Growing Ferns in Containers – Bring the Woodlands to Your Container Garden

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Growing Ferns in Containers – Bring the Woodlands to Your Container Garden

Growing Ferns in Containers - Bring the Woodlands to Your Container Garden

Learn the Basics of Growing Ferns in Containers

Growing ferns in containers will add a new dimension to your plantings. While flowers are eye-catching, they come and go. It is ferns and foliage with their endless shapes, colors, and textures that are the real backbone of container gardens.

fern planted in whisky barrel

By examining ferns for the beauty of their leaves, interesting texture, and various colorings, you will bring find yourself drawn to this wonderful genre of plant life.

Many gardeners have heard that ferns are delicate and hard to grow. As a result, they totally ignore this entire class of plants. This is really sad, as ferns are one of the more interesting plant groups. There are over 12,000 varieties of ferns. They range from tiny plants to full grown trees. Yes, some are delicate, but a lot of are so hardy you couldn’t kill them if you tried. They have been around since the age of dinosaurs, which gives you an idea of their survival instincts.

If you haven’t yet considered growing ferns in containers, read on and see if this is something you’d like to try in the future. If you have a fern or two planted in your containers, check the listing of ferns for container gardens to see if there may be a new variety you’d like to consider for next season.

Using Ferns in Container Gardens

Although ferns can be incorporated in containers with other plants, most do best if planted in their own container. The exception is the asparagus fern, which is really not a true fern. The asparagus fern is actually a member of the lily family. It thrives in bright light and is a favorite of container gardeners and florists for adding interest to the design of a container.

Ferns are at their best when used as a backdrop for your container garden. They always look well and prop up fading bulbs and perennials. They give a lush, woodland look to your garden and seem to anchor your containers to the ground. By grouping them with containers of contrasting foliage, they will call attention to themselves without overwhelming your main planting.

Choosing Potting Mix for Your Ferns

A soil mixture for ferns must hold adequate moisture, contain a high proportion of organic matter such as peat, leaf mold, ground sphagnum moss, and be well aerated so it will drain very well and air can move through the soil. The nutrients magnesium and calcium should be available to the roots.

If you live near woodland, rotted leaf mold is easy to obtain and is a perfect addition to your potting soil since it is the main ingredient in soils where ferns naturally grow. Since many gardeners are nowhere near a woodland, peat and sphagnum moss are the next best choice for organic matter as they are easily available.

Commercial soilless potting mixtures are available and many gardeners find this works well when growing ferns in containers. Not all ferns are alike, just as all flowers are not the same, and cannot be lumped into one group. You may find you have to do some experimenting with your potting soil to obtain the best mix for your fern varieties. Research the Internet or check with your local Extension office for more information about your chosen fern species.

Planting Ferns in Containers

Since ferns typically grow on rocks or pebbles or in shallower soil than most other plants, most ferns develop shallow root systems. For this reason, shallow pots or pans, 3-6″ deep are the best choice for starting ferns when growing ferns in containers. Don’t use too large a pot. The fern should fit into the pot with about 1-2″ of allowable growth room around the edges of the pot. If the pot is too large, you will have a difficult time maintaining the proper moisture level for your fern.

Be sure to start with clean pots. Check to see there are adequate drainage holes. Cover the holes with mesh screening or a coffee filter. Then, partially fill the pot with your potting soil mixture. Carefully pull the root ball apart so you can spread the roots outward to the edges of the pot. Cover roots with soil to about an inch from the top of the pot. Be careful not to cover the crown of the plant (top of the plant where leaves originate). Water thoroughly to moisten all the soil, being careful not to water the crown, and set your fern in a shady spot to give it time to acclimate to its new home.


Locating Your Ferns in Your Container Garden

Most ferns prefer a cool, moist, shady location. They grow best in temperatures between 70 – 80 degrees. They should be shaded from the hot summer sun.

If you have been growing ferns in containers indoors and you are moving them to an outdoor location for the summer, they require a hardening off period the same as other house plants. For about 2 weeks, place your ferns in a cool, sheltered location and protect them from the heat and bright sun. If they start to whither, become droopy or change color, move them to a slightly warmer location until they recover. Once they become acclimated to the outside, they will be a great addition to your container garden.

If you have just transplanted your fern, cover it with a clear plastic bag and place the pot on a tray of moist pebbles to help maintain some humidity around the plant. After a few days, remove the bag if the plant looks perky and healthy.

