Foxtail Fern: Growing This Sly Perennial

Ed Wike
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Quick Care Guide

No one can miss the exquisite appeal of the foam-tail fern adorning every house plant collection. The fern which often goes by other names like feather fern, fox tail fern, or hound’s tail is a very popular and hardy indoor plant. These hardy perennial plants are not difficult to grow and can actually be quite versatile in their use.

Since the fox tail fern is one of the easiest plants to take care for, it is a perfect choice for novice growers. It requires little care and is perfect even for those with black thumbs.

These are the basic, easy tips for keeping a foxtail fern in optimal health.

All About Foxtail Fern

When settled into your soil, the tall and graceful foxtail fern quickly fills in your garden's background while providing a hint of interest with its layered texture and fronds that resemble the tail of a fox. A small foreground plant, alpine or rock garden specimen or groundcover, the slender appearance of the foxtail fern keeps it in scale for use as a smaller specimen and makes it an excellent fern to use in hanging baskets. They are an excellent foil for grasses, ornamental grasses and other tall perennials as the small, grass-like growth habit of the foxtail fern makes it a perfect fit for the border edge.

Both slow growing and long-lived, foxtail ferns (Asparagus setaceus) will produce a dense, velvety carpet in time. Just a few ferns will fairly quickly fill in your garden bed's background. Foxtail ferns prefer part shade to shade and moist but well drained soil, or an area that is seasonally dry.

Types of Foxtail Fern

Ferns are some of the fastest-growing, most versatile, and hardiest plants you can grow indoors. They have a variety of different species, some of which will flourish in your home.

One of the best varieties of ferns is the foxtail fern. This is because of two specific aspects … it’s a variety of ferns and it’s a drought-tolerant houseplant.

Foxtail ferns belong to the Polypodium genus. This genus consists of evergreen ferns that grow in bushy clumps. The reason why they are called foxtail ferns is that they have leaves that are fan-shaped and look a lot like a fox’s tail. The plant’s crown consists of a few leaves connected together to form a fan. On top of this is the budding stage. There are also roots that protrude from both the sides of the crown as well as from the bottom.

Foxtail Fern Care

Foxtail ferns are not your typical house plant. They are more like the outdoor plant that used to live under the old oak tree in your front yard. While these plants look like ferns, they are in fact a type of grass. At first glance, they don't look like much. Their flower stalks are thin and not much to look at. But, once you know a bit about the proper care of a foxtail fern, they offer many wonderful and unique qualities.

The first thing you should know about the proper care of your foxtail fern is how to plant it. It is most often sold potted in a hanging basket or in an urn-type planter. This is because, if left untrimmed, the plant will grow up to six feet long.

When looking for a location for your foxtail fern, keep in mind that it needs partial, but not full, sunlight. It can easily die if exposed to too much sunlight. The soil should never dry out completely, so water your plant every other day. To propagate your foxtail fern, simply cut it into thirds from the tip and plant the pieces in the same soil in which it was growing. You should place the cuttings on top of the soil, rather than in the middle of it. Enjoy your new foxtail fern soon.

Light & Temperature

Foxtail fern is a long-lasting perennial. What makes this fern so interesting is that it's not a true fern. It's actually an edible member of the carrot family. The plant stays low to the ground and can spread out over time. It has plenty of visual appeal with its narrow, pointed leaves. They're also covered in white hairs that look furry.

This fern does well in a low-light setting. However, it requires a bit of sun from time to time. These plants can also tolerate some cold temperatures. They're much more frost-resistant than other ferns, though they don’t like the cold to get too extreme.

If you leave the fern alone outside in warmer climates, it becomes a low-maintenance perennial that can spread out over time. If you have some experience with container gardening, you can grow a foxtail fern indoors as well. It's pretty simple to have this fern in the same container for years.

Water & Humidity

Except for the tropical variety, Fox tail ferns need to be watered and kept humid and they dislike wind. When the air temperature is above freezing, water is best applied in the morning or on cloudy days to prevent loss by evaporation. In the winter, water only as needed (more in hot, dry weather than in cool or cold). Too much water is not a good thing and can cause root or rot problems. Fox tail ferns tend to fare best in bright light, and do fine in semi-shade. Direct sun is not usually need for this fern.

When you add moisture to the center of the soil or when you water, run your fingers along the border of the foliage to check for dampness. If the soil is dry and wiggles as you run your fingers through it, then it is time to add water.

