Learn about the many species of ferns. Understand their cultural requirements, propagation techniques,species used in cultivation and identification.

Course Code: BHT314
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
Get started!

Become a Fern Expert!

This course takes a detailed look at the identification and culture of ferns. You will learn about:

  • Different groupings (e.g. epiphytes, ground ferns, tree ferns)
  • Growing techniques (baskets, indoor/outdoor containers, terrariums)
  • Cultural methods (soils, watering, pest & disease control)
  • Propagation (spores, division, tissue culture)

Emphasis is placed on the horticulturally valuable species. This is a course for amateurs and professionals; plant collectors and breeders, nurserymen, botanists, landscapers, gardeners and horticulturists.

“ ...learn so much about ferns from this course. They are such incredible plants; able to live in such varied conditions, from tropical rain forests to freezing mountain tops. Ferns are so popular, and there is such a range of them, this course provides invaluable knowledge when it comes to planning or adding to your own garden, or other peoples’ gardens.” - Tracey Morris Dip. Hort., Cert. Hort., Cert III Organic Farming, ACS Tutor.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • How ferns are classified scientifically
    • General characteristics of ferns (especially the fronds)
    • Broad groupings of ferns (filmy, tree, terrestrial, epiphytic and water ferns)
    • Networking contacts (ie: nurseries, seed, clubs, etc.)
    • How to pronounce plant names.
  2. Culture
    • How best to grow ferns
    • Conditions required
    • Planting, mulching, watering
    • Pest and disease management
    • Feeding
    • Pruning
    • Protection from wind, salt air, etc.
    • Compost making.
  3. Propagation
    • Methods of propagating ferns
    • Spore propagation
    • Division
    • Tissue culture
    • Propagation of selected varieties.
  4. The Most Commonly Grown Varieties.
    • Maidenhairs
    • Tree ferns
    • Epiphytes - stags, elks
    • Common ground ferns
  5. Other Important Groups.
    • Asplenium
    • Blechnum
    • Nephrolepis
    • Pteris
    • Other groups
    • Group characteristics, cultural details, propagation methods.
  6. Other Fern Varieties
    • Hares foot ferns
    • Bracken
    • Fans
    • Corals
    • Combs.
  7. Using Ferns
    • Container Growing
    • Growing in hanging baskets
    • Growing in a terrarium
    • In ground cultivation
    • Growing ferns as indoor plants
    • Competition growing and showing
    • Growing ferns for profit (to sell the plants or what they produce).
  8. Special Assignment
    • Detailed culture and identification of one genera.


  • Identify different types of ferns in cultivation (at least twenty different genera and fifty different varieties).
  • Explain the botanical characteristics of ferns.
  • Determine critical cultural practices required to successfully grow ferns in different specified situations.
  • Determine the cultural requirements of specific fern varieties.
  • Apply various specialised techniques to the culture of ferns.
  • Prepare a planting plan for an area using ferns.

