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Garden Coach Offers Tips on Easy Sword Fern Care

April 14, 2009

J. from West Seattle writes:

“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 going out to look for new fronds. If they don’t exist, is the plant dying? Thank-you, a fern lover “

J,  thanks for your question. I, too, adore ferns. I know many who disparage the sword fern as common, but I admire it for many reasons including:

  • Evergreen
  • Native
  • Low Maintenance
  • Tolerates all sorts of exposure from full baking sun to deep shady forests
  • Adds interesting Texture and form to the garden
  • Helps hold slopes

But, this time of year, particularly after rough winters like we had, it can be tough to know if our poor sword ferns made it through. My regular regime with my many sword fern is to go out in the garden in late winter/early spring and remove all of the existing foliage from them. Yep, I cut it all off, leaving just the tight brown fists of yet-to-unfurl fronds at the base of the plant.

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 winter weather. These will emerge by mid-to-late-April (in the greater Seattle area). Too, but cutting everything off of the plants each year, I never end up with an ugly mixture of dead, partially dead and lovely new fronds mixed into each plant. And, cutting them before the fists open and the fiddleheads emerge mean I’m much less likely to damage the new, tender fronds as they unfurl. I usually spread the cuttings around the fiddlehead fists to add an extra protective layer of  green mulch in case of cold temps and to keep weeds down. When they turn brown as temperatures increase, I remove them to the compost pile.

So, are your sword ferns dead? I doubt it…or at least I doubt all of them are dead. Most sword ferns I’ve seen this year survived just fine. They’re a little late to unfurl, but do you blame them in this wintery spring weather?

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. Heck, as you’re cutting back the older growth, I bet you even find a few fists loosening up now.

Thanks again for writing in!


  1. Dave K. says:

    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. Dave,

    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 fancyfronds.com. 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. says:

    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 fancyfronds.com. 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. 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. says:

    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. Vangie says:

    Will the Australian Sword Fern (Kimberly Queen) grow in Minnesota?
    any comments?

  7. Vangie, Check with a local nursery or a fern specialist like Fancy Fronds.

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