What to do with ferns during winter

Change setting on automatic sprinklers

Ferns are one of the most, if not the most popular outdoor container plants we grow in Augusta.


There is nothing like the graceful Boston Ferns hanging or sitting on the front porch of houses, particularly in the Summerville area.

The question always arises as to what to do with them during the winter. If you take them inside your house and leave them there, it doesn’t take them long to start looking terrible! By the time spring comes, you have ferns that have almost or completely defoliated. Ferns like high humidity so they simply hate the warm, dry air in our houses during the winter.

In some cases, the best thing to do is just throw them away if you don’t have a greenhouse and buy more next year.

However, many people have ferns they have had for a number of years and couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them. So, depending on where you have them, like on a patio or a porch, you should be able to keep them all winter if you are willing to move them periodically.

If a fern is hanging on a porch, you cannot let frost fall on it, so if it sticks out from under the roof overhang, you at least need to remove it and put it completely under the overhang. Given this scenario you could leave a fern out from about 28 to 32 degrees.

Keep in mind that the direction your porch faces influences how low the temperature can get. If you are facing northwest (the direction of the cold winter winds), they should be set against the house if the temperature drops below the 26-28 degree range. Lower than this and they should be set inside somewhere.

If your porch has a southwest exposure, ferns could probably stay outside if the temperature drops to around 22-24 degrees if you set them against the house. If you have that southwest exposure there would be few times you would need to take them inside during the winter. In this case they would stay looking pretty good the whole winter.

For you and anyone else who wants to try to carry them over the winter, here are some additional things you can try. When you need to bring them indoors, put them in a garage or storage house if space permits and they’ll do OK, but not great. You normally just leave them in there for a short time. The two I have on my front porch go inside my garage during the coldest times. I move them in and out as needed.

If you must take them inside the house, try several things to overcome dry air. You can add humidifiers to your home heating system or buy a self-contained electric humidifier. Not only will a humidifier produce a better environment for your ferns and other house plants but it will provide a healthier atmosphere for your family.

If you don’t bother with purchasing a humidifier, put pots of ferns or other plants in saucers or trays filled with gravel and water. This increases the 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. Some indoor gardeners add charcoal chips to the gravel to help keep the water clean and odor-free. For best results, replace the gravel periodically or wash it thoroughly at three-month intervals or as the algae starts to develop in the water or on the gravel. Sanitation is important in keeping down diseases.

Many people mist their ferns and other houseplants. Misting is very temporary, but it can help particularly for ferns. Mist the plants early in the morning. Apply enough to moisten the fronds well, but not so much that they drip. You can do this several times a day or at least every day particularly when your heat is running.

I have given this advice on leaving ferns outside as long as you can over the years, and many people have experienced much better results. But make sure you know what exposure your ferns have on that porch so you will be able to determine what nights they can stay outside this winter.

Change setting on automatic sprinklers

Now that we’ve gotten a frost or two or at least come close, depending on where you live, change the start time on your automatic sprinkler system so you will avoid icing the street or sidewalk. If you want to set them to come on in the morning, make sure it is late enough that it is no longer below freezing. After lawns go dormant, there is usually no reason to water them unless we go two to three weeks with no rain. The only exceptions are new sod that has not rooted down and lawns overseeded with ryegrass.

Reach Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, at (706) 821-2349 or smullis@uga.edu.