Add a Touch of “Jurassic Park” to Your Garden: How to Grow Ferns

Many of us think of “Jurassic Park” when we think of ferns (Pteridophytes) – abundant, spiky greenery thrashing about as huge dinosaurs crash through the forest in pursuit of human intruders.

At 300,000 million years old, they were, indeed, among the dominant plant species when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And as many as 15,000 species now call our planet home.

A vertical image of a woodland with bright green ferns growing under and around the trees. To the top and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how many species exist, because new ones are still being discovered in unexplored tropical areas, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

But we know there are more than enough for you to choose from to include in both your landscape and inside your home, as these green beauties are versatile additions to either place.

While ferns are relatively easy to grow, you’ll want to understand some of their peculiarities before diving in. Let’s get started!

Plant Data

Ferns are vascular types of greenery, land plants with rigid, woody tissues that form “tubes” used to conduct water and minerals throughout.

A close up horizontal image of a fern growing in a woodland setting pictured on a soft focus background.

They reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers, and are distinguished from other spore-bearing plants, such as moss, by the fact that they have true roots, stems, and complex leaves.

A spore is a reproductive cell that can develop into a new individual without joining with another reproductive cell.

And spore-based plants are evolutionarily much older than seed-based ones.

Instantly recognizable by their lace-like fronds (divided leaves) and hues of green ranging from olive to chartreuse, ferns are the Kevin Hart-Shaquille O’Neal of the plant world, varying in size from a quarter inch to as tall as 80 feet.

A Shady Character

Because ferns evolved in the shadows of the giant conifers that dominated the landscape in the time of the dinosaurs, they are generally fond of indirect light.

This makes them a wonderful go-to for areas of your garden that are shady – and frustrating to fill since so many plants want sun, sun, and more sun.

A close up horizontal image of ferns growing in a shady location pictured in light filtered sunlight on a soft focus background.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Some species – which may be evergreen or deciduous – will do well in sunny areas.

They are also very geographically diverse.

“There are ferns that do well in almost every area of the United States,” says Skip Richter, a county extension agent with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. “Check with a local source to find the best varieties for your area,” he recommends.

For example, ‘Lady in Red’ – characterized by lacy, light green fronds – does well in USDA Hardiness Zones 2-8.

Happy a little further south in Zones 3-9 is ‘Lady Fern,’ a longtime staple that’s very hardy.

‘Japanese Holly’ fern, successfully grown in Zones 5-10, has “leaves” that are leathery and serrated, resembling holly.

If you want a true “Jurassic Park” experience, you might plant bracken (Pteridium) fern – it is one of the oldest and most evolutionarily persistent ferns.

Scientists have identified bracken fossils that are more than 65 million years old.

But beware – bracken can be be quite invasive with its extensive branched rhizome, which may grow to 1,300 feet in length.

All of these varieties (and more!) are available from Nature Hills Nursery.

Hungry, Thirsty All the Time

Whether grown in sun or shade, “they almost always want a high organic matter soil that’s moist,” says Richter. “A forest floor, for example, is ideal. The decaying leaves and understory lighting are just what they need,” he adds.

Adding these ancient treasures to a landscape that mimics those conditions will likely offer the best chance of success for most varieties, Richter says.

A close up horizontal image of trees in a forest with small ferns growing around the base pictured in light filtered sunshine.

A top dressing of organic matter every now and then will ensure your plants are well fed. Keep in mind that they generally prefer soil that is more acidic than alkaline.

Again, there are exceptions, but most prefer a highly moist environment, such as in a humid forest or along a water source.

In the home garden, mimic these conditions by applying plenty of water if rain is infrequent. Keep the top six inches of soil moist but not soggy.

Transplanting and Propagating

Spring is the best time to transfer these plants from one place in the garden to another. If installing from a container, any time is fine.

In either case, you may want do the work when it’s cloudy, to lessen the shock to the plant.

Simply dig a hole about the same depth as its container or root ball and twice as wide.

Remove the plant from the container and place it in the hole; then fill in with organic soil. Water well, and add a layer of mulch to retain moisture.

You can also propagate these multifaceted plants by dividing them.

Start by watering the plant the day before you intend to divide it. Gently dig up the plant (or remove it from its container) and then cut or pull it into two or three clumps.

Each clump should have at least one growing tip – this is the structure from which the fronds grow. Replant the clumps as desired and keep the starts moist until you see new growth.

A close up of a fern frond clearing showing the spores on the underside of the foliage, pictured on a soft focus background.

Creating new plants from spores is trickier, and takes a long time, but it can be done.

Choose spores when they look plump and furry. Remove a healthy frond and place it in an envelope or between two pieces of paper to dry out, then shake to loosen the spores.

Dust the spores over wet, organic, and sterile potting soil in a flat tray with a lid. Before you add the spores, you can microwave your soil to kill any pathogens.

To do this, moisten the soil so that it is damp but not waterlogged and place it in a microwave-safe container. Cover with a paper towel or ventilated lid and heat for about 90 seconds on full power for every two pounds of soil.

Don’t microwave seeds or spores as that will likely kill their ability to germinate.

Place the tray indoors in indirect light, and keep the soil moist at all times. Eventually you’ll see a green coating on the surface of the soil; many months later you will see small fronds popping up.

Some varieties produce stolons, or runners. To create a new plant from one of these, simply “pin” the runner to the top of the soil using landscape staples or a small stone.

