When ferns get in trouble.
Have frizzled fronds replaced gloriousgreen growth on your ferns? Does the plant you brought into the living room for a tropical touch now seem more suggestive of a lifeless desert? Take heart: you can benefit from your experience by pinpointing --and avoiding--the pitfalls that beset your plant.
The lineup on the opposite page shows themost widely available ferns; their indoor survival skills are summarized in the descriptions that follow. If you've been discouraged by fern failure, try a kind that's fairly easy to grow, such as mother fern, squirrel's foot, hare's foot, or asparagus fern (a fern by name and behavior, but in truth a member of the lily family). All of these are less sensitive to the low humidity typical of most homes.
To increase humidity for a fussy fern, setit on a wide tray of pebbles that's half-filled with water; don't let the pot touch the water. Or put your fern in a bright spot near the kitchen sink or in the bathroom, where air is moister.
Some can get by with less frequent wateringthan others. However, none will reach peak condition unless soil is evenly moist.
Potting mix should be light, with plenty oforganic matter. During the growing season, apply half-strength nitrogen fertilizer, or use timed-release fertilizer.
Signs of trouble
Most ferns need bright indirect light. Hotmidday sun can burn leaves; scorched foliage on one side is indicative of sunburn.
If leaves on different sides develop crispbrown edges or dry tips, the problem could be constantly soggy or bone-dry soil, or too much fertilizer.
Brown or black spore clusters on thepacks of leaves can make some plants look sick. On button ferns, leaf edges curl up after spores mature. On bird's nest fern, the rows of spores can show through as brown lines on the leaf tops. Since fronds decline after spore production, snip them off once they look unsightly.
Insects such as mealybugs (white cottonymasses), scale (tiny brown or black lumps), and aphids can wreak havoc on ferns since they have so many places to hide. Prevent invasions by washing off plants regularly with plain water to remove dust and insects. If you must use an insecticide, read the label carefully, since many chemicals damage ferns. To test, spray one frond with a weak solution; wait a week to check for any adverse reaction.
Don't be alarmed by a few yellowingfronds; as all ferns age, their oldest fronds turn brown. For example, maidenhair fronds live about six to nine months and are constantly replaced by new growth. Squirrel's foot fern is deciduous in the wild (leaves usually drop in the fall), so a period of increased leaf loss is natural.
Trim off old, discolored fronds at thebase. You may also want to trim off Boston ferns' leafless, stringy runners.
Even if your fern doesn't respond to yourtender care indoors, it may bounce back after a summer vacation in a sheltered, shady spot on your patio.
Nine choices: tolerant and less so
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum species). Ifsoil dries out severely, these beauties shrivel. Remove brown fronds and new ones will grow . . . until the next drought.
Sprenger asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus"Sprengeri'). Survives even when food, water, light are inadequate, but complains with a blizzard of yellow needles. Tolerates low humidity.
Mother fern (Asplenium bulbiferum).Wilts dramatically when too dry but bounces back with only a few singed leaves. Fairly easy to grow.
Bird's nest fern (A. nidus). Don't getwater into "bird's nest' at plant center-- it may cause rotting. Leaves get brown spots if conditions are too cold or soggy.
Squirrel's foot fern (Davallia trichomanoides).Don't overwater, or you'll rot this fern. Hot sun may scorch foliage, but new growth sprouts quickly. Easier than most.
Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata "Bostoniensis').Hanging plant loses fluffy ball shape when center isn't getting enough light. In a bright, cool spot, with evenly moist soil, it's a winner.
Button (roundleaf) fern (Pellaea rotundifolia).Appears tough but is a sissy. Keep water droplets off leaves. Sensitive to erratic watering: soggy, then bone-dry soil spells disaster.
Hare's foot fern (Polypodium aureum).Tolerates lower humidity than most other ferns. Likes bright light but not a hot spot. Water when soil is nearly dry.
Variegated Cretan brake (Pteris cretica"Albo-lineata'). Holds a grudge when allowed to get too dry; wilts, then leaf tips brown dramatically. Needs bright light to maintain variegated color.
Photo: Hare's footfern
Photo: Bird's nestfern
Photo: Squirrel's footfern
Photo: Mother fern
Photo: Button(roundleaf) fern
Photo: Variegated cretanbrake
Photo: "Ferns aren't my forte,' lamented this gardener when comparing his scraggly Boston fern to the healthy nursery specimen at left. Life on a bookshelf in weak light caused the sparse one-sided growth. With fertilizer and brighter light, plant will improve
Photo: Thick tangle of white roots and almostno soil indicate this Sprenger asparagus is overdue for a roomier pot
Photo: Scorched leaf tips are common distresssigns of ferns. Cretan brake developed brown ends after drying out severely