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.

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 soiless 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 clumped 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 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 it’s 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 is 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 plants 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 re-potted 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 parent plan 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.
Read this section for a Listing of Popular Ferns for Container Gardens.

Ways to Enjoy Your Ferns

Now that you have plenty of ferns, you can use the fronds in several ways:

Fresh ferns are a great addition to floral arrangements. Consider how you can best use them for a stunning floral designer arrangement.
Ferns can be dried and used in many arts and crafts projects. They can also be pressed and used in pressed pictures, scrapbooks, lampshades and many other flower crafts.
They can be used in painting projects by covering the backside with paint, putting it on paper or a blank lampshade and then rolling it with a roller to get the fern impression. This is also a good stenciling technique.

Now that you’ve read through all this information on growing ferns in containers, consider giving this wonderful plant species some space in your garden. I’m sure once you see how easy growing ferns can be, your garden won’t be without them ever again.

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