What You Will Do

  • Label the morphological parts of a typical fern, including:
    • pinnae
    • rachis
    • bipinnatifid fronds
    • lobe
    • midrib
    • crozier
    • roots
    • rhizome.
  • Distinguish species of each type, between aquatic, epiphytic and terrestrial ferns.
  • Distinguish, using illustrations, between different fern families, including;
    • Polypodiaceae
    • Marattiaceae
    • Nephrolepidaceae
    • Cyatheaceae
    • Dicksoniaceae
    • Gleicheniaceae
    • Hymenophyllaceae
  • Compile a resource information guide on ferns, including scope of operation and contact information (ie: address, phone, fax), for:
    • ten nurseries
    • five clubs/societies
    • ten product suppliers
    • other organisations
  • Prepare a collection of fifty ferns, not collected elsewhere, including:
    • a photo, drawing or pressed specimen *plant names (scientific and common)
    • cultural details
    • uses/applications
  • Develop guidelines for growing ferns either indoors, in containers under shade, or in the ground.
  • Label a sequence of four drawings which illustrate the propagation of ferns by spore.
  • List different fern genera that can be propagated by division.
  • Propagate four fern species, using two different methods, including spores and division.
  • Explain the planting requirements of ferns.
  • List the preferred characteristics of a soil which is to grow ferns in the your locality.
  • Prepare a potting media mix suitable for growing ferns in.
  • Develop guidelines for watering a typical fernery in your locality for a twelve month period.
  • Write a summary of nutrition requirements of ferns, including fertiliser recommendations.
  • Explain different common health problems of ferns.
  • List guidelines for pruning ferns in your locality.
  • Write a set of guidelines for the culture of a selected fern genus, including details on:
    • distinguishing between different species
    • cultural requirements
    • uses/applications
  • Prepare a table which compares twenty-five different commonly grown fern genera, and includes:
    • plant description
    • preferred habitat
    • growing requirements
    • uses
  • List methods used to propagate different ferns, including four different propagation methods.
  • Write an essay comparing different species of ferns in the one genera, with reference to physical appearance, growth habit and cultural requirements.
  • Describe endemic growing conditions of five different native ferns sited in natural areas.
  • Prepare a schedule of cultural tasks to be undertaken over a twelve month period which are highly specific to one nominated species of fern.
  • Summarise, a procedure for maintenance over a twelve month period, of a Nephrolepis grown in hanging baskets, including comments on:
    • feeding
    • watering
    • pest control
    • pruning
    • potting up
  • List ten fern species, from at least five different genera, which are particularly suited to growing in hanging baskets in your locality.
  • Compare the suitability of different types of hanging baskets for growing ferns, including:
    • water wells
    • lined wire baskets
    • plastics
    • ceramics
  • Explain how to make a terrarium for growing five different types of ferns.
  • List twenty fern species which grow in very wet conditions, including aquatic plants and bog plants.
  • Distinguish between the cultural requirements of ferns grown indoors and outdoors.
  • Explain the cultural techniques which are unique to growing ferns as an epiphyte.
  • Grow a fern using a specialised technique (eg. in a terrarium or hanging basket), monitoring it over 3 months (ie. recording cultural practices, changes in health, and performance).
  • Write guidelines for preparation of a potted fern for competition in a garden show.
  • Evaluate the use of ferns in a garden, which incorporates both ferns and flowering plants, using a supplied checklist of design criteria.
  • Evaluate the use of ferns in a garden or interior plantscape, which is either all or predominantly ferns, using a supplied checklist of design criteria.
  • Design a fern garden bed of 30 square meters, which incorporates at least ten different fern varieties, and satisfies both aesthetic and cultural requirements of a specified site, which you survey.


There is disagreement among experts with respect to many classifications of ferns. In many cases, there is no right and wrong, there is only differing opinions. As long as there are good reasons behind each opinion, it is at this stage valid to use it.
For simplicity ferns can be divided into five main types; Filmy ferns, Tree Ferns, Epiphytic Ferns, Ground Ferns and Water Ferns.

These are tiny delicate ferns with very thin fronds only one cell thick. They grow only in wet or humid, misty areas. They are not as commonly grown and are often more difficult to grow than other groups of ferns. Examples of filmy ferns are Hymenophyllum sp., Cephalomanes sp., Pleuromanes.sp, and Trichomanes sp.

These are ferns with woody trunks, sometimes several metres tall topped by a crown of long (up to 2 or more metres) divided fronds. In their natural habitats the trunks are often covered by epiphytic ferns and orchids.
Treeferns must be kept moist by watering with a slowly dripping hose in the
crown of the plant. Plants are best kept saturated for the first 2-3 years.

CYATHEA                Rough Tree Fern                     
Most Cyatheas are hardy and come from warm climates, although a few (eg. C australis) can be grown in cooler climates. Some experts call many different tree ferns Cyathea. Others split Cyathea into several different groups (ie. genera). They are readily propagated from spores. Fronds are very large and are 2 to 3 pinnate.

DICKSONIA               Soft Tree Ferns                  
Dicksonia are hardy to very hardy and are generally found in mountain areas with warm climates, although some are widespread in cooler climates. There are approximately 30 species ( 2 Australian). Medium to fast growers, they have attractive long, lance shaped fronds, the bases of which have stiff hairs. Dicksonia need moist soil. Shade is necessary in warmer climates. D. antartica is widely grown in the Australian eastern states as a feature plant, and will do well in a cool spot in the sub tropics. It is also grown widely in the UK and other places.
This group of ferns comprises a large variety of generally small to medium sized ferns that generally grow directly in soil, but do not have the obvious trunks like tree ferns. Many of widely grown ferns are found in this group. (eg. Adiantum, Blechnum, Asplenium, Nephrolepis, Cyrtomium, Pellaea, and Polystichum). Some of the ground ferns can spread readily (e.g. by rhizomes) forming extensive colonies, for example Histiopteris incisa (Batswing Fern), and Pteris sp. This group also includes the scrambling type ferns that will often form large tangled masses along the edge of water courses such as Gleichenia sp. (Coral Ferns). Many ground ferns make excellent pot plants.

