the soil. While water is being soaked in, tap the container bottom on the ground and cupping the base of the plant and top of container with one hand, tip the container completely over. Gently pry the plants root system out of the pot.

Holding the root system, with soil, in both hands firmly, gently pull the bottom of the root system as though to tear the bottom apart. Don’t pull the root system apart, only loosen it up and allow the roots to stretch. Sometimes newly grown roots will twist and turn in the pot, just comb through them with your fingers to straighten them out. Hold the plant steady at the base of the trunk slightly above the ground level over the hole. Begin pulling soil into the hole to fill in the areas around the root system of the plant lightly pressing with every few inches.

Once the hole is filled with soil around the root system, water the plant again about the same amount as it took to fill up to 2 inches of the hole. (Water amount will vary with conditions) The soil around the base of the plant may sink in and you will need to apply more soil and lightly press down. Then apply 2 to 3 inches of shredded bark mulch or aged compost mix forming a well or doughnut around the base of each plant.

For the first month, water plant every 2 to 3 days adjusting for deep rainfall days. Gradually phase into watering less and less allowing the plant to stress for itself to find moisture. You will need to water more frequently during the hottest part of summer, especially during drought conditions. It takes approximately 3 to 6 weeks for container plants to establish and begin putting on newer roots.

Top with a good layer of mulch (shredded bark mulch, aged compost or aged manure mix) or a light layer of straw for added moisture and to keep the ground cool. Water as needed to keep the soil moist.  As the ground warms in late spring, the fronds will begin sprouting.

Planting Bare Root Ferns -

Trying to figure out which end of the tuber is up can be daunting. Sometimes the tip is visible on the top portion and other times there will be root hairs extending from the bottom. If in doubt, the tuber can be planted in a sideways position without affecting future growth.

The top of the tuber should be approximately 1 to 2 inches below the top of the ground. Cover lightly with aged compost mix to keep the ground cool and moist. Soil should be kept lightly moist (not wet or damp) for the fern to put on new growth. When planting tubers late in the growing season, such as late summer, often they will not put on any new top growth until the following spring. The ferns will grow larger each year until they top out in size about the 4th year.

Cutting the fall die back to the ground and applying a fresh layer of mulch or straw will help to protect the fern tubers from popping out of the ground over winter freeze and thaw cycles as well as from squirrels or other critters digging up the bulbs for winter food.

Visit our Garden Ideas page for more shade garden plants.