When to water ferns


Tips for Growing Boston Ferns

Boston ferns have become a plant of choice for savvy shade-loving gardeners. This fern will consistently give stunning results with minimal effort, no dead – heading and a calming resting place for the eye to settle. Their welcoming beauty is repeatedly utilized year after year in the arsenal of tools homeowners’ access for their main front entrance or porch due to its reliability and gracefully impressive impact.

Originating from South America these ferns gained their name when from their first known sighting in North America in the city of Boston. One of the oldest plants in the world, Boston Ferns like bright but indirect sunlight and optimum temperatures of 60°F – 75°F /15°C – 24°C but will tolerate temperatures as low as 50°F /10°C.

Here are a few useful tips that will helpful for both first-time and seasoned gardening enthusiasts:

  • Tip number one is these ferns LOVE water! Many people fear they will overwater their fern but Boston ferns crave water and need daily watering when outdoors, especial on hot summer days. On really hot days it’s a good idea to water your fern twice a day. When you consider that their natural environment is lush rainforests with lots of humidity moisture and shade it is easy to see what climatic conditions they crave for to get best results.
  • An easy way to check if your hanging basket needs watering is to gently lift up the basket and gauge its weight as an indicator of its need for water. Light means it needs water, heavy and it is not ready yet to be watered. Ferns like to be moist but not overly wet. This is a great tip for all hanging baskets as variation in plants’ size, varieties and weather conditions vary their water requirements.
  • When it comes to fertilizing ferns it is best not to overdo it. Loss of their dark green colour means it is time to fertilize (20-20-20 foliar fertilizer). A little granular slow release fertilizer in the spring will give a boost for about 6 to 8 weeks if you think you might overlook this step.
  • Ferns pests are slugs, snails and grubs. The good news is that none of these are an issue with hanging baskets or container gardening. For the first two, slug bait or crushed dried egg shells help and nematodes assist in the later or a powdered insecticide works better as there is less burn to the foliage.
  • The size of the container that your fern is in will determine the size of your plant. If you want your fern to become even more immense in size you can re-pot the fern once it fills out its’ container into a planter that will allow for more growth. More soil for roots to expand into means more available water for roots to take up. Our 12” hanging baskets will give a plant up to 3 feet wide by mid-summer. If you plan to pot your fern into a larger container keep this aggressive growth in mind if your hanging a basket off a support hook – the added weight could be a challenge.
  • If you under-water your plant and it starts to drop leaves and brown off, it can be easily brought back to optimum plant health. A ‘hair-cut’ to get rid of dead foliage will allow the new healthier green fronds to grow through and fill-in the plant. But always remember tip #1, ferns love water! Water will be your best friend to revive this trusty plant!

If you plan to keep your fern for the next gardening season it will need to be overwintered in our climate. During the winter, when the plant isn’t growing, you can reduce watering compared to outdoor needs, but your ferns’ root ball should never be allowed to completely dry out. A saucer underneath your indoor plant will help with water uptake and be an easy indicator of when it requires watering. Houseplant ferns require indirect medium light levels, 4-7 feet from a sunny window. They do not appreciate being blasted by air, warm or cold, from outlets or vents. Remove dead fronds and occasionally rotate the plant to keep it growing evenly both indoors and out. They also require higher humidity than most homes have and they benefit from regular misting of room-temperature water or a closely positioned cool, fine mist humidifier works well. Tips or edges of leaves turn brown if the air is not humid enough. Grouping indoor plants together so they will emit moisture helps to raise the humidity in the air around them. Setting your fern in the shower for a nice gentle warm shower can also help.

When transitioning your overwintered fern outdoors in the spring gradually introduce it to the outdoors, and not too early so that it is not shocked in the spring and drop its leaves. This also can happen in the fall when they are brought indoors once the temperatures begin to drop. If there is leaf drop, cut out old dead growth, careful not to cut new growth. More light and air circulation will allow for new growth and it will rapidly fill in again.

Did you know that the Boston fern can reduce pollutants in the air? Well, every plant can, but this one is one of the highest-rated species to do so. It’s also beautiful when grown in pots or in hanging baskets. It can really brighten up the house with its vibrant green or greenish-yellow foliage. And it’s easy to care for, too!

Does this make you want to grow your own? Well, whether you’ve got a hanging basket in your window or cultivating a bed along the shaded side of your home, I’ll tell you everything you need to know!

Best Products For Houseplant Pests & Diseases:

  • Monterey BT
  • Neem Oil
  • Safer Soap
  • Bon-Neem
  • Beneficial Nematodes

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Common Name(s) Boston Fern, Sword ferns
Scientific Name Nephrolepis exaltata, Nephrolepis cordifolia
Family Nephrolepidaceae
Origin While widespread through tropical regions, it is grown worldwide now.
Height 12-24”
Light Prefers indirect bright sunlight for 2 hours per day
Water Water at soil level when top inch of soil is dry.
Temperature 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit, but can tolerate short periods at lower/higher
Humidity Loves humidity, best in the 50-60% humidity range.
Soil Well-draining. Good potting soils or organic-rich blends preferred.
Fertilizer Liquid – I recommend kelp liquid fertilizers.
Propagation By division or runner
Pests Some nematodes, caterpillars, fungus gnats, mealybugs, thrips, scale insects. Also susceptible to a couple fungal diseases.

Types of Boston Ferns

While there are more than 50 varieties out there, most of them are cultivars of two specific fern species. Here’s some info on those two species!