ADIANTUM                Maidenhair Ferns  
Maidenhair generally prefer moist conditions in sunny or semi-shaded positions. Many are fairly hardy, and grow rapidly in ideal conditions. There are over 200 species of generally spreading or small clumping ferns, mainly from tropical and temperate climates. The fronds are generally thin, delicate, simple or divided into fan shaped pinnules from small up to 1m long, black or brown leaf stalks. There are a large number of attractive cultivars available.
Tropical species require a temperature of at least 16 to 19 degrees C. and a humid environment. Most need frequent watering over summer but little water over winter.  Some are very heavy feeders, most respond well to regular small doses of fertiliser. Potting mixes should be well drained, and it's pH should not drop too low. Spores germinate best at a pH between 7 and 8.5

ASPLENIUM               Spleenworts
Spleenworts are generally clump forming, and of varied size. There are over 700 species from greatly varied habitats. They can be epiphytes, terrestrial or rock dwellers. Most are reasonably hardy to very hardy, and generally fast growing. They are generally very adaptable ferns, but avoid placing under glass in direct sunlight. Excess moisture can cause yellowing in periods of slow growth. Frond shape can vary according to growing conditions, but is usually simple deeply cut or compound fronds. Spleenworts are mainly propagated by spore (but spore must be fresh), a few are propagated by division and some can be propagated from bulbils.

NEPHROLEPIS            Sword Fern/Fishbone  
Nephrolepis are very hardy, tuft forming plants which spread by creeping rhizomes. They are fast growing and very adaptable, with approximately 30 species (6 Australian) from the tropics and sub-tropics, usually in dry open forests or on the edge of rainforests. Small to medium, mainly terrestrial ferns, they need lots of water in warmer months. (NB: too much water in a greenhouse can cause rotting). They are very drought tolerant. Most are sensitive to severe frost or cold. They will survive better in a pot bound state than many other ferns and make excellent indoor and hanging basket plants. There are many cultivars available. Propagate by division or spores.

PTERIS      Brake/Dish Fern/Table Fern   
With approximately 280 species of mainly tropical ferns, Pteris will grow in a range of habitats from dry to wet and full shade to sunny. They are terrestrial, clump forming, generally hardy and adaptable to different situations. They can be fast growing, but need lots of water while growing. Roots will die if they dry out, and they should not be allowed to become pot bound. Some dislike direct or hot sun. Temperate climate species tolerate cold, others are cold sensitive. Normally spore propagated, some can be divided.

These grow usually attached to another plant, on fallen logs and tree stumps, on rocks, or in dead or decomposing organic matter on the ground.
They gain their nutrition from leaf litter, dead insects and other rotting organic material. Commonly grown epiphytic ferns include Platycerium bifurcatum (Elkhorn Fern), Platycerium grande (Staghorn Fern), Davallia sp.(Hairsfoot Ferns) and Microsorium sp.  Some ferns can be grown as either an epiphyte or in the ground (eg. Asplenium nidus  Birdsnest Fern)

DAVALLIA           Hare's Foot/Rabbit's Foot 
These small creeping ferns are hardy and ideal for hanging baskets. Approximately 40 species (3 Australian) from mainly tropical & sub tropical, Europe, Asia & Pacific are available. One is native to Victoria. They are mainly epiphytic, some are rock ferns, and all have long scale covered rhizomes. Preferring temperatures between 16 19 degrees C, only a few species are frost hardy. They need heavy watering while growing, but greatly reduced watering over winter. Aphis and scale are sometimes a problem. Propagate by spores, division or rhizome cuttings.

PLATYCERIUM          Staghorn/Elkhorn       
Spreading, often drooping epiphytic ferns from mainly tropical and sub  tropical areas, Platycerium prefer a warm climate, although P. bifurcatum and P. superbum are hardy as far south as Melbourne. There are two types of fronds, firstly the flattish, infertile shield frond from which rise the second type, the fertile fronds which are often long, pendulous, and deeply lobed. All fronds need protection from frost (some won't tolerate temperatures below 15 degrees C.). In cool climates, keep the plants dry over winter. Propagate easily by division (except P. superbum). Spore germinates easily but is difficult to keep growing.
P. bifurcatum (The Elkorn Fern) Strap like fronds with a Y shaped tip, up to 1m in length.
P. superbum  (syn. P.grande) (The Staghorn Fern) broad lobed fronds grow from a
green sheath of infertile fronds which cover roots.

