Ferns are ancient plants. They are foliage plans that don’t produce flowers. Instead ferns reproduce via spores, which form on the underside of their fronds (the fern equivalent of a leaf).

Mature spores are scattered in the air, fall on moist surfaces and eventually form a baby plant. Some ferns also spread through the soil via rhizomes (root-like structures) while others produce small plantlets on their leaves. These ‘baby’ ferns can be detached and used to grow new plants.

Ferns evolved in the Devonian period and prospered becoming the dominant plant group on Earth in the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago.

Ferns come in all shapes and sizes and make a great garden plant or an indoor plant in a pot. Although old in evolutionary terms, ferns are popular today as houseplants. Most ferns thrive in shade, which makes them suited to life indoors. Maidenhair and Boston ferns are among the most popular indoor plants. Also consider silver lady, autumn, sickle or Duffi fern.

Most ferns also thrive outdoors in sheltered spots including courtyard or small, shaded gardens. Tree ferns – ferns with tall trunks – make handsome feature plants in groups in shaded parts of the garden. Consider planting other ferns underneath to give them protection from the sun and let the rain fall through. Look out for bird’s nest, chicken, hen or king ferns.

Another variety of outdoor ferns is the epiphyte ferns which grow naturally in trees and feed themselves on the leaf litter that falls through the trees. Consider elkhorn or staghorn in this group.

When looking at a fern to brighten up an indoor area or add a touch of class to a shady area outside, check out your hardware or garden centre who will have options and advice on plants to suit your local area.

Growing conditions

Aspect Outdoors ferns prefer to grow in shade to part shade under the canopy of trees. Several species can tolerate a little sunlight. A tree fern called ‘Little Aussie Larrikin’ is the exception to the rule, growing in full sun with some summer watering.

Indoors ensure ferns get ample bright filtered light. Place indoor ferns a few metres away from a south or north-facing window so they don’t get burnt from direct sunlight or dry air from an open window.

Soil Outdoors ferns tolerate a wide range of soils but do best in soils that contain organic matter and retain moisture. Apply Seasol Super Compost to the soil before planting to aid healthy growth.

Indoors ferns can be grown in containers with good quality potting mix formulated for ferns such as Seasol Indoor Potting Mix. Ferns also suit terrariums.

Climate Ferns come from all climates so there are ferns for every climatic zone. Be guided in your selection by those that do well in your local climate.

General care

Watering Regular water is important especially during hot, dry or windy times. Those in containers will need regular water. Indoor ferns need watering when dry and regular misting. Tree ferns benefit from overhead watering.

Feeding and mulching Ferns can be fed via your preferred method, either liquid or granular food or a combination of both, depending on your fern variety. Keep plants lush and leafy with a granular fertiliser such as Seasol plus Nutrients All Purpose including Natives during the growing season. Remember to water it in thoroughly after application. If you prefer liquid feeding apply PowerFeed All Purpose including Natives at half strength regularly every fortnight or month during the growing season.

Spread mulch such composted bark under and around ferns to deter weed competition and retain moisture.

Pruning It is restricted to removing dead fronds. Ferns that dry out and die back may be revived by hard pruning to encourage new fronds.

Watch for Scale and caterpillars which may attack ferns. Control with a natural spray such as EarthCare Natural Pyrethrum insect spray. When spraying the foliage follow the directions on the back of the pack and spray both sides of the foliage. Repeat application maybe needed for further control. Remember not to spray when beneficial insects and bees are around. Where possible, remove pests by hand or remove affected fronds.

The spores that are naturally produced by ferns as part of their reproductive cycle can be mistaken for a pest or disease. Spores resemble a golden-brown dust and are usually found on the underside of mature fronds.

Dry soil can cause ferns to wilt and dry out with brown foliage, while overwatering can cause yellow fronds and root rot so ensure soil moisture is keep consistent.

Indoor ferns may get brown tips to their fonds caused by dry air. To increase humidity, mist the leaves with water every week.