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Skaggs: Ferns can survive winter with care

POSTED: January 23, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Nothing is more inviting than a big front porch flanked on each side with beautiful ferns.

For many of us, we purchase a few hanging baskets in the spring or summer every year, but we don't go to the trouble of over-wintering them indoors; some people just have a knack for carrying them through the winter.

If you're attempting to do so this year, here are a few things to consider.

Some like it hot, but not ferns! Even though most ferns used for indoor culture are native to the tropics, they prefer a cool temperature. In the woodlands or tropics, ferns are found under dense canopies of trees or large woody plants. Room temperatures that are comfortable for people are usually a bit warm for many ferns. Nighttime temperatures for ferns should be on the cool side, preferably 55 F to 60 F. Daytime temperatures should not be above 72 F and preferably cooler.

Humidity is required - before the widespread use of forced-air heat, there was usually a cool room where the humidity was a bit higher. Forced-air heat tends to dry the air and reduce the humidity below the point where ferns can survive. A humidity level of 30 percent is about as low as most ferns will tolerate.

There are several ways to overcome dry air.

You can add humidifiers to your home heating system or buy a self-contained electric humidifier. A humidifier will produce not only better environmental conditions for your ferns but also a healthier atmosphere for you and your family.

If you don't want to purchase a humidifier, put pots of ferns or other plants in saucers or trays filled with gravel and water. This increases humidity around the plant.

Always maintain the water level just below the surface of the gravel so the bottom of the pot won't be standing in water.

Fulfilling a fern's light requirement indoors is a challenge. A northern window usually provides ideal light conditions for many types of ferns.

Remember that it is perfectly normal for your ferns to fade a bit during the winter - they simply are not getting as much light as they did outside and thereby not "photosynthesizing" as much. Don't be tempted to fertilize them during the winter. Fertilizing will not improve the color and may even stress the plant further.

Curious whether you should re-pot or not?

Ideally, a healthy fern will have just enough room to accommodate the root system with about an inch of space for further growth.

Most ferns develop shallow root systems, so shallow pots or pans are best. To maintain the proper balance of root system and space, some ferns need re-potting several times a year.

Well-intentioned gardeners re-pot ferns just as the pots seem to be three-fourths full. However, you should wait until the plant seems to be spilling out of the pot before re-potting.

Remember that some ferns grow rapidly, while others are extremely slow.

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County extension coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.


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