Watering Your Ferns

Correct watering when growing ferns in containers are most important. One of the most common reasons for failure with ferns is over or under watering.

Regardless of what you’ve heard, ferns do not like to have wet roots. Some of them, such as the Boston fern and Birds nest Fern, actually like to be slightly dry between waterings. Check the directions for the type of fern you are growing to learn it’s moisture level preference. Most ferns will do well if they are placed on a tray of moist pebbles. The humidity from the moist pebbles is what is helpful to keep your fern green and growing. Do not allow the pot to sit directly in the water. It’s extremely important not to let your fern sit in water or you run the risk of your rotting your plant.

Water the soil, not the plant. Never water your fern in the center of your plant, particularly Birds Nest ferns.

You can tell if your plant is not watered correctly because there will be a shedding of leaflets if your fern is over or under watered. If this is happening, you can check your plant’s root system. The roots should be a healthy light beige color. If you are over-watering, your fern roots will have an unhealthy black color.

To mist or not to mist, that is the question. There is much disagreement on this subject. Some horticulturalists insist this is an unnecessary procedure while others will tell you it is essential to the healthy growth of your fern. Since it does no harm, mist if you’d like. If you don’t want to be bothered, forget it. If you’re a gardener who enjoys experimenting with different techniques, try both ways and see if there really is a difference in plant health one way or the other.

Fertilizing Your Ferns

When growing ferns in containers, it is important that you follow a feeding schedule:

Since ferns are grown in a mix that drains well and they are watered often, nutrients are washed out of the soil. Ferns need to be fed more in spring and summer which is their natural growing season. During growth seasons, ferns should be fed monthly. Use a formula of roughly 15-5-15 or 20-10-20. Check the label to see if the ammonia and nitrogen levels are equal.

During the winter, you can slow down the feeding schedule to once every 2-3 months. Be aware that over fertilizing is as bad as no fertilizing at all. Never feed a dormant fern.

A home remedy that works well is to mix 2 tbsp Epsom salt with 1-gallon water to keep your fern green and healthy. Use twice a month. Your plant will grow stronger and greener because of the minerals in the Epsom salt.

In the winter, it is also recommended that distilled water be used once a month to water your ferns to help flush out any salts that may have built up in the soil.

Propagating Your Ferns

When growing ferns in containers, you will find that some varieties grow quite quickly and need to be repotted often. When your ferns become too large and outgrow their allotted space, it’s time to divide them and make more plants. Remove the fern from its pot and examine it. You will most likely see several crowns in the plant. Separate the plants and re-pot them.

Some plants will grow little plantlets on long stringy runners. When the plantlet has 2 -3 fronds and some roots, separate it from the parenting plant and plant it in moist potting soil. Be careful not to bury the crown. This plantlet will grow into a plant that’s ready to be re-potted within 6-8 weeks.

Ferns for Container Gardens – A Listing of Most Popular Ferns for Growing in Containers

Ferns for container gardens are fun to grow and readily available. Below is a listing of the most popular ferns for growing in containers.

I haven’t gone into great detail as this list is only meant as a quick reference. For more information on how to tend to your plants.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but is only meant as suggestions to get you started growing ferns in container gardens. I’m sure I’ve missed someone’s favorite and if you would like to have your favorite included in this listing, feel free to Contact us and I’ll be happy to add it to this listing.

Asparagus Fern

Asparagus Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 7-9
Plant Height: 24-36 inches
Comments:
Although asparagus fern is listed in the fern category, it is not a true fern because it does not produce spores. This fern is related to the Asparagus plant and produces seeds on long, feathery needle-like stems. This fern is a favorite of florists and one of the more popular plants in containers and window gardens. Although it will grow in full sun, the color tends to wash out of the foliage. For this reason, partial shade is the preferred location.

Autumn Fern

Autumn Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 5-9
Plant Height: 20-24″ inches
Comments:
The name of this fern comes from the fact that new fronds are a coppery-red when they start. As the fronds mature, the color of the fronds changes to glossy, bright green. An interesting way to add color to your background or container plantings. This fern does not die back but is an evergreen plant that loves moisture.

Boston Fern

Boston Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 9-11
Plant Height: 24 inches
Comments: The number one fern grew in containers in the USA. The most common use of this plant is for home decoration and in hanging baskets. These ferns are extremely long-lived and just continue to grow larger as they age.