There are two types of water ferns:
* Floating ferns   these are ferns that float on the water surface with their roots immersed in the water. The most commonly cultivated type are the Azolla sp.
* Anchored ferns   these ferns have part of their growth (ie. roots) anchored in soil or decomposing matter at the bottom of the water body they are growing in. The fronds will in some cases reach up and float on the water surface or may grow completely submerged. Cultivated types include Marsilea sp and Pilulara sp.

Advice on Growing Ferns from our Tutors and Principal, John Mason

Most ferns do best in a situation where they are protected from strong winds, extremes of temperature, and excessive dryness.

Ferns growing in containers are usually best placed on a shaded veranda or patio or underneath some large trees where they will only receive filtered sunlight.

Ferns growing in the ground are normally best with moist soil in semi-shade or full shade. If there is any likelihood of the ground drying out, heavy organic mulch is recommended.
Greenhouses may be needed to provide shade protection for growing ferns, particularly in warmer climates. Shade houses need to have shade cloth (or something else) on the sides, as well as on the roof, to break strong winds.

Adequate ventilation is generally important to minimise fungal infections. This can be achieved by not placing plants too close together, and by ensuring that there is some air movement, particularly through greenhouses. Too much air movement, however, can also be a problem.

Soils and Potting Mixes

Ferns are only as good as the soil they are growing in. If you want quality plants you must use quality soils and potting mixes. Ferns are generally adaptable as far as soil type goes, but a soil that is well-drained, well-aerated, has a reasonable pH, has high organic matter and good moisture-holding capacity is preferred by most.  For container growing of ferns, or even in specially prepared beds, potting mixes can provide an excellent substitute for the fern’s natural soil type.

Planting Ferns

Before planting ferns out into the ground, the soil must be properly prepared. Remember, the soil should be high in organic matter and reasonably well-drained. Most soils will benefit from large quantities of manure and compost being dug in before planting. A reasonable approach would be as follows:

1. Dig over (or rotary hoe the soil first)
2. Spread compost, wood shavings or fine shredded pine bark to a depth of 200mm and dig this in to a depth of 400mm
3. Spread well-rotted poultry or cow manure over the area to a depth of 50mm and dig in to a depth of 200mm
4. Water well and leave for at least two weeks
5. Spray any weeds which begin to germinate with Zero or Roundup weedicide, and leave for another week
6. Plant the ferns and cover with a surface mulch 100mm thick


Most ferns do need to be fed from time to time, though as a general rule they are more susceptible to fertiliser burn that many other types of plants.

If you stick to the following recommendations you are unlikely to have any major problems:

  • Use fertiliser twice as often as recommended, but at half the recommended rate.
  • Never get the fertiliser on the foliage – always apply it to the soil under the fronds.
  • Don’t dig the fertiliser in (ferns are happiest not having their roots disturbed).
  • Water the fertiliser in well as soon as it is applied, to prevent concentrated lumps
    making direct contact with any exposed surface roots.
  • Organic liquid fertilisers such as Maxicrop plant food, Seasol, Nitrosol or Garden
    Party are ideal for ferns, being less likely to burn than inorganic fertilisers.
  • Slow-release fertilisers such as pelletised fowl manure or Osmocote are also excellent for ferns.
  • Check what has been written about the variety of fern you are dealing with before
    you feed it. Some varieties should never be fertilised. There are other varieties which require heavier feeding than the average fern. Watch the fronds of the heavy feeders - if they go pale in colour, or if the growth rate slows, you can increase the feeding up to 30%. However, in cooler climates yellowing growth in winter may be a sign of a response to cooler temperatures and slowing of growth, so in this case do not feed them until the warmer weather returns

What Nutrients Does a Fern Need?

All plants need a range of different nutrients not just to grow, but also to remain healthy.
The following nutrients are needed in large amounts: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (also called potash), calcium and magnesium. These are called major nutrients.

A large number of other nutrients are needed in much smaller amounts including iron, sulphur manganese, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, chlorine, cobalt and sodium. These are called minor nutrients.

Most soils will contain all that a plant needs of calcium, magnesium and the minor nutrients. Fertilisers therefore are usually designed to supply mainly nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus - the nutrients most commonly needed.


