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Garden Coach Offers Tips on Easy Sword Fern Care

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Need tips to care for your ferns?

Most garden ferns are easy to care for. And, one of our favorite garden ferns is the tough-as-nails NW sword fern. Also, this easy fern is known botanically as Polystichum munitum.

Fern Care Tips Late Winter Sword Fern

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Okay, now more about what’s great about these ferns, including how easy it is to care for them!

While many may disparage sword fern as common and boring, there are many reasons to love it. And, how easy it is to grow and care for sword ferns is only one of the reasons we love them.

For instance:

  • Sword ferns are evergreen.
  • Sword ferns are indigenous to the PacNW where we garden.
  • Sword ferns are low maintenance.
  • Sword fern tolerates all sorts of exposure from full baking sun to deep shady forests.
  • Ferns add interesting texture and form to the garden.
  • Ferns like these can help hold slopes.

So, are your ferns looking a little flat?

J. from West Seattle wrote to us looking for tips to care for her winter-weary sword ferns:

“I have a slope behind my West Seattle house covered with large, old sword ferns. The ferns are all flattened and sad-looking, I am assuming because of the severe snowfall this winter. Do you have any advice? I’m going out to look for new fronds. If they don’t exist, is the plant dying? Thank-you, a fern lover “

Some advice for end-of-winter sword fern maintenance

After rough winters, sword ferns may look like snow and ice have killed them. But, often these resilient plants are just fine. In fact, late winter or early spring is when I usually get out there for my one-time sword fern care visit.

How to care for sword ferns just once a year?

  • Do your sword fern pruning in late winter/early spring.
  • Cut all of the foliage off of the sword fern. Yes, all of it. But only at this time of year.
  • But, leave the tight, curled, fuzzy brown “fists” hugging the soil at the base of the leaves.
  • These fuzzy little fists will unfurl soon to refurbish your fern plant.

Why cut back sword ferns at the end of winter/beginning of spring?

I make these cuts in early spring so I can enjoy the evergreen fronds all winter. Also, the overwintering fronds help protect the tight “fists” of new fiddleheads from harsh winter weather.

Later, usually around mid-to-late-April in our area, the tight fists will open up into new fern fronds. So, I have an evergreen fern from April until about February/March when I cut it down. Then, I enjoy the unfurling that happens rapidly right after I cut the sad, old fronds down. In fact, timing is everything. By cutting at this time, my plant is visible almost the entire year.

More evergreen fern care tip to consider:

Too, but cutting everything off of these ferns every year, I never end up with an ugly mixture of dead, partially dead as well as lovely new fronds mixed into each plant. In fact, the reason many people don’t like the look of ferns is because they don’t cut them back each year. And, when you don’t cut them back, they get this half dead/half alive hideousness.

Another bonus tip: Cutting ferns just before the “fists” open and the fiddleheads emerge mean I’m much less likely to damage the new, tender fronds as they unfurl. Said another way, if you wait and cut once that tender new growth emerges, you’ll likely break the pretty new growth.

Use what you prune from your ferns!

Finally, I usually spread fern cuttings around the fiddlehead fists tight on the earth. Doing this adds an extra protective layer of free, “green mulch”. That’s a good thing in case of spring surprise cold snaps. Plus, it can help suppress weeds.

Later, when the old frond clippings turn brown, I remove them to the compost pile.

Looking for fantastic ferns for your garden?

One of our favorite suppliers of PacNW ferns is Fancy Fronds Nursery. Not only will they supply sword ferns, but they’ve also got a great supply of all sorts of fabulous ferns. In fact some are common and others are rare and unusual.

So, are your sword ferns dead at the end of winter?

I doubt it…or at least I doubt all of them are dead. Take a fern care tip from us: as you’re exploring your plants, cut the old fronds away. If you have brown fists held tightly and firmly in the ground, you should see new ferns unfurl soon.

15 comments on “Garden Coach Offers Tips on Easy Sword Fern Care

  1. Dave K. on

    I very much enjoy your website.

    I am a great fern lover and have a number of varieties. This year I bought six Australian sword ferns. They have done beautifully and have grown into magnificent plants.

    I have read differing opinions on the internet about their survivability during the winter in colder climates. Some people say they will survive the winter in the ground and others say they should be brought indoors.

    I live in northern Virginia outside Washington, DC (zone 7) and would appreciate any advice on winter care for the sword ferns.

