What is a fern?
Ferns are some old plants. I am talking oooooold. Most biologists think that they originated around 300-400 million years ago. To put that in context remember the first mammals started showing up around 200 million years ago and the dinosaurs aren’t much older showing up about 250 years back. What makes them different than other plants is that they have vascular tissue that moves water around their insides. Plants like moss (gymnosperms are the other major type of vascular plant). This vascular tissue works like a piping system. Think about the last time you cut through some celery.
Those little holes you see in the cross section are vascular tissue. The other thing that makes vascular plants like ferns different (and honestly weird) is that they uses spores to reproduce as opposed to seeds. Some of first ferns way back in the Carboniferous ferns evolved to use seeds and those ferns later evolved into flowering plants we know today. But obviously some of them didn’t. Those that didn’t became the modern fern we see growing in forests, living rooms, and gardens around the world. (Fun fact: Carboniferous actually means the age of ferns. It was called this because pretty much every kind of plant back then was a fern). But now back to spores. Ferns are the only plants that I know of that have 2 stages in their life cycle; diploid sporophyte and haploid gametophyte. The sporophyte stage is what we think of as a fern. They have the leaves the fronds, roots, basically all the stuff that reminds us of a fern plant. The gametophyte is well something different. All this leads to the fact that ferns actually alternate between the 2 stages so they can have fern love. The sporophyte stage fern grows spores under its fronds and they eventually fall off and are fertilized by the gametes from the gametophyte. Not much in terms of romance but a cool plant none the less.
What are Ferns good for?
People have been planting ferns for centuries. Ancient humans used ferns to treat fevers and spleen problems. Some cultures even thought that the right kind of fern potion could make the spleen leave your body. A little grosser treatment was as a way to get rid of worms (think intestines not earth kind). Since ferns use spores instead of seeds they really must have seemed weird to ancient man. Anything different is often seen as being divine in some way and ferns were no different. In ancient Europe some people thought ferns could be used to make you invisible. Wonder how well that worked for the?
Today we use ferns because they look nice. Not as exciting as invisibility but growing ferns in your garden or even in the house can ad some nice additions to the ascetics of the house and even better they basically require very little maintenance and they grow almost anywhere.
How to grow ferns?
My parents used to try to grow all kinds of plants around their house. Almost all of them died but the ferns always bloomed and by bloomed I mean they grew gigantic without them doing anything to care or encourage them.When picking what kind of fern for your site check out my article about which fern to use for which area here. Ferns don’t need much sunlight but can’t handle much cold. They can be pretty hardy for living the kicker is that they won’t reproduce unless conditions are favorable. But the nice thing is I don’t care that my ferns aren’t able to get their fern love on I just want them to look good. Other than keeping them from freezing you don’t need to do much to keep a fern alive. However, there are some things you can do to grow ferns that will make them look more visually appealing.
Basic care and feeding of ferns:
Regardless of where you want to plant your ferns they need 3 things; sunlight, water, and good soil. How you get that for them will depend on if you want to plant your ferns inside or outside. When growing ferns inside make sure you think of the following items:
- Ferns don’t need direct light so you don’t need to have them on the windowsill.Indirect light coming through the window is good enough. Most plants need a southerly facing window but not ferns. Light from a southern facing window can be too much for a fern and might dry its fronds out. Signs that your fern is not getting enough light can be discoloration, yellow leaves, or stunted growth.
- The nice thing about growing ferns in the house is that you have more control over the environment, specifically the humidity and temperature. Ferns are used to growing near the ground in moist environments like forests. If your fern is looking a little brown on the ends of its fronds it probably isn’t getting enough water. Odds are your house is not as humid as the forest so one thing you can do to help your plant get some more moisture is putting ferns in the bathroom. A fern in the bathroom not only looks great but also helps the fern. If you can’t do that you can take some other steps such as planting the fern in a plastic pot. The plastic will keep more moisture in. You can also set a tray or cup of water near the plant to allow it to absorb the evaporated water. Don’t use one of those pot tray combos because that can lead to the fern getting too much water. Some folk go as far as putting a fern near a humidifier. I think that is a bit extreme as you can do much the same thing by just spraying the fern down with a water bottle every once and a while.
- Keep the temperature constant: This probably isn’t a problem in your house but it is worth mentioning Ferns do best between 66 and 76 degrees.
- Make sure you prune your fern periodically. Pruning plants is not just for aesthetics it will keep the plant invigorated and healthy as bugs and disease can spread on an unpruned plant.
- Use fertilizer:Give your ferns a good dose of plant food during their peak growing season. This time ranges from may to September. The rest of the year they are fine as plants generally are not accustomed to growing during the winter/fall months
- Adjust the lighting: If your fern is not getting enough light from a nearby window, set up an incandescent light above the plant to shine on it 4 to 6 hours each day.
Growing Ferns outside
Whether you are going for an ornamental garden or hanging the ferns around the porch. Ferns come in all shapes and sizes so you can find one to fit whatever your outdoor gardening need. Growing ferns outside requires some of the similar concerns that you need for growing inside. Here are a few items to remember:
- Remember how I said ferns don’t like too much light. An outdoor fern is not going to thrive in the middle of the yard. Using a fern as a nice addition to a wooded are is a nice way of providing ground cover and green to an area.
- If you live in a dry climate you need to remember to water the fern periodically. Adding some ground covering like pine needles or mulch will help the soil around the fern retain water.
Divide and re-pot a fern in the spring. This places the fern in a position to spread during the ferns natural active growing season.
- Remove the plant from the pot and divide into the desired size at the roots.
- Wait 4 to 6 months or until there is noticeable growth to fertilize newly potted ferns.
Start new ferns from seed. This is an optional part of growing ferns. This task is the most labor intensive part for a fern grower and is best reserved for the patient indoor gardener.
- Propagate ferns in summer when the conditions are ideal for plant growth.
- Collect spores from the plant. During the spring and summer, spots will develop on the bottom of the leaves. These are called spores. When the spores darken, remove the leaf and place it in a paper bag. As the leaf dries, the spores will fall off into the bottom of the bag.
- Plant the seeds that fell to the bottom of the bag in peat moss starter soil in small containers. Water them generously.