Hanging basket fox tail ferns want to be watered more frequently than those in the ground.

They may also require more fertilizer than the potted ferns or those planted in beds depending on the volume of nutrients in the soil and the power of the fertilizers you use. So monitor your hanging fern for signs of stress. If you have a strong fertilizer solution and your hanging fern appears to be suffering, try cutting back on the amount of fertilizer, or diluting it with water.

Soil

The requirements for potting up a foxtail fern are surprisingly easy. It prefers shaded ground, so a spot with partial sun or semi shade is perfect. You should also avoid full sun, which could damage its shallow root system.

When you plant it, a minimum of six feet between plants should be maintained. Its shallow root structure make it difficult for the plant to compete with other ferns, grasses, or similar plants.

Foxtail ferns also dislike any type of fertilization. High amounts of nitrogen in the soil could harm this plant. They may also not respond to fertilization. Instead of adding fertilizer, it is better to feed it with organic fertilizer.

This is just what is needed in a well-draining potting mix. Refrain from using compost with the same high nitrogen content. Foxtail ferns also have a tendency to grow very tall. Trimming it regularly is a good idea. This can be a good time to share shoots with others.

This plant does not require a lot of water. The amount of water needed is similar to the amount of water that needs to be kept out of the potting mix, so a well draining mix is needed.

Fertilizer

Remember to use a fertilizer designed to promote lush growth in plants.

You may want to use a fertilizer specifically designed for use with plants in gardens. This kind of fertilizer is made up of mostly organic elements, such as plant extract and seaweed. This kind of fertilizer is usually better for you and also better for the environment.

One of the biggest reasons for not using fertilizer specifically formulated for gardens is that this kind is more likely to contain high concentrations of salt. This can be damaging to the plant or cause it to be toxic to humans or pets who come in contact with it.

If you choose to use a fertilizer, talk to a professional about using a weed-and-feed fertilizer in the spring or early summer. It will stimulate full and healthy growth in your fern and it will also feed your lawn.

Typically, ferns should be fertilizer once per month during the summer months.

Repotting

Repotting foxtail ferns are easy to do when you are ready. When you do repot, you may need to trim back the rhizomes as they will spread out quite a bit during the process.

When repotting foxtail ferns, the best time to do this is in spring. If you wish to re-pot in the spring, or in the fall, you will need to ensure that the crown is not covered by the soil and that the soil level stays the same as the pot. As the foxtail fern relies on the sun to continue to photosynthesize, as long as the soil line is not higher in the pot than the crown, it will continue to grow.

If you wish to repot in the fall, cut back on watering during this time as the plant is going into dormancy and it is hard to overwater.

When repotting, fill the new pot about 3/4 of the way with fresh, sterilized soil. Take this opportunity to add in any fertilizer and water thoroughly to allow the fertilizer to take effect.

Propagation

One interesting aspect of the foxtail fern is its propagation requirements. Most plants require splitting, buying new plants, or division in order to populate an area extensively.

I found it interesting, therefore, that the foxtail fern can be propagated by something much more simple than most plants. The foxtail fern can be grown simply and quickly with the assistance of water. The specifics of water-propagation are as follows:

First, get yourself a small piece of the rhizome of the fern.

Next, place it in water, and rocks to keep it submerged.

Within a short period of time, small "shoots" will begin to grow from the rhizome.

Continue to keep the water and the fern in place until these shoots have reached an appropriate size to be replanted.

And that's all there is to it!

It's as simple as that! By taking a little extra time to properly prepare your foxtail ferns for re-planting, you can ensure not only full and fast growth but that you are able to keep up on the task of propagating your new plant on a continual basis.

Pruning

Foxtail fern can grow very tall in the right conditions. Though it can be planted in a container when the plant is small, it is better to leave the plant in the ground where it can grow. To prevent the foxtail fern from becoming invasive, the plant should be pruned to keep it from growing too tall.

Prune Foxtail fern once or twice a year to keep it from reaching architectural proportions. If you have a mature plant, pruning the foxtail fern will help you maintain its shape.

Prune foxtail fern in early spring before the plant begins to expend energy on producing new growth.

Prune the stems at ground level or just above a pair of leaves.

Foxtail fern prunings will continue to grow. If you don’t remove them, your foxtail fern will become very large.