Nephrolepis exaltata

Nephrolepis exaltata aka Tiger Fern. Source: edgeplot

This is the variety that most people recognize, and which is grown worldwide. This fern commonly grows wild in humid environments such as swamps and forests, especially in tropical regions.

It’s found throughout central and south America, in Mexico and Florida, and in areas such as Polynesia or the West Indies. But of course, it’s also found in many homes and gardens as it’s a very popular houseplant.

There are cultivars of the Boston swordfern that are quite popular, such as “Tiger Fern” (shown above), which is prized for the unusual striping of its leaves. Even the non-striped varieties are strikingly beautiful!

Nephrolepis cordifolia

Nephrolepis cordifolia, “Lemon Buttons”. Source: wallygrom

Native to Asia, northern Australia, and the Hawaiian islands, the erect sword fern is also a popular garden choice. It has become so widespread in areas such as Florida that it’s now considered an invasive species there.

While most sword fern are very similar in shape to Nephrolepsis exaltata, their stems are more rigid. Thus, they stand more upright rather than drooping over. Some cultivars, like “Lemon Buttons” (shown above) have become more popular since they’ve got uniquely-shaped leaves, but many like just the traditional sword fern as well.

Boston Fern Care

Whether indoors or outside, learning to care for and maintain your fern is simple as long as you follow our tips!


Light requirements vary depending on the season. In the fall and winter, they benefit from bright indirect light. In English, that means about 5′ away from a south-facing window. They love lots of indirect light.

It’s the more powerful light levels spring and summer which becomes difficult. They can’t tolerate direct sunlight for long and need to be placed in a location with filtered sunlight. Generally, northern-facing windows which get indirect light are good, as are shaded places under trees. If your home provides sun shelter, that’s also great.

Don’t think that they don’t need light at all. A minimum of two hours of indirect light a day is required!


How often do you water Boston ferns? Well, that depends on their environment. If you’re growing it as an indoor plant, you should start watering once the top inch or so of soil is dry. Water at soil level to keep the fronds dry.

If they seem to want more humidity, you can place a tray with stones and water in it beneath the pot. This will keep your ferns lush and happy. If your fern is in a hanging pot, give it a light misting with a mister bottle occasionally.

If grown outdoors, you ideally want to water when the top inch of soil is dry. However, in warmer months this is more difficult to do, and they want high humidity levels. I recommend mulching around the base of your plants to help keep the soil a bit moist and provide a warm and humid environment. You don’t want it soggy, but you also don’t want it bone-dry!

One interesting fact about Boston ferns is that very cold water can shock their roots. Try to leave your water in a bucket or watering can for a little while so it can warm up if it’s cold.


A bed of Nephrolepis exaltata. Source: thesix

As ferns often live in tropical environments, they do appreciate a rich soil blend. However, they don’t necessarily need one. A mixture of peat moss, sand, and good potting soil can provide the good drainage that these plants need while still holding enough water to keep the soil moist. If you have compost at hand, blend a little of that into your soil mix as well. Ferns do appreciate a soil that’s rich with plant matter.


Use liquid formula. You can opt for an organic such as liquid kelp, or you can choose a commercial houseplant fertilizer that’s diluted to half its normal strength. Fertilizer should be applied at the base of the plant so as to not scorch the fern’s fronds.


Propagating Boston ferns takes one of two forms: runners, or division.

Runners will extend out from the plant and will gradually develop roots. These runners are called stolons. You can remove these at the base of the old plant and repot them in sterile potting soil. It will develop a new plant from the stolon.

Alternately, you can divide Boston ferns. To do this, wait until the soil becomes dry more than you normally would. This will allow the root system to dry out a bit too. Remove the plant from its pot or carefully dig it up from the soil. Then, use a serrated knife to cut the fern’s root ball in half. You can cut it in quarters or eighths from there if you wish more plants to form. Repot the new ferns, keeping them moist but not wet.


A gorgeous variegated variety. Source: Gardening Solutions

If you are starting a runner in a new pot, or replanting a cutting from an older plant, be sure to use sterile, well-draining potting mix. This will help your new plant to take off without any crowding from weed seeds that might be in older soil.

Generally, you don’t have to repot a Boston fern unless you want it to grow larger. The roots fill the pot over time,l and eventually will get too crowded. At that point, it’s good to divide it every few years to allow it to develop new roots.


They don’t require much in the way of pruning. Older leaves can be snipped off at the base of the plant to allow for new leaf growth. This also helps to remove leaves which may be browning or otherwise the worse for wear. Generally, pruning Boston ferns is a matter of aesthetics than one of plant maintenance.

Troubleshooting Problems

While sword ferns are surprisingly simple to care for, there is a short list of things which can affect them negatively. Here’s a short list of what might occur, and how to fix it if it does.

Growth Problems

The most common problem is when they appear to be turning greyish in color. If the leaves appear to be greying, and the plant’s growth appears to have stalled, it is likely the result of drought conditions. Be sure to regularly water your ferns once the top layer of soil has dried out.

If the fronds of your plant seem to be weak and droopy, it may require more light. Move it to a location where it gets a minimum of two hours of indirect bright light per day.

While leaves are generally a deep green hue, a lighter coloration can be caused by too much light. If you’re trying to cultivate a dark green fern, be careful to monitor how long it’s getting light for each day.

If the tips of the fronds or runners appear to turn brown and die, there is a nutrient issue. Either there are too many mineral salts (which can often be caused by runoff from ice melts), or the quality of the water the plant’s receiving is poor. You may be able to work new soil in around your plants to help improve the soil quality. Using collected rainwater to water your ferns may also be a good decision.


