Expert Tips for Keeping This Notoriously Difficult Plant Happy

What is it about ferns that makes them so hard to keep alive?

Boston fern

The Spruce / Kara Riley

Last summer after my plant collection went from 0 to 60, a friend of mine told me I was ready to add some ferns to my indoor jungle. Get a fern, they said! It’ll be easy, they said!

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Last July I decided to listen to my friend and get some ferns. I added a tiny Boston Fern, an Asparagus Fern, and a Crocodile Fern to my collection. Two out of three are still alive, but they’re not looking good. I managed to overwater my Boston Fern—they love moist soil, so I that I don't get. Plus, it was also in a terra cotta pot so it really should never have gotten root rot. But, it did, and into the plant graveyard it went. 

Taylor Fuller's Asparagus fern, before and after

Taylor Fuller

My Asparagus Fern was living its best life for a while. Then, once it got cold, I moved it away from the drafty window, and long story short, now it is constantly getting a haircut as the delicate fronds turn yellow and then brown. 

Taylor Fuller's crocodile fern before and after

Taylor Fuller

My Crocodile Fern doesn’t look too bad. I think it's because it lives in my bathroom right near the shower, where it’s getting tons of humidity. It has never grown a new leaf and it actually continues to lose them pretty frequently (I’m down to three, and one is starting to turn brown). I can’t seem to figure this guy out. It seems like no matter what I do, I just can’t get it right. 

And I know I’m not alone. Ferns are really hard plants to care for. They’re one of those plants that once you nail down a good care routine, you just shouldn’t change it. To crack the code on caring for ferns, we chatting with expert Raffaele Di Lallo, who runs the houseplant care blog, Ohio Tropics. (You can also find him on Instagram.) He had this glorious Boston Fern—which he kept in a north-facing window—for about three years before he had to part ways with it, because it got too large for his space.

He shared three important tips for taking care of ferns and keeping them alive.

Boston fern belonging to Raffaele Di Lallo, who runs the houseplant care blog, Ohio Tropics

Ohio Tropics

1. The Soil Is Everything—So Get the Right Mix

“When most people think of ferns, the first thing that comes to mind is providing high humidity,” said Raffaele. “While ferns love higher humidity, the most important aspect is making sure that you can provide an evenly moist potting mix.

"This is by far so much more important than increasing humidity, even for maidenhair ferns. If you can provide both high humidity and good potting mix moisture, then this is ideal.” Raffaele is saying that making sure you have a soil mix that retains moisture is key. He uses an all purpose soil and adds in some perlite (three parts potting mix and one part perlite). You don’t want soil that dries out really quickly—you want soil that stays moist throughout, which leads us to our next reason why ferns can be tough.

2. Don’t Fear Overwatering

“You'll have to throw away the fear of "overwatering" because this is essentially what ferns thrive on,” Raffaele said.

“Part of why they are so challenging is that ferns will protest if you allow their potting mix to dry out too much, so they are definitely not for the neglectful indoor gardener,” continued Raffaele. If you are a neglectful gardener you should try plants that don’t need a lot of attention like a pothos or snake plant. Ferns will be a big challenge for you. 

When Exactly Should You Water Ferns?

“Ideally, you should water as soon as the surface of the potting mix approaches dryness. Allow them to dry out enough, and you will rapidly get plenty of brown fronds and shedding leaves all over your floor.

"Self-watering pots are wonderful for ferns because they make it easier to keep up with their stringent moisture requirements.” —Raffaele Di Lallo

3. Don’t Forget About Light

“Don't forget light though. Ferns love plenty of bright indirect light, so situate them in front of a window for best growth. They can even take some direct sun as long as you can keep up with watering.”