Keep moist and look for new growth. At this point, you can cut the stolon from the mother plant and transplant as desired.

The Great Indoors

Because of their low light requirements, ferns make terrific indoor container plants.

To provide indirect light, place near a north-facing window. Avoid south or west facing windows, because too much sunlight can scald the fronds.

Do you know that ferns are easy to grow but have lots of peculiarities? Know more about this interesting plant now: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/perennial/how-to-grow-ferns/
Maidenhair grows nicely indoors.

As many indoor environments tend to be quite dry, be sure to water indoor consistently and provide an adequately humid environment.

Try situating them in a bathroom, for example.

Other ways of increasing humidity, according to the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science, include placing the pots on a water-filled, pebble-lined tray, placing a room humidifier nearby, or misting them occasionally.

Thirty to 50 percent humidity is the sweet spot for these prehistoric plants.

While a fern is actively growing, the University of Vermont recommends fertilizing by applying liquid houseplant fertilizer at about one-half the recommended rate.

A close up vertical image of an asparagus fern growing under a rock beside a gravel pathway.
Asparagus fern is a beautiful evergreen, commonly grown as a houseplant, and related to the asparagus vegetable. There are several varieties, none of which are actually types of fern at all.

Maintain your indoor plants’ healthy appearance by occasionally trimming away brown fronds.

Popular varieties for growing indoors include ‘Boston’ (Nephrolepis exaltata), ‘Button’ (Pellaea rotundifolia), ‘Kangaroo Paw’ (Microsorum diversifolium), and ‘Silver Brake’ (Pteris cretica ‘Mayi’).

And while asparagus fern is a popular houseplant, it is not a true fern. It is a member of the lily family.

Need More of this Lacy Beauty?

If you decide these shade-lovers are really your thing, you might want to first visit Fern Canyon.

This is an actual place in Humboldt County, California, where 80-foot canyon walls are clothed in thousands of lush plants, and where parts of “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” were filmed.

And then, consider joining the American Fern Society, where you can exchange information and spores with other fern fans.

Do you fiddle with ferns? Tell us about your passion for this plant in the comments section below.

And for more information on growing plants that thrive in the shade, check out these guides next:


Don’t forget to Pin It!

A collage of ferns and brackens growing in different pots and landscaping areas.

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Michelle Pelescak
Michelle Pelescak (@guest_3322)
1 year ago

PLEASE DO NOT NOT NOT ENCOURAGE EVER PLANTING OF NON-NATIVE SPECIES!!! WE HAVE DO MANY GORGEOUS, EASY TO CARE FOR, LOCALLY ADAPTED PLANTS THAT BENEFIT NATIVE SPECIES!

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Michelle Pelescak
1 year ago

Many ferns are native to the US, and ferns have adapted to nearly all environments – fascinating!

sugarbat
sugarbat (@guest_4682)
Reply to  Michelle Pelescak
1 year ago

Making yourself seem annoying and shrill via the use of all caps will probably not help further your cause.

cool guy
cool guy (@guest_9691)
Reply to  sugarbat
16 days ago

I wasn’t annoyed. But that’s just because I’m a cool guy.

olivia
olivia (@guest_3645)
1 year ago

Where do ferns grow best?….. Do ferns come back every year?

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  olivia
1 year ago

Most varieties of ferns are perennials that will come back year after year if given the proper conditions, and they prefer to grow in the shade. Check out the article above for more details!

JSW
JSW (@guest_4308)
1 year ago

I have acres of ferns on my hunting land in Central Ohio. It’s a retired Christmas tree farm with pine trees that are more than 60’ tall.
What kind would these be? After a bit of research, I’m thinking they’re “Christmas Ferns”. Is this correct?

samira cholagh
samira cholagh (@guest_4665)
1 year ago

I have a big shady area would love to grow preannual fern using seeds

sugarbat
sugarbat (@guest_4681)
1 year ago

You might want to reword instructions for heat-sterilization of potting soil — it’s best practice to microwave soil *before * placement of seeds /spores to avoid damaging them along with bacteria,. etc.

cool guy
cool guy (@guest_9692)
Reply to  Gretchen Heber
16 days ago

I am still got confused at that part.

Mary
Mary (@guest_4762)
1 year ago

I am in sunny California, and I have a very large (12 feet or so) older fern. It gets full sun every now and then on its sides, but it’s planted under a porch so mostly shade. I feed it with liquid plant food about every two weeks, and keep the soil very moist (with a sprinkler system). I have been spraying the entire plant with the hose every few days, as I figure that they grow under canopies of other plants and therefore get dripped on… in the wilds I mean. Am I doing this correctly? Do they like… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa (@guest_5832)
6 months ago

Someone told me ferns hate being touched…

Luisa
Luisa (@guest_8464)
2 months ago

Hi
I live in the South Pacific where it’s summer all year round. I love ferns but always have problems looking after it as I don’t know how. It always turn yellow and than eventually dies. I always leave it in shaded areas. Please kindly assist how to look after them – thanks

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Luisa
2 months ago

Hi Luisa, I grew up in the more temperate climate of the Mid-Atlantic and I’ve always loved woodsy shade plants like ferns. These days, I’m gardening in Los Angeles. It’s typically significantly less humid than where you are, but the weather is often hot! I didn’t think I would be able to grow ferns here either, but in the shade, planted in a container, and with frequent watering, my Boston fern has done well. What type are you trying to grow, and is it in complete shade or does it get a little bit of sun? Though ferns like water,… Read more »