There is a form of nematode which can cause symptoms very similar to Pythium root rot (see below). You have two options to treat this: add beneficial nematodes which will attack the harmful ones, or treat it as if it were the root rot with a fungicide.

Some forms of caterpillar are known to feed on Boston fern, such as cutworms. Use Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki, also called BT, to defend against caterpillar damage. I recommend Monterey BT as a foliar spray.

Fungus gnats can also become a problem. You can use neem oil to help combat the spread of these little gnats. Beneficial nematodes can also kill the gnat larvae in the soil.

Mealybugs, thrips, and scale insects can become destructive as well. All can be treated with neem oil, or alternately with an insecticidal soap like Safer Soap.


If the leaves of your fern are going greyish in color and you know it’s not water-related, your plant may be suffering from Pythium root rot. This fungal disease can stunt the growth of your fern and eventually kill it.

To avoid this type of root rot altogether, buy plants that are free of pathogens. Plant them in sterile potting soil. If your plant appears to have developed this root rot, you can use a fungicide to treat the soil and plant.

Another disease you might struggle with is Rhizoctonia aerial blight. This blight causes dark lesions or spotting on the leaves of your plant. This blight is also treatable by fungicides.

You can prune off any plant matter which has fallen victim to fungal diseases close to the base of the plant. This will visually improve the look of the plant. However, it will not treat the fungal infection, so that still needs to be done.

For both the root rot and the blight, I recommend a product like Bon-Neem, which combines a few different fungicidal and insecticidal agents together.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is it safe to grow around my cats?

A: If you have cats who chew on everything that is green, sword fern or any other true fern is generally safe to grow around your pets. A little occasional chewing is not going to hurt them, as Boston ferns are nontoxic. Just remember that too much of a good thing is still too much. Even cat grass gets thrown up if your cat overindulges!

It’s also dog-safe, so if Fido chews on everything, he’ll be fine. But your fern might not be safe from your pets, so keep your eyes peeled for signs of chewing damage.

Q: We get snow in the winter. Will that hurt my ferns?

A: Most fern plants can handle some cold, but when it dips into the frost range, they start to have issues. If you can, overwinter your fern indoors, or keep it inside a greenhouse for protection from the cold. If they’re planted outside in a garden bed, you can mulch heavily around the base to help protect the root mass from cold. They can also benefit when covered with a cold frame. Ideally, they should be in an environment that doesn’t fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but they can survive short periods in a dormant state at temperatures down into the 40’s.

Q: My ferns develop yellow leaves that fall everywhere.

A: Remember, they love humidity. Mist them occasionally, and keep them away from heaters or radiators, as those can dry out the air. You can also place a saucer with some gravel and water in it beneath the plant to provide higher humidity levels.

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There are dozens of house plants that make our homes beautiful and also add some other health and medicinal values. Boston Fern is one such plant and is highly popular. It also is known as Nephrolepsis Exaltata and sword fern. It is a plant that is commonly found in tropical regions around the world. It is an evergreen herbaceous plant and can grow up to 35 inches. There are some Boston Fern plants that also reach a height of 59 inches.

The plant can grow well in homes provided we take adequate care of them. This article will provide you with some useful tips and suggestions that could help in ensuring that your Boston Fern plant grows the right way. We also will look at some of the problems and common questions that need to be addressed as far as this plant is concerned.

Boston Fern Plant Care Sheet

Most plants and trees are inclined to grow well in outdoor surrounding and environment. At the same time, plants like Boston Fern do grow well indoors. But you must ensure that adequate care and maintenance is taken. You must have a clear idea about the various things and dependencies that are required for the right growth of this plant. We are happy to share some of the most common requirements that should be in place for the best and optimal growth of Nephrolepis exaltata.

Soil: Boston fern needs soil that is rich in various types of nutrients. Ferns are known to grow best in porous and organic soil. The soil must be rich in humus. You can make this possible by use of various compounds such as composts, perlite or pine bark. A large portion of these fern plants is grown as house plants. Hence, you must understand the importance of repotting them. This is critical because, over a period of time, these plants will become too big for the containers in which they are initially grown. It also would be a good idea to add peat moss to the soil during repotting. This could help significantly in improving water retention in the soil.

The soil should also be moist and well-drained. Water should not stagnate. There are some variants of Boston ferns that perhaps can withstand poor drainage, but that is not an ideal situation. Most varieties of Boston fern trees prefer acidic soils, though there are a few that do grow well in alkaline soils.

Light: Light levels for this fern plant should be reasonable. The plant is designed to accept full sun at some points of time, and it also requires shady areas. If you want the plant to look healthy and happy, you must choose a fairly bright spot. Further, you also must be sure that it does not receive too much of harsh sunlight. It would also be ideal to choose a north-facing window. While east and west (in a pinch) are okay, you must stay away from the south-facing window or opening. This is because south always has full sunshine and ferns do not like harsh and full sunlight for extended periods of time.

Watering: We should bear in mind that all types of ferns are sensitive to watering, and Boston Fern is no exception. The soil should always be moist during all seasons except winter. During winter you must be careful. You should water only when the soil surface is dry. In other words, during the hot weather Nephrolepis, exaltata would require regular watering, and it should be done several time. While moisture is great, you must ensure that you do not overdo it. Excess water could lead to complete saturation, and the soil also becomes sodden.

Rainwater is the best option, and in case you are not able to manage rainwater always, you can use tap water. Be sure that the water temperature stabilizes and reaches the room temperature. Very cold water could result in a shock to the roots and could damage the plant and stunt its growth.

