In the South, Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’), are the traditional warm-season accessory to the front porch overhang. And when the temperature begins to dip, many front porch gardeners choose to overwinter their ferns by moving them to a basement or sunroom. This is quite a task, since the plants may be huge by fall, taking up significant space. Moving them also creates a perpetual mess with dropped leaves (due to the temporary inadequate light conditions), until it’s warm enough for them to return to their stately porch position. Other homeowners choose to start fresh every year, purchasing a small fern that they’ll have the pleasure of watching grow. But why not practice your windowsill gardening by propagating your own ferns from last year’s plants?

Fern

Can you spot the “baby fern” in this picture? It’s just below the base of the pot – look for the little ball with two fronds and spiderlike roots.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Remove baby fern

A firm tug will detach the baby fern from the mother plant, with roots and fronds intact.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Gather fern roots

Hold the foliage together, then gather the roots, wrapping them around your index finger to create a coiled root mass.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Plant baby fern

Bury the root mass in moist, well-draining potting soil and mist frequently.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

In nearly every horticulture or botany course, ferns are used as the prime example of plants that reproduce by spores. Often the class will embark on a semester-long project to witness the growth from tiny spore to tiny plant. (Trust me, it’s a slow process.) While it’s important to understand the science of this diverse group of plants, you should also be aware that there are other methods of propagation that aren’t nearly as time-consuming. What’s more, you don’t have to be an experienced gardener to do it!

Division might very well top that propagation-method list. Close examination of a large fern will likely reveal crowns that can each be separated and individually potted to make lots of small “starter” ferns. If you want to create more manageable, medium-sized ferns, you can simply remove the fern from its pot, cut the plant’s root-ball into four equal parts (like a pie, quartered) and replant each part.

That’s easy enough, right? But there’s an even easier method!

As your fern grows and thrives on the porch, you may notice there are plantlets (baby ferns, if I may) among the graceful fronds. These baby ferns are actually runners (or rhizomes) that are growing, yet attached to the long, stringy stems that hang over the pot. Keep an eye on these little guys, and when they’ve developed two to four young fronds and a small mass of stringy roots, grab it near where it’s attached to the mother plant and give it a firm yank.

You’ve just removed a baby fern that’s ready to plant!

Holding all the foliage in your left hand, extend your left index finger and wrap the roots around the tip of your finger. Bury the root coil in moist potting soil in a 3- to 5-inch pot, careful not to bury the crown of the fern. Set the young plant in a southern-facing window and mist 2-4 times daily.

In six to eight weeks, your fern will be well-established and can be watered as usual and transplanted if you so desire. If given sufficient light and water, baby ferns that are harvested in late summer will grow to a medium-sized plant by spring – and those young ferns will be ready for their front porch debut in no time. (Now, wasn’t that easy?!)