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.
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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.
- 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.