Temperature: Boston Fern plants love warm to average temperatures during the day. They also would like a gradual decrease in temperature at night. If you can maintain this balance, it will undoubtedly work wonderfully well on the foliage. The temperature should be in the range of 16 to 26 degree centigrade. In no case, should the temperature get lower than 10 degree centigrade. You also should take care and ensure that the fern is well watered and warm. This will go a long way in making the fronds to look attractive, healthy and bright.

Humidity: Like most fern plants, Boston fern also requires high levels of humidity without which they will not be able to survive. They do love moist air quite a bit. They may not mind average levels. However, if the humidity becomes low, the plant will suffer, and it might wither away. It is advisable to keep the plant away from radiators and hot air vents. This is because these devices are designed to dry out the external air considerably and it could damage your favorite Boston Fern plant. It is often considered to be a good plant for the bathroom. However, the bathroom should have natural light. It would not be a bad idea to mist the leaves regularly or find out some other innovative ways to increase humidity.

Fertilizer: Boston ferns require fertilizer that is complete but light. It should have the right balance of phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. It should be in an equal ratio of 10-10-10 or 20-20-20. It should be available in liquid form and preferably water-soluble. It could also be in the form of granules with slow-release properties. Tablets or sticks could also be used. However, according to some research, water-soluble fertilizers are preferred. This is because they are easy to dilute, and they reduce the risk of burning the Fern.

Propagation: If you know the basics, propagating a Boston fern plant should not be very difficult. It could be done in many ways. You could accomplish it using the shoots of the plant. This also is referred to as Boston fern runners. You also could divide the Boston fern plant. You can remove the stolons or fern runners from a mature plant. This can be done by taking the offset of those runners that have formed roots and where they are in contact with the soil. This helps to create a new and separate Boston fern plant.

Growth: Nephrolepsis Exaltata grows typically up to 35 inches. In some cases, they are also known to grow up to 49 inches. Hence, when you plan to grow this plant, you must keep the growth pattern in mind.

Potting: You must have a reasonably good knowledge about repotting of this plant. You must go in for repotting only when you want it to grow to its full capacity and height. Go in for repotting only when the roots have totally filled up the existing pot. When repotting, be sure that the same soil level is maintained when the plant was first set in the pots. Be careful not to bury the crown because this will lead to what is known as rotting of the crown.

Watering Your Boston Fern The Right Way

Though water is extremely vital for Boston Fern, you must never overdo it. At the same time, you must also ensure that it is not under-watered. It would be better to water the plant when the soil becomes damp. It would not be right to allow the soil to dry out completely. During summer, it might mean watering twice a week or even once daily, when the weather is really hot and dry.

Where Should I Water Boston Fern?

Ensure that the Boston fern plant is watered thoroughly. The water should be of room temperature. Never use cold water because it will cause what is referred to as root-shock and could lead to rotting of the roots. This will most certainly cause irretrievable damage to the Boston fern plant. If you can provide a humid environment, then the watering will certainly have a much better impact.

When To Water Boston Fern?

You must water the plant when you find that the soil is getting damp or has the risk of turning dry. During summer, daily watering might be required.

In winter, the soil tends to turn dry quite fast, and therefore you must be careful to avoid such a situation. At the same time, Boston fern cannot withstand stagnant water and it will wither and rot if the watering is done in excess.

A Few More Watering Tips

You must ensure that the plant stays hydrated at all points of time. During the rainy season, care should be taken to ensure that the water runs off and does not remain stagnant. This is important for those who grow this plant outdoors.

Propagation Of Nephrolepsis Exaltata

Dividing the roots is perhaps one of the most critical factors when propagating Boston Fern plants. Here are a few tips that could help in healthy and correct propagation of the plant.

Step 1:

It is difficult to propagate through seeds or spores and hence gardeners prefer to divide the healthy plants that they have. The process starts with cutting of the root ball of the fern. The divided parts must be planted in new pots.

Step 2:

Pressure might be required to remove roots. Large-sized ferns could get stuck to the plant container, especially the roots. Do not worry about exerting some pressure to remove and cut roots. These plants are designed to take harsh treatment.

Step 3:

The root ball should be cut into quarters. Ensure that the roots are spread before the actual cutting. Also, make sure that each quarter apart from roots also has an adequate number of healthy leaves.

Step 4:

Be sure that the roots of each plant are properly misted with water before potting is done.

Step 5:

Use porous, loose and clean potting soil. The soil should be moist uniformly and should crumble to touch.

Finally, ensure that the plant is divided regularly.

Signs That Your Nephrolepsis Exaltata Is Sick

While some problems related to Boston Fern might be human-made, others are caused by the weather or pests. We will have a look at some of the most common signs that could point to some problems with the plants.

Problem: The Leaves Are Discolored

This could be either because of improper watering, or exposure to too much of bright and harsh sunlight. Discoloration might also be caused by pests and over-usage or wrong usage of fertilizers. You must identify the root cause of discoloration and take corrective steps immediately.

Problem: Plant Looks Sick Because Of Diseases

Quite often we come across the fronds of the fern plant turning gray in spite of regular and proper watering. Pythium root rot could be the cause of such discoloration. It could lead to the fronds becoming stunted or withering away. If the roots are stunted and brown, you can be reasonably sure that the plant is suffering from root rot.

The solution to this problem is being proactive rather than being reactive. The best option would be to buy plants that are disease-free. The potting soil should also be pathogen-free. There are also some chemicals that could help in addressing the problem caused by Pythium roots. When use chemicals for treating the problem, be sure that the soil also is treated.

