Boston ferns, botanical name Nephrolepsis exaltata, is the best known fern variety and the one most people think of when you mention ferns, and caring for them is simple when you follow a few easy steps. Originally from Central America, the Boston fern became a popular houseplant during the Victorian Era of the late 19th century. As we enter the 21st century, it is making a strong comeback and new varieties are being developed all the time. With its long arching fronds and graceful look, this is a perfect focal point when set on a small table or pedestal where it can overflow. On a covered porch, it is perfect in a hanging basket.
One of the strengths of the Boston fern is its tendency to mutate, becoming stronger and more adaptable with each change. The fronds can range from 2 to 5 feet in length, and the plants can live for a long time with proper care or even proper neglect. The Boston fern is known for its tolerance for benign neglect. Boston ferns want consistency in their environment. They like to be moist, but not too moist. Although they prefer temperatures in the 60 to 75 degree Fahrenheit range, they can handle slightly higher and lower temperatures. Avoid putting your fern near a heat source, but don't be afraid to set it on the porch or patio in late spring or summer. Ferns like light, but can handle dappled shade.
Ferns grow in jungles in Central and South America where they are shaded by the jungle canopy but receive moisture on a regular basis. Do not allow your fern to sit in water. Water it by setting it in the sink and allowing it to soak up water for a few hours. Set it on a saucer covered with pebbles, and leave it alone until it is dry before watering again. Mist the leaves daily to keep the humidity up surrounding the plant. Feed your fern a liquid 10-10-10 balanced fertilizer at half-strength every month.
Pruning and Pests
It is natural for Boston fern fronds to yellow and turn brown from lack of light. This most often happens to the bottom fronds which are shaded by the fronds above. Simply remove the dead fronds and cut off the yellowing tips with a pair of scissors to keep your Boston fern looking healthy. This also will make the plant stronger as it can focus energy into healthy growth instead of supporting the dead and dying growth.
Like many houseplants, Boston ferns are attractive to mealy bugs, scale, spider mites, and other pests. Do not treat your fern with chemical pesticides as this can burn the fronds. Either pick the pests off, or use one of many natural products available.
Transplant your Boston fern when the leaves start to look grey. Loosen the root mass and remove as much old dirt as possible. Cut into the roots, making 3 or 4 shallow slices to open up room for the roots to expand. Put sterile potting soil into the pot and set the fern inside. The top of the old soil should be about 1 inch below the rim of the new pot. Trim off any dead fronds and fill the pot with new soil to within 1 inch of the rim. Water well. You may lose some fronds due to root and transplant shock, but one of the strengths of a Boston fern is it's ability to recover. Just cut them off and let the plant do the rest!