In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2001
Regional Report

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A collection of ferns in small pots can be displayed together.

Fun Fern Facts

Are you fond of ferns? I sure am. I love the graceful way their leaves arch and the variety of colors and textures of the foliage. But most of all I love the way ferns provide a feeling of secret repose to a garden. A ferny dell just seems to invite you to linger and savor the lush, green quality of the air.

Ferns in Nature

Ferns are defined as perennials and vary in height from a few inches to over 50 feet. There are several different families of ferns which is based on their appearance. In nature, native ferns usually are usually found growing in the damp, dim places that frogs would like to call home. They will grow well outdoors in any shady area, as long as they have enough moisture and are protected from drying winds. Use them as ground covers or accents in shady areas or along a north-facing wall or fence.

Successful Cultivation

The secret to successful fern culture indoors is to never allow the soil to dry between watering. Outdoors, it doesn't seem to matter if they go dry between waterings, however they will not hesitate to let you know when they are thirsty. Soil rich in organic matter is a must, so use plenty of compost when planting.

It's amazing to me when I see ferns growing in the wild in dry creek beds or sprouting on the north face of a hillside trail. Gardeners bend over backwards to cultivate these plants, and yet even the most delicate five finger fern (Adiantum jpedatum aleuticum) will thrive on its own if provided with the correct environment.

I had a beautiful maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum) which I grew in a container for many years. It was one of those that you buy at the florist. I potted it up and grew it outdoors. In the late fall it would go dormant so I cut back all the ratty looking fronds and just left the pot alone until I started to see new growth. I would then fertilize with fish emulsion and stand back. Each year it got larger and larger until it finally broke the 14" clay container it called home.

Starting from Spores

You can actually grow your own ferns from spores collected either in the wild or from your own plants. Ferns don't grow from seed, but from spores located on the underside of the leaves. This is the time of year when many common types of ferns are fertile.

To collect the spores, gently tap a mature fern leaf over a piece of white paper. Mature fern leaves can be identified by the velvety brown, yellow or black dots on the undersides of the leaves. Be careful, the spores are tiny and will blow away in the slightest breeze. Carefully fold the paper with the collected spores and place it into an envelope until you are ready to plant.

At planting time, fill a shallow container with potting soil that contains mostly peat moss. Compact the potting soil slightly to make sure the surface is level, then moisten it well.

After you have prepared the planting bed, shake the harvested spores directly onto the premoistened soil. Set the prepared pot onto a saucer filled with gravel and water to provide much needed humidity. Finally, cover the pot with a piece of glass or plastic to keep the moisture in. Then, all you need to do is to set the covered pot and its saucer in a warm, shady area.

Tiny ferns will begin to appear in about one month. Remove the glass cover and use a spray mister to water the small plants, replacing the cover after watering. When they each have two sets of leaves, gently separate the fern babies and transplant into individual pots.

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