Problem: Fronds Turning Black

While fronds of the fern plant turning black are not always abnormal, you must be alive and aware of the situation. If you find that there is large-scale browning or blackening of fronds, there could be some problem. There could be many reasons, and in most cases, nematodes in the soil are considered to be the culprits. This can be treated by adding generous quantities of compost to the soil. This will help in the growth of friendly fungi that can destroy the nematodes. If the infestation is quite bad, it would be a good idea to remove the badly infected plants.

Related Questions

What should I do if I feel the soil of my Boston fern is too alkaline?

If you feel that your soil is too alkaline, there are simple solutions that could remedy the situation. Adding organic mulch helps in increasing acidity over a period of time. You also could add crushed limestone and/or oyster. This could also assist in turning the soil into acidic, but again, it will require patience and perseverance.

How To Care For The Plant From Outside?

There are some simple tips for proper outside care of the Boston Fern plant. Ensure that the soil is loosened regularly using a garden fork. Check the water regularly and water whenever you find the top layer becoming dry.

What Are The Health Benefits Of Boston Ferns?

Being one of the oldest plants on earth, they do have some fantastic health benefits. Yes, they do play a significant role in improving the aesthetics of homes, but they also offer some excellent and amazing health benefits. We will look at a few of them.

They could help in removing pollutants from the atmosphere. They are known to remove formaldehyde from the air effectively. Removal of formaldehyde increases humidity and it could go a long way in making the air fresh and pure. It also could help in removing xylene. This is a harmful pollutant in the atmosphere. It is caused because of petroleum production. Indoor air often has xylene. Improperly ventilated houses would do well to grow Boston Fern that could significantly reduce the pollution caused by xylene. It also could absorb Toluene. This is a dangerous pollutant that could damage the central nervous system. It also could lead to upper respiratory tract irritation and necrosis. Gasoline is the major source of Toluene pollution in the atmosphere. Boston Fern can help remove this harmful substance.

Are Boston Ferns Suitable For The Bathroom?

Yes, Boston Ferns can grow quite well in the bathroom. The reason for it is quite simple. Bathrooms have a high concentration of humidity, and this particular fern grows best in a humid atmosphere. The plant also can handle temperature fluctuation in the bathroom. However, it is important to ensure that the bathroom also has adequate sunlight. Further, the bathroom does not get uncomfortably cold and this could also be a reason why this closed space in your home could be ideal for growing Boston Fern.

How Do You Take Care For A Boston Fern In A Hanging Basket?

Though Nephrolepsis Exaltata thrive and grow best in shady and moist outdoors, it also can grow impressively well in a hanging basket or pot. However, there are a few things that must be kept in mind. Hanging basket means smaller areas and lesser quantity of soil. Hence, it is important to ensure that the soil remains adequately irrigated. The basket or pot should also have holes. This is vital because it will prevent the root system from becoming completely overcrowded. You also should use an organic potting mix and it should contain peat moss amongst other things.

The basket or pot should be carefully placed in a location where there is adequate sunlight and brightness. At the same time, care should be taken to avoid sunlight that is too harsh. A humid spot should be chosen because this fern likes humidity more than anything else.

How Often to Water Boston Ferns

Choosing the Right Water

Houseplants and those in outdoor containers will be more sensitive to water problems like chemicals and temperature. For these plants:

  • Use room temperature water.
  • Collect rainwater or use distilled water.
  • Avoid tap water, which can be high in chlorine or fluoride.
  • Don’t use water that has been treated with commercial water softeners.

Watering Newly Propagated Plants

A newly transplanted or propagated Boston fern needs some pampering when it comes to water. The plant and its roots will suffer some degree of transplant shock. Water just enough to keep the soil a little moist. Provide extra humidity by misting, growing in a mini-greenhouse or covering plant and pot with a plastic bag for a week; remove the bag twice a day.

Boston Ferns in Containers

Container-grown plants always need more careful management than plants in the ground. The type of container also matters – an unglazed clay pot loses water through evaporation. Plastic and glazed clay pots hold water. Water the plant until water runs out the drainage holes. Don’t leave water standing in the basin and don’t water again until the soil surface feels dry.

Boston Ferns in Hanging Baskets

The typical hanging basket has a metal framework lined with several layers of sphagnum moss. Potting soil is placed on top of the moss and the fern is planted into the soil. The design of the basket means that water is easily evaporated through the moss. In addition, these baskets may be more subject to drying breezes. Most need daily watering; in hot weather, it may be twice daily.

Flushing Boston Ferns

Boston ferns in containers are subject to salt build-up from fertilizer and minerals in the water. The leaves turn brown and white deposits appear on the potting soil. These salts can eventually kill the plant. Flush the plants every month or two. Plug the drainage holes and pour room temperature distilled water into the pot until it’s full. Remove the plugs and let water drain completely.

Watering Outdoor Boston Ferns

When grown outdoors, Boston ferns in containers need the same water as houseplants. When planted in the ground, you have more leeway. In most cases, watering when the soil is dry an inch or two below the surface is sufficient. In hot or windy weather, water more frequently.

How To Keep A Fern Alive


As above, ferns hate full sun; even midday and morning sun can be too much.

Is it draughty in here? Ferns don’t like the wind; so keep them sheltered and out of spaces like corridors that can create wind tunnels.

Wet feet: ferns love water but they hate being soggy (it’s all a very delicate mix). If the leaves of your fern are yellow and wilted you’re over watering them. Also, make sure that your pot has adequate drainage. Some cheap pots have one small or no holes, so the water gets trapped and then ferns can’t adequately drain.