You can plant them in a flower bed and enjoy the landscape.

As the season progresses, you can remove the brown-edged leaves, to help highlight the green foliage.

Troubleshooting

Although the foxtail fern (Asphodelus fistulosus) is not considered invasive, it can be tough to grow in some places. If the fern has one characteristic, it's that all of its parts are able to spread to create new plants. The species is hardy (to zones 6 through 9) and grows between 3 and 6 feet tall. Taking your fern from cutting to tall plant is easily done with a few simple steps.

The fern is considered a CLAMP fern. That means that it produces bulbous underground structures (called tubers) when it blooms. It is common for these tubers to form underground and for the mother plant to die off after they ripen. If you transplant your fern, it is likely that you will also need to remove the tubers from the soil.

One of the best parts of growing this fern in USDA Zones 5-7 is that it is cold hardy. If the temperate weather where you live gets warmer than you'd like and the fern gets too tall, simply cut it back. That will likely take care of the problem.

Growing Problems

The foxtail fern has a reputation for being finicky. While it can be a challenge, especially for novice gardeners, the foxtail fern can also be very rewarding.

Some foxtail ferns die quickly after being planted. By planting in a great location, though, most foxtail ferns can thrive for years. The location, the amount of water and sunlight your foxtail fern gets each day, and the current weather are all important factors that affect how easily your foxtail fern will grow. Before you judge all foxtail ferns based on a poor experience, consider these things.

The soil your foxtail fern is planted in can be just as important as location. Sand, for example, may drain well but will not hold nutrients as well as other types of soil. The University of Minnesota's Master Gardener Handbook suggests planting the foxtail fern in well-maintained loamy soil that has been loosened with a garden fork. Loamy soil is also nutrient rich and provides well-drained, moist soil for the fern. A garden thick with many types of plants and different types of soil is best for the fern.

Pests

Foxtail ferns are a family of ferns with a rhizome that looks like a "tail". The ferns have coarse and abundant foliage that makes them a nice accent plant for perennial gardens. If given proper care, foxtail ferns can live for several decades.

Most gardeners only consider the genus Asparagus a pest when trying to eat it. However, some can be pests of the garden. U.S. Department of Agriculture research identified two kinds of thrips, the sorghum or granary thrips and the western flower thrips as problems.

Both thrips species have green or brown bodies and are less than one-tenth of an inch long. You might find a few present on a young ferns leaves. Too many are problematic and can result in yellowing, curling and leaf distortion, or the plant dying.

Pests also include small black slugs that produce silky webs in the plant's rhizome. They can also feed on the stalks. Keep the foxtail ferns well away from shrubs and hedges and plant them in well-drained soils to prevent slug infestation.

Diseases

Pests, Problems and Cures.

A foxtail fern outdoors is unlikely to face a lot of problems. In the home, however, foxtail ferns are subject to the ravages of sickrooms and overwintering storage. With a little extra care, you should be able to keep your ferns healthy and disease free through most of the year.

If you are growing a fern that originates from a warm, tropical climate or you are growing it outdoors, you can give it some light shade (between 10 and 15 percent). This will enable it to resist heat occasionally, but it will also slow growth, which is not a problem for a house plant.

In order to keep your plant healthy, you will also need to make sure you feed and water it on a regular schedule. Although you may be inclined to allow it to go without water for longer periods on occasion, you should avoid doing so. If you forget your watering schedule for even a week or two, your chances of losing your fern increase drastically. The most important thing to consider when watering is making sure that the soil is dry at the tips of the fronds.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When does the foxtail fern go dormant?

A: The fern will die back in the fall after the first freeze, so when the temperature consistently gets below 60-degrees F.

Q: Is it difficult to find a plant to move it to in the fall or winter?

A: You cannot move the plant using any dormant bulbs or corms. The best plan is to first put at least 2 inches of a loose covering over the top of the soil, covering it all. You can then place it in the location where you want it to live from winter until spring.

Q: How deep of a container should I plant it in?

A: Use a container that is 6-to10-inches deep. This way, the top of the earth will stay 2-inches from the top of the container.

Q: Is it possible to wait until the fall to move the plant or should I worry about what it might look like in other months?

A: If you have a sunny space, which does not stay consistently below 60-degrees F, then it should be alright to leave it during the cold months. The sunlight will be enough to allow it to maintain itself. Otherwise, follow the instructions above for moving in the fall.