Five Great Ferns to Hang Up

From the front porch to the back door, we’ll tell you which ones are right for you.
Rebecca Bull Reed

An upward-arching form makes ‘Kimberley Queen’ a natural choice for displaying near doors or entries. More tolerant of low light and low humidity than Boston fern, ‘Dallas’ fern is easy to grow. Place ‘Tiger’ fern where the leaves can be admired. Its flashy foliage is bound to be noticed. One leaflet on a frond of ‘Macho’ fern can be the length of a ballpoint pen.

1. Best for Hanging Around Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’)

I have to agree with Cathy Phelps of Greenville, South Carolina; she can’t imagine her porch without this classic fern. Cathy (pictured above at left) loves hanging her Boston ferns, but displaying them atop plant stands works too.

  • What it needs: Place it in bright, indirect light and well-drained soil. Feed once a month with a water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
  • Key to success: Cathy says to keep the fern in the plastic pot it came in so you won’t have to water as much. She tried coco-fiber lined baskets but found herself watering all the time because the fiber doesn’t hold moisture for very long. Remember that hanging baskets dry out faster than other types of containers, so check them often by sticking your finger in the soil. It should be just damp to the touch but not wet.

2. Keeper of the Door ‘Kimberley Queen’ fern (N. obliterata ‘Kimberley Queen’)

Hailing from Australia, where only the tough can survive, this handsome fern displays upward-arching, dark green fronds that hold their shape in wind and rain. Use by the door, to flank a pathway, or as a backdrop for other plants.

  • What it needs: If given regular water, this fern does well in sun. Average soil is okay too. Hate to water? Use this plant in light shade, and you can almost forget about it. Fertilizer is not really needed, but if fronds become dull green, boost color with an application of Ironite or a water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
  • Key to success: Keep this vigorous grower in a container, especially if you live in the Coastal or Tropical South. Highly adaptable, this too-good-to-be-true fern can become an unwelcome guest if allowed to roam wild in sandy soil.

3. Tops for Tables ‘Dallas’ fern (N. exaltata ‘Dallas’)

This neat and compact plant sports short fronds that have a ruffled appearance. I like the fact that if you decide to move a ‘Dallas’ fern indoors, it is less likely to drop leaves than other types such as Boston fern. Perfect for side tables, windowsills, or small baskets, this is the one to choose when space is tight.

  • What it needs: Like a Boston fern, it prefers bright, indirect light and well-drained soil. The difference is that it can get by with less moisture and light. Feed once a month using a water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
  • Key to success: Do not overwater this plant. ‘Dallas’ fern is an excellent choice for beginners, especially those who occasionally forget to give their thirsty houseplants a drink.

4. Most Intriguing Accent ‘Tiger’ fern (N. exaltata ‘Tiger’)

If you really love color, here's a fern worthy of a hearty roar. Bright green leaflets striped with gold make this plant quite the conversation starter. A fast grower, ‘Tiger’ fern works very well alone or as a companion plant in both baskets and containers.

  • What it needs: Place it in bright, indirect light or partial shade and well-drained soil. Feed once a month with a water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
  • Key to success: Display ‘Tiger’ fern in a location where it won’t get too hot, such as in the cool shade of a deep porch. Good drainage is critical as well. Don’t overwater or let this plant sit in a water-filled saucer for long.

5. When Bigger Is Better ‘Macho’ fern (N. biserrata ‘Macho’)

“Delicate” and “petite” are not the words you would use to describe ‘Macho’ fern. In the right conditions, this behemoth can grow 4 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide. Display it outside, because interior light is normally not bright enough. I suggest trying this fern in large containers and oversize hanging baskets for a truly dramatic show.

  • What it needs: Give this plant bright light with filtered afternoon sun, and provide it with well-drained soil. When new fronds appear, feed with a one-fourth to one-half-strength, water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
  • Key to success: It loves heat and humidity and can tolerate sun as long as it’s not too hot. To keep fronds from burning, place it where it will be protected from direct afternoon sun.

More ferns die from overwatering than underwatering. Water only when soil is just dry to the touch.

  • If leaves turn yellow and soil is wet 1 to 2 inches beneath the surface, you are watering too much.
  • Ferns love humidity and appreciate an occasional misting. Just don’t do so in direct sun, which could burn the fronds.
  • Never fertilize a fern―or any plant―that is too dry; it can burn the roots. First, water well, and then feed.
  • If water runs straight through the pot each time you water, it is either time for a good soak or time to repot.
  • To soak, dunk your basket in a tub of water for several minutes, and let it sit there until rehydrated.
  • If your plant is several years old, perhaps it’s time to repot. The new container should be about 1 1?2 times the size of the existing pot.
  • These ferns bite the dust when exposed to prolonged freezing temperatures. To overwinter them, cut back the side fronds next to the rim of the pot, and trim the top fronds to 10 inches. Bring the plant indoors where it will receive bright light from a window. Water regularly, and by next year at this time, you can take it back outside.

"Five Great Ferns" is from the April 2006 issue of Southern Living.