How to resurrect if dead

I’d like to say that no ferns were harmed in the writing of this article, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s very likely that your first fern (or three) will die. But. just like Jon Snow some ferns are never truly dead.

Your fern might be dry with brown fronds but it’s not considered truly dead until there has been no new grown for 18 months, pretty cool. To give it a new lease on life:

Trim all fronds down to ground level

Re-pot the fern with quality, nutrient-rich soil. If you’ve got compost then mix it in.

Leave it outdoors in a sheltered shady spot and let it be for a few months (watering and fertilising regularly).

If your fern is not dead but on it’s last legs you can try to salvage it by soak in water for 15 minutes, or bringing it the shower with you!

That’s it! Goodluck and Godspeed…..

P.S if you can’t seem to crack it then here’s a list of houseplants that are really hard to kill. And if you’re in Australia then these are some of our favourite natives for purifying the air.

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Watering A Boston Fern: Learn About Boston Fern Watering Needs

Boston fern is a classic, old-fashioned houseplant valued for its long, lacy fronds. Although the fern isn’t difficult to grow, it tends to shed its leaves if it doesn’t receive plenty of bright light and water. Watering a Boston fern isn’t rocket science, but understanding how much and how often to water Boston ferns requires a bit of practice and careful attention. Too much or too little water are both detrimental to the plant. Let’s learn more about Boston fern irrigation.

How to Water a Boston Fern

Although Boston fern prefers slightly moist soil, it is likely to develop rot and other fungal diseases in soggy, waterlogged soil. The first sign that a fern is overwatered is usually yellowing or wilted leaves.

One surefire way to determine if it’s time to water a Boston fern is to touch the soil with your fingertip. If the surface of the soil feels slightly dry, it’s time to give the plant a drink. The weight of the pot is another indication that a fern needs water. If the soil is dry, the pot will feel very light. Hold off watering for a few days, then test the soil again.

Water the plant thoroughly, using room-temperature water, until water runs through the bottom of the pot. Let the plant drain thoroughly and never let the pot stand in water.

Boston fern watering is enhanced if you provide a humid environment. Although you can mist the fronds occasionally, a tray of wet pebbles is a more effective way to increase the humidity around the plant.

Place a layer of gravel or pebbles on a plate or tray, the set the pot on the wet pebbles. Add water as needed to keep the pebbles consistently moist. Be sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water, as water seeping up through the drainage hole can cause root rot.

Growing Ferns

  • Blade – main part of a frond; generally stipes plus blade make up the frond.
  • Caudex – stem or stalk of the fern plant
  • Fertile leaf – a leaf that bears spore cases or “fruit dots”
  • Frond – the leaf of a fern
  • Fruit band – on some ferns, a line of spore cases occurring on the leaf margin or underside of the leaf
  • Leaflets – one of the divisions of a compound leaf
  • Midvein – the central and most prominent vein of a pinnae
  • Pinnae – leaflets that are arranged along the blade
  • Rachis – a continuation of the stipe that extends from the base of the plant to its apex
  • Rhizome – stems, above or below ground (usually below ground), producing fronds above and roots below
  • Sori – spore cases on ferns
  • Sorus – spore case of ferns
  • Stipe – stem or stalk of a frond

Native Fern Species

B. Ferns of the Coastal Plain
Botanical Name Common Name Other Habitats Size EV/
Moisture Wet-Dry Light Sun-Shade
Dryopteris ludoviciana Southern or evergreen southern woodfern D 24-48″ E xx – – – – – -xx
Thelypteris hispidula var. vericolor
(T. Versicolor, T. quadrangularis)
Variable maiden fern D 16-32″ D xxx – – xxxx –
Thelypteris kunthi Southern shield or widespread maiden D 22-44″ D xxx – – xxxx –
Thelypteris palustris var. pubexcens Marsh fern A 18-36″ D xx – – – xxx – –
Woodwardia virginica Virginia, large or giant chain fern A, C 20-50″ D xx – – – xxx – –
-The above information is based primarily on habitat information for Georgia. Habitat conditions will vary in other locations.

-The letters under “other habitats” refer to the letters for habitats on this table (A = piedmont; B = coastal plain; C = mountains; D = calcareous). Those letters in parentheses indicate relative infrequency in that habitat.

-EV/DEC refers to evergreen or deciduous; E = evergreen; D = deciduous; SE = semi-evergreen.

-The moisture and light categories give the range of conditions in which the species generally occur, indicated by the “x”

Adapted from Connie P. Gray 1/92

Fern Varieties

Boston Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis

Boston ferns can become quite large, and their fronds may grow 4 feet long.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Found in Boston — probably a genetic variation of sword fern. Drooping habit brought about development of the fern stand. Tolerates potbound conditions. Nighttime temperature, 60°F; preferably 55°.

Many new selections of Boston ferns have been introduced. This is one of the so-called “fluffy” ferns. Because of its small, stiff fronds, the compact Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis compacta) makes a good companion plant for a table display of other house plants or is good in a smaller size hanging basket. One of the more unusual Boston cultivars is Naphrolepis cordifolia cv. ‘Duffi’. It looks a great deal like the button fern. Another member of the Boston fern family, the Roosevelt fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv. ‘Rooseveltii’), sprouts long, rather wide fronds.

