How to Grow Ferns in Outdoor Gardens

Ferns, with their lush green fronds and timeless elegance, can add a touch of serene beauty to any garden. Their fascinating diversity and adaptability make them an excellent choice for various outdoor settings.

This guide will take you through the steps of growing ferns in your outdoor garden successfully.

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Understanding Ferns: An Introduction

Ferns are ancient plants that have existed for more than 300 million years. With over 10,000 known species worldwide, they offer a vast range of shapes, sizes, and growing preferences.

Many ferns are native to woodland environments, preferring cool, damp, shady conditions, although there are also species that can tolerate sunnier, drier locations.

Selection of Ferns: Choosing the Right Species

Before you start planting ferns in your garden, it’s crucial to choose the right species that suits your garden’s conditions. Some ferns thrive in full shade, others prefer part shade, and some can even handle more sun.

Shade-loving Ferns

These ferns are perfect for those shady spots in your garden. Examples include Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum).

Sun-tolerant Ferns

Certain ferns can tolerate more sunlight. The Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) and the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) fall into this category.

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Planting Ferns in Your Outdoor Garden: Step-by-Step Instructions

Planting ferns in an outdoor garden may seem daunting, especially if you’re new to gardening. However, with a step-by-step guide, you can easily establish your fern garden. Let’s break down the process:

Step 1: Assess the Garden’s Light and Soil Conditions

Ferns come in a variety of species with different light and soil requirements. You need to understand your garden’s light patterns and soil type before choosing a fern variety. If your garden is shady with moist soil, it’s ideal for most ferns. However, some ferns can tolerate sunnier and drier conditions.

Step 2: Choose the Right Location

Select an appropriate spot for planting your fern based on its specific requirements. While many ferns prefer shady spots, others need a bit of sunlight to thrive. Some ferns do well under tree canopies, while others prefer open areas with diffused light.

Step 3: Prepare the Soil

Ferns generally prefer rich, well-draining soil that is slightly acidic. Depending on the existing soil condition, you might need to amend it. Add organic matter like compost or peat moss to enrich the soil. If the soil is heavy clay or drains poorly, incorporate sand or fine gravel to improve drainage.

Step 4: Dig the Planting Hole

Dig a hole that’s twice as wide and as deep as the fern’s root ball. The extra room allows the roots to spread out easily, encouraging faster establishment and growth.

Step 5: Position the Fern

Place the fern in the hole at the same depth it was growing in its previous pot. It’s crucial not to plant the fern too deeply as this could cause the crown (the point where the stem and roots meet) to rot.

Step 6: Backfill the Hole

Fill the hole back with the soil, firming it gently around the base of the fern to remove air pockets. Make sure the crown of the fern is level with or slightly above the surrounding soil surface.

Step 7: Water Thoroughly

Water the fern thoroughly after planting to help settle the soil around the roots. Ferns love moisture, so it’s essential to keep the soil consistently damp, especially during the first few weeks after planting.

Step 8: Mulch the Area

Apply a layer of organic mulch around the fern, but not touching the stem, to help conserve moisture, maintain cool soil temperatures, and deter weeds.

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Providing the Right Care: Ensuring Your Ferns Thrive

While ferns are relatively low maintenance, they do require some specific care. Here are some essential aspects to focus on to ensure your ferns flourish in your outdoor garden.


Ferns love water, and it’s crucial to provide the right amount to ensure they thrive. The exact amount of water needed can depend on various factors, including the species of fern, the climate, and the time of year.

Process: Check the soil moisture regularly and water when the top inch feels dry. During hot and dry periods, you may need to water more frequently to prevent the soil from drying out. However, be careful not to overwater, as this can lead to root rot and other diseases.


While ferns don’t require as much feeding as many other plants, they do benefit from regular nutrition.

Process: Use a slow-release granular fertilizer in the spring before the onset of the growing season. Alternatively, you can use a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength every 2-4 weeks during the growing season. Always follow the package instructions to avoid over-fertilizing, which can damage the plant.


Mulch provides multiple benefits for ferns, including conserving moisture, maintaining a cool root environment, and preventing weed growth.

Process: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch around the fern, but ensure it’s not touching the stem. Suitable mulches include compost, leaf mold, or shredded bark.


Regular pruning helps maintain the fern’s appearance and overall health.

Process: Remove any dead or damaged fronds as you notice them. Also, consider cutting back the entire plant in early spring just before new growth starts, as this can stimulate a flush of fresh, healthy fronds.

Winter Care

In colder climates, you’ll need to provide some extra care to help your ferns survive the winter.

Process: If your ferns are hardy, they may only need a thick layer of mulch for insulation. However, if your ferns are more tender, you may need to move them indoors or to a sheltered location for the winter months. While indoors, keep them in a bright, cool location, and reduce watering, but don’t let the soil dry out completely.

How to Grow Ferns in Outdoor Gardens
How to Grow Ferns in Outdoor Gardens

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can ferns be grown in full sun?

While most ferns prefer shady locations, some varieties, like the Sword Fern and Sun Fern, can tolerate sunnier spots. However, even sun-tolerant ferns will need sufficient water to prevent drying out.

2. How often should I water my outdoor ferns?

Watering frequency depends on various factors including your specific climate, the time of year, and the specific needs of your fern species. However, a general rule of thumb is to keep the soil consistently moist. In drier conditions or during hot summers, you may need to water more frequently.

3. Do ferns need a lot of fertilizer?

Ferns generally do not require as much fertilization as many other plants. A slow-release granular fertilizer applied once in the spring can provide nutrients your ferns need for the growing season.

4. How do I propagate ferns?

Ferns can be propagated by division or through spores. Division involves splitting a mature fern into smaller sections, each with its own root system, and is usually performed in the spring. Propagation through spores involves collecting spores from the fronds and growing them in a controlled environment, which is a longer and more complicated process.

5. Do I need to prune my ferns?

Pruning ferns can help maintain their appearance and health. You can prune dead or damaged fronds at any time. Some ferns also benefit from a yearly “haircut” in early spring, where all the old fronds are cut back to the base to make way for new growth.


With their distinctive charm and tranquility, ferns can bring a touch of woodland magic to any garden. They offer something for every gardener, whether you’re an experienced green thumb looking for an interesting specimen for a shade garden, or a beginner seeking an easy-care plant to brighten up a patio area.

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