Guide to low-maintenance gardening

From low-water plants to simple projects, our guide to easy gardening will make a green thumb out of anyone

Best ferns for a low-water garden

These luxuriant ferns don’t need to drink a lot to be happy. Get our tips on the best types to plant and how to care for them

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Planting & care tips
Photo by Tish Treherne; written by Janet Kinosian

Planting & care tips

In hot months, buy potted ferns at nurseries and set the pots in shaded spots among groundcovers that take the same conditions. In mild climates, after temperatures cool at summer's end, you can plant them in the ground. (Plant in late spring in the coldest climates.)

Choose a sheltered site that’s protected from wind and gets partial to full shade—east and north of a house or wall or beneath tall trees. The soil should be rich, well-drained, and acidic. If the soil is too heavy, work compost or peat moss into the top 10 or 15 inches before planting.

Space plants 2 to 4 feet apart, allowing them to reach their mature size without crowding. To reduce water loss, apply a 1- to 3-inch thick mulch of fine bark or decomposed leaves.

Water regularly for the first year or two after planting to establish the roots; check often to make sure roots stay damp. Once established, occasional deep soakings during hot spells will keep these ferns looking their best. In Southern California and the desert, avoid frequent sprinklings that wet only the leaves and the soil surface; this contributes to salt buildup. Instead, soak the soil thoroughly, then let it go slightly dry before watering again.

Feed most ferns once or twice a year after watering. Start in spring; use a mild fertilizer such as fish emulsion diluted at half-strength. Do not feed the giant chain fern; just apply compost around it.

When fronds look tattered, cut them off at the base.


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