Fluffy Ruffles / Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Fluffy Ruffles’

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Several types of ‘Fluffy Ruffle,’ such as ‘Double Fluffy Ruffle’ and ‘Super Double Fluffy Ruffle.’ The ‘Florida Fluffy’ is the most easily cultivated selection. Fronds may be 18″ to 24″ long, semi-upright to drooping. Not as demanding of high humidity. Do not mist directly on foliage.

Petticoat Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Petticoat’

The petticoat fern (Nephrolepis exaltata cv. ‘Petticoat’) gets its name because of its similarity to the old crinoline petticoats.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: May range from 12″ to 4′ fronds, from 3″ to 6″ width. Upright growth seldom over 8″ to 12″. Droops when maturing.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Noted for the frilly and graceful foliage on the tips of leaflets, these tips spread and divide or fork to make a fluffy mass of foliage appearing as the crinoline at the bottom of old fashioned petticoats.

Many types and selections of Nephrolepis are available. ‘Verona,’ a dwarf three pinnae form of Boston, is an example of those best adapted to indoor culture.

Whitmanii / Nephrolepis exaltata

The Whitman fern (Naphroleis exaltata cv. ‘Whitmanii’) is a cultivar of the Boston fern family.

Light Requirements: Two hours of indirect sun in winter, early a.m. or late afternoon. Locate in shade during spring, summer and fall. Northern window ideal.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: Frond 18″ to 24″ in length and 4″ to 7″ wide.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Comments: Easiest of fluffy types to grow. Other types or variations are found with only slight variations. A sport or selection from the old-fashioned lace fern.

Sword Fern / Nephrolepis exaltata

Light Requirements: Can tolerate more sun than other members, such as Boston and other selections. Place in partial shade in summer and locate for two or more hours of sun during winter.

Soil Mix: One-third loamy garden soil, one-third sand or perlite, one-third peat or shredded sphagnum. Add 1 part of dried cow manure, one-half pint charcoal, one-half pint small gravel.

Size: Fronds up to 5′ in length and 2″ to 5″ in width. Fronds grow upright then arch with age. Make a beautiful and showy large pot plant.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to September; rest of year, every two months. Natural fertilizers such as fish emulsion give excellent results. Read directions for dilution or concentration if using tablets.

Staghorn Fern / Platycerium bifurcatum

This young staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) is beginning to look like a stag’s horns or antlers. This fern is usually grown on a wooden slab or wire basket in chopped sphagnum moss, oak leaves or peat moss.

Light Requirements: Bright light but avoid direct sun. Water everyday in summer. Mist daily inside during winter.

Soil Mix: Use a mixture of peat moss, oak leaves, chopped sphagnum moss between flat frond and wood slab.

Size: Produces two different types of fronds, one round and one flat. May be 4″ to 6″ reaching 3′ to 4′ in many years. Usually mounted on a wood slab (redwood, pine or cork) by tying or wiring the flat frond against the slab.

Fertilization: Does not need much fertilization. However, once a year, add top dressing of the soil mixture between flat frond and slab.

Comments: Most unusual of fern family, strictly epiphytic growing in crevices or on trunks of trees. Most resemble a stag’s horns.

The crosier, or young frond, of a staghorn fern is beginning to develop from beneath the prothallium. This staghorn fern is more than 15 years old and has a spread of about 7 feet.

Rabbits Foot Fern / Davillia fejeensis

Rabbits foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) is a curiosity among ferns. The stiff hairy or wooly rhizomes give it its name. It is often grown in baskets or fern balls that show off its unusual appearance.

Light Requirements: Morning sun beneficial in winter. Keep in shade in summer.

Soil Mix: Use wood or wire basket. Use a mixture of one-fourth potting or garden soil, one-fourth peat moss, one-fourth finely chopped or small particle pine bark, and one-fourth sand and small gravel. Add charcoal — 1 pint to a gallon of soil mixture.

Size: 12″ to 18″ stiff stems or stipes with very fine lacy foliage on top half of stipe.

Fertilization: Fertilize March to September with regular plant food or organics such as fish emulsion. Follow instructions on package or bottle.

Comments: So called because rhizomes, gray-white and hairy-like growth resemble and feel like a rabbit’s foot. Rhizomes seem to crawl down the side of pots or baskets. Other forms called squirrel foot because of brown color. Native to tropics with high humidity and moist soil. Mist plants daily during heating season.

Maidenhair Fern / Adiantum cuneatum

The northern maidenhair fern grows in several areas of Georgia that have moist, rich woodland slopes. It is most beautiful in soil containing some lime.

Light Requirements: Avoid direct sun but strive for high light.

Soil Mix: One-half peat moss, one-fourth potting soil, and one-fourth of an equal parts mixture of sand, charcoal, manure. Add 1 tbs. of limestone per 1 gal. of mixture.

Size: Fronds 8″ to 15″ long, 4″ to 8″ wide. Fronds on tiny wiry stipes.

Comments: So-called “soilless” potting mixtures, commonly used by commercial greenhouse growers, are quite satisfactory for potting ferns. These mixtures contain combinations of peat moss, vermiculite, pine bark and perlite.

Many selections such as ‘Excelsum,’ ‘Goldelese,’ ‘Ideal,’ ‘Kensington Gem,’ ‘Matador’ and ‘Maximum.’

Pteris Fern / Pteris cretica, Pteris tremula, P. ensiformis

The Pteris fern, or common table fern, is perfect for small bowls or pots. To ensure proper humidity, place the pot on a saucer filled with gravel and water.

Light Requirements: Bright light September to March. Water only when dry and do not feed. Other months keep out of direct sun. Note: keep moist at all times during growing season — mist.

Soil Mix: Use one-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, and one-third of a mixture of equal parts sand, gravel or charcoal.

