Time for gardeners to experiment

PHOTO BY TOM BUTZLER Boston ferns are a favorite to adorn porches and decks. Try and see if you can get your ferns to overwinter and save yourself some money.

One of the more popular plants to decorate the inside and outside of a house is one that never flowers. Boston ferns, known for their green, droopy and leafy growth, have graced porches and interior living spaces for decades. Some gardeners press the envelope a bit and even utilize them in landscape beds in combination with flowering annuals such as coleus and impatiens.

Beyond the beauty aspect, research has shown that these ferns can play a role in improving indoor air quality. Back in the 1980s, NASA conducted some research on plants and their ability to cleanse the air of toxins. This research was aimed at finding ways to purify the air for extended stays in orbiting space station. Several house plants, including Boston ferns, showed that they could reduce levels of indoor pollutants.

These ferns are native to tropical climates and cannot survive our Pennsylvania winters if left hanging on the porch. Most gardeners treat these as annuals and toss them into the compost heap or garbage when hard frosts move in. But you can save these plants for the next growing season with a little bit of care.

One option is to bring the fern into the house and place it near a bright window. The problem with this method is the heating of the homes with furnaces and fireplaces. The warming lowers the humidity in the house, causing many of the fronds (leaf-like part of the fern) to brown and drop-off. This can be somewhat minimized by keeping the soil moist (not sopping wet) and misting with water several times a week. This will keep the air near the fronds a little more humid than the rest of the room.

The other option is get the fern into a resting or dormant state. This can be done by placing it in a basement or garage where temperatures don’t go below 50F. Light is not necessary with this option, although the soil should be somewhat moist (again, not sopping wet). The fronds will turn brown and create quite a mess. Simply prune the plant (remove all the fronds) and new growth will emerge once brought back onto the porch in the spring.

Whatever option is chosen, do not fertilize the plants going into winter. The object is to either slow down growth (as in the case of placing in the house near a window) or allow the fern to reach a dormant state (basement/garage option). Fertilizer will negate slow growth/dormancy and will result in a fern for the compost pile.


Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.