Dwarf Birds Nest Fern

Dwarf Birds Nest Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 8-10
Plant Height: 12 inches
Comments: This fern is a little smaller and hardier the regular species of Bird’s Nest Fern. The ferns grow more upright than the larger Bird’s Nest Fern. Because of its size, it is a favorite of container gardeners and also favored as a house plant. This is an evergreen fern.

Eastern Maidenhair Fern

Eastern Maidenhair Fern

Light: Deep Shade
Zones: 5-8
Plant Height: 1-2 feet
Comments: The most graceful and delicate of all North American native ferns. Lacy, soft green leaves with a dark center. One of the top ten perennial ferns. Fronds are arranged in a half circle like a fan. Hardy and easy to grow in a deep shady location with moist soil. Deciduous. AKA: Five-Finger Maidenhair Fern

Hart’s Tongue Fern

Hart's Tongue Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 6-8
Plant Height: 12 inches
Comments:
These glossy, leathery fronds which are about 3″ wide, will last for weeks in floral arrangements. An evergreen fern that does not do well in hot, humid weather. Deer resistant.

Hay-scented fern

Hay-scented fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 3-8
Plant Height: -15-30″ inches
Comments: This fern gets its name from the scent of the plant which smells like fresh hay when you brush up against it or bruise the fronds. This fern is easy to grow and will tolerate drought conditions, but never let it dry out completely. Easy to grow in almost any conditions. Deer resistant. Deciduous (shedding fronds annually).

Holly Fern

Holly Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 7-10
Plant Height: -22″ inches
Comments: This fern has shiny leathery foliage. It is very long lived. Moisture-loving but will tolerate some drought. Excellent for growing in containers or grown as house plants. Evergreen.

 

Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese Painted FernJapanese Painted Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 5-8
Plant Height: -12-20 inches
Plant Width: 2-3 feet wide
Comments: Japanese painted fern has become a very popular fern in the last decade. It’s a wide range of colors from silvery-gray to purple, red to burgundy, and shades of green, account for its popularity with container gardeners. This was a PPA (Perennial Plant Association) “Plant of the Year” pick in 2004. Colors become more vibrant each year as it matures. Check the label to be sure of the color if you are looking for a specific color choice. Tolerant of heat and humidity.

Kimberly Queen Fern

Kimberly Queen Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 9-11
Plant Height: 24-36 inches
Comments: The Kimberly queen fern is perfect to be grown as a potted plant indoors, or outside in your containers. They are an easy care fern that is a favorite with new gardeners. Kimberly queen ferns have been shown to have detoxification properties and will help clean up indoor air.

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 4-8
Plant Height: 3-6″ inches
Comments: This tiny, miniature fern has a place in any container garden. This is a good choice for terrarium gardens. It loves growing in crevasses and rocks. Prefers shady, stony areas. Deer resistant.

Mini Holly Fern

Mini Holly Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 8-10
Plant Height: 8″ inches
Comments: Lacquered brilliant green holly foliage decorates this compact evergreen fern. In colder areas, it’s an easy and excellent choice for an indoor plant as it tolerates low light, smoke, and drought. Deer resistant. Drought resistant.

Rabbit’s Foot Fern

Rabbit's Foot Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 2-9
Plant Height: 24 inches
Comments: This fern gets its name from spider-like rhizomes, more popularly called rabbit’s feet, that grow over the edge of the pot. This easy to grow fern loves the shade and doesn’t mind if you forget to water it occasionally. It also will tolerate occasional cold down to freezing temperatures. Ferns can be propagated by breaking off about 6″ of the foot and pinning it to moist potting soil or sphagnum moss. Evergreen and extremely long-lived.

Sunset Fern

Sunset Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 5-9
Plant Height: 20-24″ inches
Comments: New fronds emerge with brilliant pink to orangey-red foliage. Ferns slowly change to an olvie-green color with a sheen as they mature. Semi-evergreen, erect arching crown. A beautiful fern that is easy to grow.

Western Maidenhair Fern

Western Maidenhair Fern

Light: Part Sun, Shade
Zones: 3-8
Plant Height: 12″ inches
Comments: A popular fern species that is elegant, graceful and delicate. Does not like areas with hot humid summers. Deciduous.

 


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