Ferns Houseplants

A Boston Fern Makeover

By Larry Hodgson

The Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’) is among the most popular houseplants and with good reason, as with its long, drooping, charmingly cut fronds, it creates a beautiful effect in the home.

However, its growth is very dense, almost too dense. After a while, therefore, it starts to look disheveled, with as many yellowing fronds as green ones.

Boston fern rhizomes
Boston fern produces many thin, hairy rhizomes. Photo: Crawford 223, garden.org

In addition, it produces long hairy rhizomes that head off in all directions. Even green, they’re not that attractive. By the time they’ve turned brown, they look even worse.

Thus, to maintain a decent appearance, it is important to remove fading fronds and excess rhizomes.

But there is a limit to cleaning up. It’s difficult to reach the base of the yellowing fronds, hidden as it is among the newer ones. Yet, if left in place, fading fronds will give a yellowing, neglected effect to the whole plant. Plus, how do you remove the dust, which gets thicker and thicker over time, on a plant with such delicate fronds? Sometimes you just feel like shaving the whole plant back and starting over! And that’s exactly what you should do!

Cutting Back

Pruning a Boston Fern
Severe pruning will allow the plant to rejuvenate. Photo: The Garden Corner

Indeed, every 2 or 3 years, you’ll find it useful to give your Boston fern a serious makeover by cutting it back severely. That is, by cutting all the fronds an inch or so (2 or 3 cm) from the soil. Yes, I did say “all the fronds”!

Doing this takes a lot of courage, because it’s such a radical trim. Quite honestly, you’ll regret your action at first, because the plant is so slow to react. Indeed, 2 or 3 weeks* after this severe pruning, the plant will still have barely reacted. But afterwards, what a difference! Indeed, 2 months later, your Boston fern will have fully rejuvenated, with a mass of new fronds arching up, out then towards the ground.

*2 or 3 weeks if you prune in the spring or early summer. If you do it in the fall or early winter, it may take 2–3 months before the plant starts to show signs of regrowth!

Take advantage of this pruning to repot your fern (it’s difficult to repot a Boston fern when it is covered with long, draping fronds) in fresh potting soil. That will give it extra vigor.

This is also a good time to divide it (when you cut the plant back, you’ll clearly see that it is made up of multiple rosettes, each a plant in itself) if you want to share your fern with friends.

All in all, this pruning/division will result in a strong and attractive plant, ready to offer another 2–3 years of beauty to your indoor decor. You just have to find the courage to carry it out!

8 comments on “A Boston Fern Makeover

  1. helencarolann

    Hi Larry – great to ‘read’ you again! I’ve finally, in the last 3 years, managed to grow a Boston fern. I’m just not that good with indoor plants, however since I’ve turned 70 it seems to have improved…
    I was looking for what to do with my fern now that it is getting scraggly, and there you were! And I love the recommendation, I AM good at radically cutting back. Just as Brian is an absolute maniac with pruning (I have to watch him!!
    I hope all is well with you – and if you ever have a reason to come to Nova Scotia, be sure to look us up!

  2. Since the introduction of the Dallas fern in 1985 or so, Boston fern has become scarce. I know of only a few old specimens. I could find them if I really wanted to, and I intend to if I ever encounter a situations that they would be appropriate for. They really look nice under a canopy of palms.

  3. Carola Preusser

    Might I suggest a Rabbit’s Foot Fern instead? Davallia fejeensis is a slow-growing fern with furry rhizomes, that needs very little care. I’ve had one for about 20 years, and all it has needed is dividing a couple of times. If the “rabbits’ feet” seem to be taking over, take it out of the pot, keep 1/4 of the plant and re-pot it. Repeat in 5-10 years. It’s even quite forgiving if you forget to water it for a few weeks.

  4. Definitely some bravery required for this severe haircut!

  5. Carole Newman

    Perfect! I was just thinking how bedraggled my poor Boston fern looked.

  6. I had no idea that would work. Every fall we tour our neighbourhoods getting bags of leaves for our vegetable gardens. From some of these bags we extract various unwanted houseplants, many of which are Boston ferns. But they are always such a mess that I cannot find the time to clean them up so as I can bring them into our house for he winter. This idea might work. Thanks.

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