The fact that a nutrient exists in a soil does not necessarily mean that the plant can use or absorb it. If the pH (level of acidity) is wrong, the plant can have a lot of difficulty absorbing some of the required nutrients even though they are in abundant supply, for this reason the soil pH is an extremely critical factor in growing some types of ferns. You can measure pH with a pH test kit available from most good nurseries or garden centres. (The chemical test kit is more accurate than inexpensive pH test meters). These kits usually have excellent instructions not only on how to use them, but also on how to adjust the soil pH after you have tested it.

Is Your Fern Underfed?

If a fern is underfed, the foliage will often become lighter in colour. If the older fronds become very pale, the fern probably has a nitrogen deficiency, in which case a good feed may help. Other symptoms of nutrient deficiency include loss of vigour in the growth and increased susceptibility to disease.

Is Your Fern Suffering Fertiliser Burn?

In extreme cases the youngest, most tender foliage will burn at the tips if too much fertiliser has been applied.  If you dig up a few young roots and examine the growing tips, fertiliser burn will often show as a discolouration or dying back on the growing root tips. (Over watering can result in similar symptoms). If the plant is in a pot, simply remove it from the pot to make a quick examination of the roots.

The only way to treat a plant which has been given too much fertiliser is to leach the fertiliser away. For a container-grown plant, extra watering may help. For a plant in the ground, often only the passage of time will help it to gradually recover. (Remember it is easier to put fertiliser in than take it out).

Pruning Ferns

Ferns are pruned for the following reasons:

1. To remove dead or diseased fronds. These look unsightly and detract from the overall appearance of the plant, more importantly, diseased fronds encourage disease to spread to healthy parts of that plant, or other plants nearby. Dead or diseased fronds should be removed or burned.
2. To control the size of the plants. Large ferns can spread and impose on other parts of the garden. In such cases they are pruned back simply to control their size
3. To promote new growth. If older, perhaps marked or unsightly fronds are removed, a flush of new, lush growth will be stimulated; you may choose to take such action, to bring your plants to looking their best for a particular occasion.

Whenever you prune, be sure to use sharp tools, and always cut the leaf stalks right back to the base. A clean cut will heal, a rough cut is likely to become diseased.


For the vast majority of ferns, there are four main advantages to mulching:

1. It keeps the roots cool in warm weather
2. It keeps the soil moist during the drier part of the year
3. It controls weed growth which might compete with the ferns
4. It replenishes nutrients in the soil

There are many different types of mulches available, e.g. horticultural fabrics, gravels, stone, organic mulches, but only the organic mulches will provide all four benefits listed above.

The best organic mulches for ferns are peat moss, sphagnum moss, compost, leaf litter or something similar. Unfortunately, these are also the most expensive or more difficult to obtain materials. Less expensive alternatives are shredded pine bark, red gum chips or wood shavings. These materials should not be used too fresh, they need to be weathered for at least three months in wet conditions to eliminate toxins.

Ferns will respond well to mulching at least once annually, in early spring. The mulch should be spread to between 10 and 20cm thickness. 

UK Register of Learning Providers, UK PRN10000112

Our principal John Mason is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture

Accredited ACS Global Partner

ACS Distance Education is a member of the Australian Garden Council, Our Principal John Mason is a board member of the Australian Garden Council

Member of the Nursery and Garden Industry Association since 1993

ACS is a silver sponsor of the AIH. The principal, John Mason, is a fellow. ACS certificate students are offered a free membership for this leading professional body.Provider.

Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

John Mason (Horticulturist)

Parks Manager, Nurseryman, Landscape Designer, Garden Writer and Consultant.
Over 40 years experience; working in Victoria, Queensland and the UK.
He is one of the most widely published garden writers in the world; author of more than 70 books and edito

Yvonne Sharpe

RHS Cert.Hort, Dip.Hort, M.Hort, Cert.Ed., Dip.Mgt. Over 30 years experience in business, education, management and horticulture. Former department head at a UK government vocational college. Yvonne has traveled widely within and beyond Europe, and has

Rosemary Davies (Horticulturist)

Rosemary trained in Horticulture at Melbourne Universities Burnley campus; studying all aspects of horticulture -vegetable and fruit production, landscaping, amenity, turf, aboriculture and the horticultural sciences.
Initially she worked with the Depart

Need Help?

Take advantage of our personalised, expert course counselling service to ensure you're making the best course choices for your situation.

I agree for ACS Distance Education to contact me and store my information until I revoke my approval. For more info, view our privacy policy.