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Tips for Dividing Ferns Successfully

Ferns are wonderful addition to a shade garden, and dividing ferns successfully means free plants for you! I'll show you how to divide ferns correctly so they thrive in your woodland garden.

how to divide ferns


In the Pacific Northwest, ferns are everywhere! These ginormous plants look like they came straight out of the Jurassic era, thanks to our constant rainy weather.

Our backyard has a few mature ferns that were neglected and overgrown. By taking the time to divide ferns correctly, I was able to turn one large plant into six smaller ones to fill in our woodland garden!

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I completely ignored our backyard garden this summer. We were way too busy, and it was way too hot! But these hardy ferns kept on growing, even with the longest Seattle dry spell on record (56 days!) Believe it or not, this mess is just one plant!

large overgrown fern in garden bed

I'm going for a woodland garden feel, which has the added benefit of being almost maintenance-free. We've already got the moss-covered trees and flowering rhododendrons. Now all we need are more ferns!

Instead of shelling out big bucks for a few scrawny plants at the nursery, I decided to attempt dividing ferns instead.

When to Divide Ferns

Spring and fall are the best times to divide ferns. I chose to tackle mine in the fall so they'll get plenty of water during our rainy winter.

If your area has a hard frost in the fall, you might want to wait until spring so the roots have time to adjust. Some species go dormant in summer, and should be left alone during this time.

How to Divide Ferns

Trim Dead Fronds

Trim away any dead fronds from the fern with sharp pruning shears. This article will show you more about the various pruning tools and how to use them properly! Try to cut as close to the bottom as you can.

trimming away dead fronds from the base of the fern with pruners

After a quick trim, it's already looking much better!

fern after dead fronds have been removed

Find a Clear Center Line

Move the fronds around until you can find a clear center part, just like with your hair. 🙂 This should be pretty easy in an older plant where the middle has died out.

Stick the point of a shovel into the part until it creates a divot in the root. This makes it easier to find the center line again when you dig up the fern and it starts flopping around.

creating a divot in the root ball of the fern plant before digging it out of the ground

Dig up the Root Ball

Fern roots are very shallow, so it shouldn't take much effort to dig them up. Just work your way around the outside edge with the shovel and pop it up. I was surprised to find my huge fern left a hole only a couple inches deep!

shallow fern roots

Divide the Fern into Smaller Plants

I wanted to get at least two plants out of this huge one, so I used a serrated garden trowel to cut the root ball down the middle. Don't worry, the fern can take some abuse!

using a serrated trowel to cut the fern root ball in half

Here you can clearly see how this particular fern grows. The fronds grow in clumps with a central root, like a bunch of bananas. It gets more crowded as older fronds die off, leaving a scraggly plant instead of a lush fern.

separated clumps of fern roots

Each little bundle comes away from the central plant pretty easily, and can be replanted by itself. Yay for free plants!

small section of divided fern with bundle of roots

Plant the divided ferns

I saved one half of the larger fern to go back into the hole it came from. Spread mulch around the base to help the newly divided fern retain water. You never would have guessed this is only half the plant!

half of a divided fern replanted into the garden bed with mulch surrounding it

The other half was divided into one larger plant and four smaller ones. These went into the ground along the back fence. Hopefully by next year, they'll fill in the empty space and help create a lush woodland garden like the one below!

woodland garden with waterfall and ferns
My future garden . . . Photo by Jay Sifford Garden Design

Check out these other gardening tutorials!

Nicole

Wednesday 9th of May 2018

This is so cool! I have never known how to divide ferns. I'll have to try this with my asparagus fern plants. Thank you for linking up with us at the #HomeMattersParty this week.

Ivory

Thursday 19th of October 2017

Thank you for this information, because I had hoped to replanted my ferms to another location of the yard, but did not get a chance to do so. I am happy I did not, because I would have removed them all so wrong. Thanks to you I know better. I hope to be able to do this next Spring. Since we are suppose to start having colder temps starting next week, I am afraid to remove them.

Vineta

Thursday 19th of October 2017

I'm glad it helped! Your ferns will definitely be happier getting transplanted in the spring. Our winters are pretty mild, so we won't get a hard frost for a few more months.

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