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Propagating Ferns: A Guide to Cultivating Ancient Greenery

Dating back more than 380 million years, ferns are one of the oldest plant groups. For centuries they’ve been popular among indoor and outdoor gardeners — and it’s easy to see why! Their long, draping fronds add visual interest to dark corners and shade gardens.

However, purchasing mature ferns can get expensive.

Want to increase your fern collection? Good news! Propagating ferns is easy, economical, and fun.

There are three effective ways to multiply your ferns. You can start from cuttings, divide a mature plant, or propagate from spores. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced gardener, here’s everything you need to know about propagating ferns.

A hanging fern plant. Propagating ferns.

Propagating Ferns from Cuttings

1. Prepare Fresh Potting Mix

Ferns thrive in rich, slightly acidic, well-draining soil. Many gardeners amend soil with peat moss. We recommend using compost or coco peat instead. Read our blog post on The Environmental Effects of Peat Moss to learn why.

2. Select a Mature Frond

Adult ferns should have a combination of long, mature fronds and new growth. Choose long fronds with no signs of disease or damage for your cutting.

3. Take a Cutting

Using clean, sterile pruning shears, cut the frond just below a leaf node. Ideally, you’ll cut right where the frond joins to the main stem.

Next, trim most of the leaves off your cutting. Only a few leaves at the top should remain. It might look silly, but this is an important step in propagating ferns. By reducing the amount of food the fern can gather from leaves, the plant has to develop roots to survive.

Closeup of a Boston fern.

4. Plant New Cuttings

Dip the base of the cutting in a rooting hormone to encourage new root growth. Moisten the potting mix and plant your cutting right away.

5. Create a Greenhouse Effect

Ferns love humidity, so cover your new baby plants with a plastic cover. Keep your plants where they will get lots of indirect light and lift the plastic only to mist the soil with water. This will create the warm, wet environment ferns need for optimal growth.

6. Transplant Your New Fern

Within a few weeks, your fern cutting should take root and begin growing new fronds! You can remove the plastic cover, but continue to keep the soil moist. For indoor ferns, treat with a dose of plant food about once a month.

If your new fern is destined for the outdoors, reduce the risk of transplant shock by hardening off. Bring the plant outside for an hour or two at a time. Gradually increase the amount of time your fern spends outside until it’s outdoors full-time.

Propagating Ferns Through Division

1. Water the Plant Well

Usually ferns are kept moist, not sopping wet, for optimal growth. Before dividing, however, you can go ahead and soak them, especially the root ball. This will make propagating ferns easier and reduce the shock to the plant.

2. Prepare New Pots and Potting Mix

Ferns have fairly shallow roots, so you won’t need a deep pot. Since your divisions will all be mature ferns, you can plant them directly in a rich, well draining soil. Try amending your soil with compost for added nutrition and perlite for drainage.

3. Divide the Root Ball

Split the root ball so that each new section has several mature fronds and intact roots. A fern’s root ball can be dense, use a hori hori style garden knife for easy division.

4. Plant Each Section in a New Container

Immediately plant each of your new ferns into its own prepared container. Keep the soil damp and give the plant lots of indirect light. You might want to hold off on adding any extra fertilizer or plant food, though.

As houseplants, ferns typically only need to be fed once a month. Outdoors, ferns never need additional food.

5. Mist Soil Frequently

Keep the soil around your fern moist, especially in the first week after planting. Misting the fern will prevent overwatering and create humidity for the plant, too.

Propagating Ferns With Spores

1. Collect Spores

Often in the late summer, you’ll begin to see small dots on the underside of fern fronds. These small dots are the fern’s sporangia. As the spores inside mature, the sporangia will become plump and look fuzzy or even furry. At this point, the spores are ready to harvest.

Carefully clip a mature frond and seal it in a bag or envelope. Paper is the best material for this task, although a plastic bag would work too. Using a white or light-colored paper envelope will make it easier to see the spores.

Seal the bag and give it a good shake. You should see small, brownish dust particles. These are the fern’s spores. Remove the frond and keep the spores in the paper envelope for a few days to dry out.

2. Prepare Seed Tray and Soil

You’ll need to use sterile soil and a clean growing environment. Use a seed starting mix such as Hoss Premium Seed Starting Mix.

It’s best to start off your fern spores in a shallow seed tray that can be covered to retain heat. If you reuse a seed starting container you have on hand, clean and dry them thoroughly. Even trace amounts of soil or residue could contain harmful bacteria.

3. Plant Spores

Since spores are so small, the most important part of this step is finding a well-lit, draft-free place to work! Water the soil in your seed tray very well. Then, lightly sprinkle the spores over top.

If you used a paper envelope, you can simply bend the opening into a funnel and tap the spores out. This is an easy way to keep control over the spores as you sow.

4. Create a Miniature Greenhouse

Quickly cover your seed tray with a clear plastic lid. Alternatively, use cling wrap over your container to retain heat and moisture. Covering the tray early on will prevent them from blowing away! It also creates a greenhouse effect.

Place your seed tray where it will receive lots of indirect sunlight. Your miniature greenhouse will keep the heat and moisture close to the soil, creating a consistently warm, humid environment.

5. Mist Regularly

Use a spray bottle like our favorite one from Hoss Tools to keep the soil moist but not wet or dripping. Spores can easily be washed away if overwatered.

6. Be Patient!

A baby maidenhair fern.

Growing ferns from spores can take seven months to a year. You may not see signs of germination for weeks or even months! Keep misting and providing the spores with plenty of sunlight. In time, you should see tiny, heart-shaped sprouts called prothalli.

Expect to nurture these tiny sprouts for at least six months before the baby ferns are large enough to handle. While propagating ferns from spores takes the longest amount of time, many gardeners enjoy watching the whole process unfold!

Frequently Asked Questions

Detail of an ostrich fern.

What are the best ferns for propagating?

In general, ferns are fairly easy to propagate. However, you may have more success with different methods for specific varieties.

The classic Boston fern and staghorn ferns are good candidates for division, cuttings, or growing from spores. The easiest method for propagating maidenhair ferns is by division. If you want to grow more bird’s nest or ostrich ferns, though, your best bet will be collecting spores.

What is the easiest way to propagate ferns?

Dividing a large, mature plant into two or three smaller plants is the easiest method. However, if you want to propagate a smaller mature fern, taking a cutting is fairly easy and fun.

A mature maidenhair fern.

Propagating ferns from spores is the most difficult method, but it is a fun activity for experienced and new gardeners alike.

What is the best season for propagating ferns?

Early spring is the ideal time to propagate a fern through division. Ferns tend to become dormant in the colder months. Dividing and replanting the fern at the beginning of the growing season causes the least stress on the plant.

If you are propagating a fern from a cutting, spring or summer is best. Ferns are tropical plants that thrive in humid conditions. You can increase humidity by regularly misting your ferns.

Harvesting spores is generally done in the summer, although different varieties may develop spores earlier or later.

Propagating Ferns: Three Easy Methods

Propagating ferns is fun and economical. For a quick afternoon project, you can simply divide a mature plant in half. If you have a few weeks, cuttings can yield multiple new ferns. Collecting and planting spores may take months, but it’s satisfying to watch them grow.

When it comes to gardening, trying new and different methods is part of the fun! Try each technique with different types of ferns.

You can also check out other houseplants that you can grow and propagate on your own.