How to Grow and Care for Lady Ferns

Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) plants

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Do you have a shaded area in your garden where nothing likes to grow? Are you searching for a visually pleasing plant to fill in this space? Look no further than the lady fern. These elegant, sprawling plants thrive in areas where many plants fail.

Sporting lacy, elegant, textured fronds, the lady fern is sure to make a statement wherever you plant it. This plant has fronds that are a vibrant green throughout the summer and turn golden-yellow after the first frost. Lady fern stalks can be green, red, or purple. These support a multitude of tiny leaflets, which gives the lady fern its feathery, lacy appearance.

It's no surprise that this fern is often used in floral arrangements to add texture and create a vibrant backdrop. Their fiddleheads can even be used in recipes as a nutritious green. 

Botanical Name Athyrium filix-femina
Common Name Lady fern
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 2 to 3 ft. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide
Sun Exposure Shade to partial sun 
Soil Type Moist, rich, sandy, well-draining
Soil pH Slightly acidic
Bloom Time Not applicable
Flower Color Not applicable
Hardiness Zones 3 to 6, USA
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to pets

Lady Ferns Care

Like other fern varieties, the lady fern is a low-maintenance plant perfect for well-draining, shady areas of the garden. Once established, these ferns need little attention and do not struggle with common diseases or pests. When choosing where to place these ferns, it is important to consider soil condition and sunlight. Though you may want to plant them near your flowers, they will not thrive if they receive too much sun or too little water. Choose an area with sandy, moist, well-draining soil and low sunlight. These plants are naturally found in woodlands, swamps, meadows, ravines, or by streams and other water sources. Try to mimic these environments. 

Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. However, don't stress if you forget to water them for a time; the lady fern springs back from neglect very well. After the first frost, the foliage will die off. At this time, trim away the foliage and dispose of it. New, fresh foliage will appear in the spring. Besides this, the lady fern does not require pruning or other maintenance. 

Light

Because the lady fern thrives in shaded woodlands or swamps, these plants need shade in your garden as well. Shade to partial sun is best. Be sure to keep them out of harsh midday and afternoon sunshine. 

Soil

Creating soil that mimics the rich, moist, well-draining soil in lush woodlands and meadows is ideal. Theses plants appreciate sandy, humus soil because of its ability to drain well. Adding compost or other decaying organic matter will round out your soil, making the ideal environment for your lady ferns. 

Water

Consistent watering is important for lady fern plants. If these ferns dry out, they become brown and wilted. However, despite their dismal looks, the lady fern springs back very well. With some watering and care, these plants will become lush again. Aim to keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. This is most important during the plant's first year. Once established, the lady fern is quite hardy and can tolerate periods without water. 

Temperature and Humidity

The lady fern thrives in naturally humid, moist areas, so high humidity will keep these plants green and lush. If you are attempting to keep your lady fern indoors, be sure to provide them with adequate humidity by misting or using a pebble tray. They are quite hardy when it comes to temperature, growing in zones 3 to 6. 

Fertilizer

Compost is the perfect soil amendment for lady ferns. This provides the richness and nutrients that the lady fern needs. Adding other organic material, such as leaves, is another great option. Slow-release fertilizer can also be used, but be careful with other fertilizers. The lady fern is easily harmed by too much fertilizer. Sticking to compost or slow-release fertilizer is safest. Give this once in the spring to encourage new growth.

Are Lady Ferns Toxic?

Generally, the lady fern is considered non-toxic. However, the fronds and rhizomes do contain filicic acid. In small amounts, this is not poisonous. But, if your curious pet decides to eat large amounts it can have toxic effects, including convulsions. Very large amounts can be fatal. 

Pruning & Harvesting

In spring, lady ferns send out fiddleheads, which are the young sprouts of its large fronds. These curled fiddleheads are edible and are similar to asparagus; removing some fiddleheads can even encourage more abundant growth.

To harvest, cut the fiddlehead close to the soil and remove its papery sheath. However, be sure not to take all the fiddleheads, since this will weaken the plant.

Before harvesting any plant, always be sure to properly identify it. Once identified and harvested, be sure to properly cook before consumption.

Propagating Lady Ferns

The best way to propagate your lady fern is through the division of rhizomes. This can easily be done in the spring.

  1. Using a garden fork or shovel, gently dig around your fern in a circle to loosen the rhizomes and roots. 
  2. Lift your fern out of the ground and gently shake away excess dirt to see the rhizomes. 
  3. Using your hands or a sharp knife, divide the rhizomes, making sure each section has healthy foliage. 
  4. Amend the soil by adding compost or other organic material and plant your new ferns in a shaded, well-draining area. 
  5. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. 

Potting and Repotting Lady Ferns

The lady fern can be grown in containers inside and outside, but indoor conditions make it a bit tricky to mimic the humid, moist conditions that these ferns like. They do not generally do well with dry, indoor air.

To successfully grow a lady fern as an indoor plant, keep it away from drafts and vents, and mist the foliage daily. Placing this plant near the kitchen sink, in a bathroom, or on a pebble tray will also help increase the humidity. Though they can get large, lady ferns prefer small pots. Once the rhizomes no longer fit in the pot, simply divide them. 

To grow lady ferns in containers outdoors, be sure to choose a pot or basket that allows for sufficient drainage. It may also be beneficial to use a fern-specific potting medium.