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Should ferns be cut back in winter?

Categories:Ferns Garden Questions Perennials

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Many perennials, especially ferns, look ragged as winter wears on. I’m often asked if ferns need to be cut back in winter or early spring. The simple answer is no. Few, if any, plants need human intervention to survive.

With ferns the only reason to cut back dead, tattered fronds is our vanity.

I certainly cut back plants in late winter, but I tend to leave the ferns alone. Consider the image below, the evergreen Christmas fern in April, fronds newly unfurled. Note the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is content to simply let nature take its course.

There are benefits of leaving leaves to wither on deciduous plants. First, dead leaves act as a winter mulch, protecting the often vulnerable crown with an extra layer of insulation while the plant is dormant. In addition, removing leaves to the trash bin removes potential humus that benefits the soil.

bead fern
Sensitive fern – Onoclea sensibilis, will benefit from you leaving the dead leaves on until new growth emerges in spring.

Regarding ferns specifically, it is true the deciduous types can border on ghastly in late February, but a new day is coming when April arrives. The old dried foliage will soon be decayed back into the soil, replaced with new fiddleheads.

The evergreen ferns such as autumn fern or Christmas fern are a little more problematic, as the previous year’s fronds will just hang around, threatening (if we allow it) the promise of a new spring. Still, I tend to look at the old as memories to treasure. Cut back the ferns or don’t. They’ll be fine either way.

autumn fern
The red fronds characteristic of autumn fern in early spring. Last years fronds have not been cut back and are in the foreground.

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