  2. Garden Mentors on


    Thanks for writing in. Here in Western Washington, the sword fern we (mostly) grow in our native Polystichum munitum. I’m not familiar with the Australian Sword Fern. Can you comment back with the botanical name for your particular fern? Perhaps with that we can help. Common names don’t tell us quite enough to be sure we’re talking about the same plant.

    One of the best fern resources — to purchase or learn — is Unfortunately, even their site only returns Polystichum munitum if you search on the term “sword fern”.

    Let us know what more you can share, and we’ll try to help.

  3. Dave K. on

    Garden Mentors:

    Thank you for your response about the winter care of the Australian sword fern. The botanical name for the fern is Nephrolepis obliterata.

    And thank you for the tip about As I wrote before, I am a great fan of ferns and am always on the look-out for good websites for information about them and as sources for purchasing them.


  4. Garden Mentors on

    Thanks Dave. After some quick reading, it looks like you have a fern that thrives in warmer temperatures. It might not be cold hardy for winter. Best of luck & enjoy the Fancy Fronds site!

  5. Dave K. on

    Thanks for the response. Yes, Nephrolepis obliterata thrives in warmer temperatures. It’s from Australia — hence the name the Australian sword fern.

    But some sites on the internet say it will survive zone 7 winters if it’s left in the ground and mulched and other sites say to bring it indoors. I just thought that perhaps one of your mentors had had personal experience with it.

    Thanks anyway.

  6. Circe Verba on

    I realize that this is a really old post, but hoping someone might see it. I’m in Oregon with very mature sword ferns (they were mature when I moved in 7 years ago). But we’ve had more ice so the trees have been severely cut back and the fronds are getting much more light. The leaves on top are turning brown. I usually remove the dead fronds underneath and clip back, but afraid to hack too much down for fear that the new furls will sunburn. Any tips/ideas?

  7. Garden Mentors on


    If this detailed post on pruning ferns didn’t provide all that you’re looking for, we have an entire pruning class in our online Academy that details fern pruning. Join today and get access to this and all of our lessons immediately!

  8. Katherine on

    I planted western sword ferns this spring that I retrieved from the woods nearby. They are under fir trees with plenty of shade and I water them every 2 days. We are in northern Washington near the sea. Problem is that they have not grown. They just sit there looking pretty much like when I plsnted it is now July 1. Are they just getting established or should I be worried?

  9. Garden Mentors on

    Katherine, Site unseen it’s tough to assess your specific situation. It may be that the ferns had already unfurled their spring fronds when you transplanted them. So, you probably won’t see much new growth again until next year. You could look at the base of the fronds to see if there are any tight fists intact. Also, is it really July first? Our calendar dates your question to mid-June. (But still, in the PacNW sword ferns have already pretty much done their new growth for the year.) Good luck.

  10. Kendra Cawley on

    Thank you for your helpful information.Our two 30-yr old sword ferns (front of the house, get lots of water and pretty much sun, Portland area) looked terrible — huge and mostly brown and flattened, so after reading your advice, yesterday (Feb 10) I cut one “all the way” back — removed all the fronds. But…. I don’t see any “fuzzy brown fists” — more like one big spikey hassock (about 1.5 ft high and same in diameter), presumably because I have not pruned it all the way back in 30 yrs! I’m not sure whether to continue to work at the hassock and try to cut it down further, looking to find fuzzy fists, or let new fronds push from there. Thoughts?

  11. Garden Mentors on

    Kendra, Thanks for writing in. Not sure what you mean by a spikey hassock. But it sound like it’s just more dead fronds. If they’re brown and desiccated and dead, remove them. If you’re not sure, you might want to get a garden consultation going to review what’s going on. Site unseen it’s difficult to know exactly what your situation looks like. But, once all the dead material is gone, assuming the ferns are still alive, you should find those fists down at ground level. They might be hiding under all that old 30 year dead material. Good luck & us know how it goes!

  12. Nancy Steers on

    I have always enjoyed the easy care of my sword ferns – over 25 in my backyard. As I was taking out last year’s fronds (yes, missed the late winter so cut them individually, darn!) I noticed on 2 plants that the fresh new leaves had been eaten to the base of the frond. 1st time for this. Any idea and solution to protect the others?

  13. Garden Mentors on

    Nancy, First step is to determine what did the eating. Once you know what ate them, then you can begin protecting them. If you can’t figure out what ate them, you can try wrapping the plants with protective wire to keep critters like deer and bunnies away from them. This won’t stop insects, slugs and the like. But it might help. Good luck & let us know what you’re able to determine!

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