Size: Tremula is largest growing of group. Up to 3′ fronds in mature plants 12″ wide at base. Grows rapidly. Reaches maximum size in one year. P. cretica has 6″ to 12″ decorative fronds on wiry light brown stalks.

Fertilization: Fertilize monthly April to August. Use regular fish emulsion. Follow label instructions.

Comments: Many, many selections. ‘Parkeri,’ ‘Wilsonii,’ ‘Evergemiensis,’ ‘Major,’ ‘Victoriae,’ etc. Beautiful effects of shadows and light because of texture on pinnae. Commonly referred to as brake fern. Good for beginners because of ease of culture. Pteris cretica ‘Albolineata’ is a most attractive variegated form with clean-cut leathery fronds. A broad band of creamy white runs down center of each leaflet. Some of 17 or more selections or named varieties are grown today.

Asparagus Fern / Asparagus plumosus

Light Requirements: Bright light at all times

Soil Mix: One-third garden or potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand. Add small amount of dried rotted manure.

Size: Size varies depending upon species.

Fertilization: Fertilize weekly from early spring through September. If using indoor plant food, use half strength. Keep moist at all times.

Comments: Not a true fern. Belongs to the lily family. Produces flowers and seed rather than spores. Newer selections such as plumosus and sprengeri may be easily grown from seed. Use in pots, hanging baskets.

Asparagus ferns (sprengeri in this case) are not true ferns. They are members of the lily family and are true asparagus. They require bright light at all times. Asparagus plumosus is another plant commonly called a fern but is actually a true asparagus.

Birds Nest Fern / Asplenium nidus

This birds nest fern gets its name from its open center. A large-growing fern, birds nests develop fronds up to 4 feet long.

Light Requirements: Bright light at all times

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts).

Size: Fronds up to 3′ on old specimen. For large plants, need to report and shift to larger pots twice per year.

Comments: Unusual because of undivided ruffled fronds. Keep moist at all times.

Button Fern / Pellaea rotundifolia

Light Requirements: Low or subdued light at all times except during winter when bright light is needed due to dark cloudy days.

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts). Add a teaspoon of lime to each quart of mixture.

Size: Fronds seldom over 12″.

Comments: Good for beginners. Sometimes called cliff brake. Water this fern only when soil becomes dry to the touch. Mist occasionally.

Holly Fern (Japanese Holly Fern) / Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochefordianum’

Light Requirements: Low to medium light. Avoid direct light (causes leaf burn).

Soil Mix: One-third potting soil, one-third peat moss, one-third sand, gravel and charcoal (in equal parts). Add 1 cup manure per gallon of soil mix.

Size: Fronds 18″ to 30″

Comments: Major enemy is heat. Grow on cool sun porch area or where temperature does not go above 75°F. Keep moist April to September. Other times of year, water only when dry. Noted for dark shiny green leathery foliage.

Other Varieties

One of the most unusual ferns is the Hugenot fern, which grows freely in Georgia. This fern overwinters nicely in South Georgia. Both Hugenot and Japanese holly ferns can be observed growing outdoors on the old porous brick of walled gardens in Savannah and Charleston. The southern lady fern is a most attractive woodland fern. Because of its texture, color and size, it is often used in naturalized areas or gardens.
The foxtail or plume fern (Asparagus densiflorus cv. ‘Meyeri’) is actually an asparagus and requires more light than a true fern. The squirrels foot fern (Davallia fejeensis) get its common name from the fuzzy roots that grow along the surface of the soil.
The Japanese climbing fern (Lygodium japonicum) looks more like a vine than a fern. It climbs by trailing stems. A similar species (L. palmatum) can be observed growing wild in Georgia and South Carolina. The hares foot fern (Polypodium sp.) is a large, sprawling fern, excellent on a fern stand where it has plenty of room to grow.

Dunbar, L., 1989. Ferns of the Coastal Plain. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.

Foster, F. G., 1971. Ferns to Know and Grow. Hawthorne Books, Inc., NY.

Hoshizaki, B. J., 1975. Fern Growers Manual. Alfred A. Knopf, NY.

Jones, S. B., Jr. and L. E. Foote, 1990. Gardening With Native Wild Flowers. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Lellinger, D. B., 1985. A Field Manual of the Ferns and Fern Allies of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Mickel, J. T., 1979. How to Know the Ferns and Fern Allies. Wm. C. Brown Co., Dubuque, IO.

Phillips, H. R., 1985. Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Sources for Native Ferns

Birmingham Fern Society: Birmingham Botanical Gardens, 2612 Lane Park Road, Birmingham, AL 35223, (205) 879-1227.

Native Gardens: Route 1, Box 464, Greenback, TN 37742, (615) 856-3350.

Piccadilly Farm: 1971 Whippoorwill Road, Bishop, GA 30621, (706) 769-6516.

Sunlight Gardens: 174 Golden Lane, Andersonville, TN 37705, (423) 494-8237.

Woodlanders, Inc.: 1128 Colleton Ave., Aiken, SC 29801, (803) 648-7522.

Grateful appreciation is expressed to Rodney Coleman for assistance in the preparation of this publication. Appreciation is also expressed to Callaway Gardens of Pine Mountain, Georgia, where many of the ferns were photographed.

Authors acknowledge assistance of Henry Clay and Jeff Lewis, horticulturists.

Status and Revision History
Published on Apr 01, 2000
Published on Feb 24, 2009
Published with Full Review on Jun 26, 2012
Published with Full Review on Feb 01, 2016

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